Unless it’s by a satellite, Pyongyang is a city only occasionally photographed from above. The North Korean authorities prefer to keep cameras close to the ground, where they can better control what is recorded: the marquee developments, smiling locals, the new restaurants.
But visit the country as many times as Aram Pan, a Singaporean photographer, and they’re likely to eventually give you something new to photograph.
In a recent visit to North Korea in September, Pan was given an exclusive chance to take his camera on a microlight flight over the city, filming both with a 360° camera and snapping regular photos.
The result is a genuinely unique view of North Korea’s capital seen from all angles, and eagle-eyed viewers can spot everything from new construction to secretive ruling party buildings.
We caught up with Aram to hear more about his recent trip – scroll down to see his photos from the flight.
NK News: Could you tell us how you got started making films about North Korea?
Aram Pan: It started with my first trip in August 2013. That trip really piqued my interest as I saw a side of them that nobody seemed interested in. Ordinary life was happening all around that seemed to be overshadowed by the narrative of North Korea being a scary place. I just decided, why not show people the stuff I see?
NK News: Why do you think you’ve been allowed the access that you have?
Aram Pan: Perhaps it’s because I don’t see them as the terrifying people everyone thinks they are and I guess they feel that. I find that the friendlier I am, the more they naturally reveal themselves to me. There’s an old saying, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger”.
NK News: How did you get the rights to film from above? What was the experience like?
Aram Pan: They’ve recently restricted bringing cameras or mobile phones into the microlight planes for safety reasons. The wind is extremely strong up there and a well-timed gust would knock off your mobile phone.
I asked if I could capture the city from the air – long story short. After a combined effort on the part of the NTA (National Tourism Administration) and KITC (Korea International Travel Company), approval was obtained and my flight was arranged so I could bring up any camera that could be safely stuck or tethered to me.
Flying over a city in an open-air microlight with a 2kg (4.4lbs) DSLR needed plenty of safety precautions. I still ended up bringing 4 cameras, including the Entaniya setup that captured the world’s first 360° aerial video over North Korea. This experience is made unique because of North Korea being isolated yet here I am doing aerial photography over the most secretive state in the world!
NK News: Did they check your footage or photos after the flight? Did they delete anything?
Aram Pan: Yes, there was a guy there to go through all the material I shot. There were a couple of photos he deleted. I’d say I kept 90% of what I shot. The North Koreans were really proud of their city and were chatting with me about what I saw and what I liked. Even the guy who deleted my photos was very into the conversation.
NK News: Have you ever felt pressure from the North Koreans to not film certain things? Do they ask for approval of what you shoot?
Aram Pan: The standard do-not-shoot subjects are the military personnel; especially soldiers at work, such as at construction sites and on the farms. Photographing military vehicles and army facilities are also not allowed. Other than that, they leave me to snap away.
NK News: Do you feel like you are presented with an idealized view of North Korea?
Aram Pan: I don’t think so. Let me give you just one example. I’ve been visiting their trade fairs regularly, and with each visit, I see consumerism on the rise. Advertising is also being more widely implemented, but for now; it’s still within the shops.
The bottom line is North Korea has been steadily evolving in ways everyone has overlooked and I don’t think we can clearly define them yet.
Aram’s North Korea photo project can be found at https://www.facebook.com/dprk360
All pictures copyright NK News / Aram Pan