Why does Singaporean photographer Aram Pan – best known for his increasingly prolific DPRK 360 project – spend so much personal time and money going to North Korea?
“Simply to do whatever I can to help North Korea integrate into a worldwide community,” Pan tells NK News, just a day after returning from his 12th visit to the country.
And Pan says his government-approved photography project – combined with efforts to improve tourist access of the country and trips which bring “common people” out of it – can both help outsiders get a “better understanding of them, and help them better understand our world.”
But against the backdrop of unprecedented levels of international pressure on North Korea, Pan’s unique approach to engaging with the country has unsurprisingly attracted criticism.
However, none of that seems to bother the thick-skinned, blunt-speaking Pan, who despite increasing pressure on North Korea, has somehow now managed to even attract private sector sponsorship for some of his work.
Pan started his DPRK 360 photography project in 2013, sparked simply out of “curiosity,” he says.
“When I first started off I honestly wasn’t really sure how this would grow and even if I would get two or three more trips.” But that first trip sparked so much interest in the country that Pan soon developed a desire “to help people understand the country a little bit more.”
A trained commercial virtual tour photographer, Pan wanted to use the same interactive techniques he employed for international clients to try and shift impressions of the country beyond the usual topics of nuclear weapons, sanctions and human rights.
Pan’s work has evolved to refocus more on daily life and culture
That meant that from his very first visit, Pan made significant efforts to shoot North Korea with panoramic and 360-degree material, something that “gives people a very comprehensive view… not locked within the frame of a photo.”
Since his early days, which included ultra-high resolution panoramas of monumental sites on the DPRK tourist circuit, Pan’s work has evolved to refocus more on daily life and culture.
And as a result of recent technical developments, Pan has for the past year or so been able to shoot in 360-degree video, something which allows viewers to manipulate exactly which angle they view a clip through.
“You could spend the first time admiring my face throughout the whole video or admiring the guide,” he says, clearly enthusiastic about the technology. “Or the next time you watch it you could be looking around, following wherever I am walking.”
Such an approach, Pan says, “allows people to draw their own conclusions better than a photo that has already been framed by a photographer.”
Furthermore, “unlike most photographers who always hunt for a story or to create a mood or feeling,” Pan says he now also spends time simply cataloging simple images of daily life items like “manhole covers,” essentially “stuff that people ignore or miss out.”
And his evolving approach, it seems, is now sparking more than just the general interest of his Facebook fans. News services, this site included, have for example been able to use portions of his material for stories about infrastructure developments, economic changes, and developments in the tourism industry.
… TOURISM …
Financing several of his early trips through sponsorship deals with European and Asian North Korea tourist agencies, Pan has also been involved in work outside of the photographic realm.
As such, he now describes the DPRK 360 website as the work of “an alliance of travel companies,” that together are opening new doors in the increasingly turbulent world of North Korea tourism.
“Instead of having a bunch of companies fighting for the same pie, we are trying to enlarge the pie,” he says of the logic of competitors working together with him to promote North Korea as a destination.
And the goal of cooperation doesn’t stop there, Pan says. “One of the first things when I started this project, the one thing that I really wanted to do, was to do aerial photography over Pyongyang.”
So Pan and partner travel agencies told their North Korean hosts, “Look, we can see the whole of Pyongyang on Google Maps, now let us have this opportunity to take some beautiful photos of Pyongyang. It’s good for you, it’s good for everyone, let people fly around the city,” he says.
“And about 2 years later, we achieved it and now any travel company – not just those in the alliance – any travel company benefits from this.”
And citing the example of the recent opening of the Kwangbok Department Store in Pyongyang to visitors, Pan says people can “see more stuff” and therefore get to “understand North Korea better.”
Despite enthusiasm for photography and tourism in North Korea, Pan is nevertheless aware of the limitations such activities can have.
“No matter how I think it through, the only way to help them better understand our world is to … help them to understand what’s going on outside,” he says.
And in that regard, Pan this year experimented with a new pilot project in which he flew six North Koreans to Singapore, an emerging initiative he has named the Mallima project – the name being a ten times faster variant of the DPRK’s legendary Chollima flying horse, a concept of of Chinese and Korean mythology.
Similar in principle to the efforts of Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based NGO which often brings North Koreans to southeastern Asian countries to learn about business and entrepreneurship, Pan says the main difference is that his project is “more for the common people.”
“I am structuring a lot more life experiences (in it), rather than just (focusing on) the academic knowledge,” he says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly his entry point for Mallima has therefore been North Korea’s tourist industry, with Pan recently bringing six travel guides to Singapore for training programs related to marketing and tourism, as well as activities simply for fun.
‘If I could raise more (money), I could bring more people’
“This training program was inaugural; it was a beta test to see what works,” he says. “Of course the North Koreans also want to see how I run stuff and I guess they are happy with it… (for) we are in discussions for future training programs.”
The main thing now holding him back from doing more, Pan says, is money.
“I am limited by funds. It took a long time to raise the funds and to search for people who get it and who see what I am trying to do,” he says. “If I could raise more, I could bring more people.”
But that he was able to raise anything at all at a time when international condemnation, sanctions and pressure on North Korea are at their highest point in decades, is noteworthy, though Pan doesn’t specify the name of the sponsor during the interview.
“What I can say is this, I have sponsors who believe in doing this as a corporate social responsibility project,” he says.
Longer term, Pan says Mallima can have a wide-ranging impact.
“Everything is possible, there are just so many areas that we can cover: culinary classes, tour leading classes, marketing classes.
“We are even discussing like construction and safety and stuff like that.”
On the photography front, some have described Pan as a propagandist of the North Korean state, naïve for thinking he can communicate anything but a state-approved depiction of the country. And on the tourism front, some believe that encouraging visitors to go to the country simply gives cash to a leadership “that may well be using that money to build nuclear weapons and missiles.”
Perhaps in anticipation of criticism, from the outset Pan made clear that he is “not paid a single cent to generate any propaganda” for the DPRK and said he did not intend for his work to be political in anyway.
Specifically, a notification written in the infancy of his site’s existence said “all attempts will be made so as not address any past, present or future political issues that may be sensitive.”
But is Pan only allowed continue visiting the country because he publishes photos that reflect well on North Korea?
While conceding that his photos “do show what the government wants people to see,” Pan says they “also at the same time show stuff that generally people don’t get to see, scenes of everyday life.”
“(And) these are things that the government doesn’t – how shall I say – promote.
“This gives me opportunity to open the window into the private lives of the North Koreans – to see at the side alleys old men playing chess, a cobbler, people just going about everyday life; stuff like that.”
Yet Pan is also remarkably candid about the limitations on his work, conceding that some form self-censorship is necessary to continue working in the country.
“So, would you rather not have any access?” he asks. “There is no ideal situation. You’ve got to take what you have.”
What then of Pan’s video controversial decision to connect a middle-aged defector in South Korea – keen to return to North Korea – with her daughter in Pyongyang? Surely that very clearly contradicted Pan’s own philosophy of not blurring politics with photography?
“One of the reasons why I decided not to pursue it anymore is because I found it too political,” he concedes.
“All I wanted was the experience of helping, connecting them, but I could see that … people get overly excited about it like, ‘Oh, Aram is trying to prove a point now’. So I realized that isn’t worth it.”
‘There will always be people who will subscribe too much to what they hear and read in the news, and that causes a lot of fear’
And in terms of criticism for his work in tourism and in bringing North Koreans outside of the country, Pan remains confident he is doing the right thing.
“There will always be people who will subscribe too much to what they hear and read in the news, and that causes a lot of fear in them,” he says. “That also causes unnecessary hate to anyone who they deem would even remotely be supporting the government – and through that they actually fail to see the good that can be achieved by helping the people.”
Overall, though, it seems that criticism isn’t going to stop him any time soon.
“People can say anything they want and they can criticize … but I would rather be the person out there doing something and trying something than to be the one sitting at the keyboard criticizing.”
“I’m here to understand North Koreans. And I have spoken to them a lot and what they really want is for somebody to understand them. So this is what I’m trying to do.”
Main picture: Aram Pan