Quite often we just believe what we want to believe or what we’re told to believe. The occasions are rare when we forge our own path to find out for ourselves what’s right to believe and what not. That’s exactly what Aram Pan did, a Singapore photographer specialized in commercial virtual tour photography. He wanted to make a difference and had this crazy idea to “just ask” North Korean authorities if they let him travel there and photograph their country. Not the most common travel destination — and accordingly fascinating. Here’s what Aram brought back from the hermit kingdom.
I myself have been to North Korea two times, back in the days with my beloved Contax G2 and beautiful Zeiss optics. Still have to scan those film photographs. North Korea is not a bright and happy place, but I never felt threatened in any way. On the contrary. People were not the most approachable, but once they win your trust they can become pretty talkative, especially in one of the many microbreweries where some of the best beer I’ve ever tasted is brewed. North Koreans drink it with dried squid and a mustard sauce, delicious. And what a nature. I don’t want to trivialize the dire state of North Korea’s political situation and human rights. But rest assured, it’s not the place most imagine it to be.
Now here is Aram who discovered North Korea with his cameras. Aram might convince you to look at the pariah state with different eyes. How is that for the power of photography and the promotion of intercultural dialog! Aram’s North Korean Photography Project (where you find links to the 360° panoramas of sites Aram photographed all over the country) is all about making friends:
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Tell us about your project Aram. How did you start? Why North Korea?
I’ve been curious about North Korea for quite a while. When I first started researching on them about two years ago, I realized much of what we know about them comes from news media. It isn’t a country like Thailand or Japan where you can find countless travel blogs and social media content posted by the public. Then there is the whole “threat of war” issue that regularly pops up every few months that made me look closely at the political situation. My personal perspective is that the constant political pressure, embargoes and condemnation isn’t going to do any good in the long run and will only generate more anger and resentment and the ones who ultimately suffer in the end are the regular folks and taxpayers. Think about it, if the Asia region destabilizes, who stands to lose the most?
I then had the crazy idea that maybe one man can make a difference so I decided that I was going to create some way for the world to look inside and learn about them. I figured that the biggest barrier to friendship is fear of the unknown. All I understood back then was that North Korea had a huge army, they had nukes and they are aggressive. I wanted to discover their “soul” for myself. I wanted to find beauty in a world that has been painted by everyone in such dark colors.
How did you get in and how the heck did you manage to get so much material? I was never allowed such freedom to shoot like you did. Especially journalists are restricted.
I just asked. I wrote up a whole proposal on what I was planning to do and why I was doing it, and included samples of my existing works, mostly from my Sandbox website. I sent copies out to a couple of contacts that you can find easily online. Then one day, someone just contacted me out of the blue. He recommended me to meet a Singapore travel operator who got me into North Korea on an exclusive tour with a few other invited guests. Once in North Korea, my guides briefed me once on basic protocol, then let me to shoot away. They even helped me set up and keep my equipment once they saw me do it a couple of times.
Did they inspect your photos and delete those that they deemed unacceptable?
Well when I first arrived, the only subject that I was advised not to photograph was of military personnel or any military vehicles. That was simple enough and I stuck with that. As for the “inspection,” I wouldn’t call it an inspection at all. It was only on one occasion during dinner that my guides asked, “Can I see your photos?” They spent about five minutes browsing my camera photos. Nothing deleted at all.
What’s it like in there? Did you see starvation, labor camps and barren lands? Did they bring you around in vehicles with blacked-out windows and drive you around in circles?
Going there actually raised more questions than giving me answers. I didn’t see anything nasty; on the contrary, I saw quite the opposite. I’m left with the nagging question… What’s going on?
Firstly, I was driven around in a brand new coach with clear windows. I always knew where the sun was so I’m 100% sure I was never driven around in circles. I never slept a wink during the over 18 hours of travel on the open roads. I passed by miles and miles of crops that span as far as my eyes could see. I saw villagers dancing, kids going to school, farmers working on crops, folks fishing by the river.
It completely blew my mind! Prior to my trip, I had just watched the documentary BBC Panorama — North Korea Undercover by John Sweeny and was expecting to see absolutely barren lands and a bunch of really, really sad people.
I also did not see any labor camps but what I did see was another eye opener. I saw hundreds of soldiers doing all sorts of construction work, from roads to buildings. When I asked my guide why are they doing construction work, he just replied, “Don’t your soldiers do construction also? If there is no war, there must be better things for them to do right?” It was a concept unheard of to me. I can’t imagine getting our army to construct buildings and lay tar on the roads. I asked my guides to stop the coach and allow me to photograph those soldiers at work but they insisted that such military personnel should not be photographed. I stuck with the rules and I only photographed this stretch of freshly laid road beside an old one as the soldiers were out of view.
As for starvation, I did not see any that everyone keeps telling me about. Every person I passed by looked decently fed. With the amount of crops I’ve seen, they look like they are doing pretty okay.
We passed by a beach and I saw people in the distance. I asked to detour for a few shots. When I got there, there were lots of people just hanging out like what normal people would do at the beach.
I’ve been assuming the worst possible situation in North Korea but now that I’ve seen with my own eyes, I’m completely amazed. I’m sure you’ll probably think that they set everything up just to show me and that it is one big giant conspiracy but seriously… everything staged at such an immense scale? Impossible!
We understand there are government minders deployed to watch over tourists. How did it feel like being under constant surveillance?
Ha ha, I think you are referring to my two tour guides. Do they look even remotely threatening to you? I really wouldn’t call them “minders” at all. I had a lovely time with them and they never once made me feel uncomfortable. In fact they would go all out to assist me in anything that I needed. We talked freely about anything and everything under the sun, from politics to culture and even the very odd topic of why women around the world shave their underarms. That conversation left us laughing in stitches.
What equipment did you bring along?
One thing to note is that you have to go prepared. If anything breaks or runs out, you’re going to have a hard time getting parts or replacements there. As much as possible, I try to bring backups. I brought all 3 of my fisheyes for my panoramic shots. My Nikon 10.5mm has its hood shaved off to be used on my full frame DSLR. In case you want to know how to do it, here’s the link at my blog:
- Nikon D800 and Nikon 7000
- Sigma 8mm, Nikon 10.5mm, Nikon 16mm, Nikon 24-70mm and Nikon 70-200mm
- 360Precision and Nodal Ninja panoramic heads
- 4 x 32GB SD, 1 x 64GB CF, 1 x 128GB SD
- 6 camera batteries and 2 chargers
- Manfrotto carbon fiber tripod
- Lens wipes, sensor cleaners, dust blower, GoPro Hero 3, iPhone 5, DSLR rain jacket, small umbrella, a multi-tool and an extra pair of spectacles.
Any favorite or special moment you recall?
There are so many… Well top on my list would have to be the time we spent at the Tower of Juche Idea. We actually went there twice. The first time was when it was drizzling and the city looked gloomy. I requested that we go back when the weather cleared up and they brought me back another day near sunset. It was spectacular and we spent over an hour there. No rush, no schedule, I just took my time and shot away. It was already coming to the end of summer and the air had picked up a cool breeze. I had time to simply stand there and take in the sights. I wasn’t rushed so I didn’t have my face stuck to my camera all the time. The air was fresh, without a hint of the city smog. There was a kind of serenity that cannot be put into words. I could have camped there the whole day. I waited for the sun to reach the right intensity before going to work, letting it paint the city in a glorious warm glow.
Did you encounter any problems?
Actually yes, but not the ones you’d expect. There were often buses full of tourists from mainland China. They would crowd around places and monuments that I wanted to photograph. I didn’t want any of them in my photos as the look and feel would be totally different. My tour guides would assist me in crowd control if appropriate so that I could get a clear shot. If that wasn’t possible, we either hung around and waited patiently for the tourists to clear out or detour around them to shoot.
What was it like at the DMZ border? Did you feel the tension of potential war?
I went there expecting to feel that way but things turned out quite the opposite. After the usual show-and-tell by an army officer, I casually asked if I could pose for a photo with one of the soldiers. They agreed and I got this shot.
You can see from the reflection in the glass that every single tourist suddenly whipped out their cameras and fired away. Everyone immediately wanted their photos taken with the soldier. Even the reporter following my group jumped in for her own photo. It was a fun moment at the DMZ with smiles all around. No tension. I also didn’t see a single person on the South Korean side, which is kind of strange.
You seem to be painting a different picture from what’s commonly reported.
I’ve been a commercial virtual tour photographer since 2007 and I shoot real estates, hotels, schools, factories and anything that can be shot into a virtual tour. That’s just what I do. The DPRK government doesn’t pay me anything nor am I a communist supporter. In fact I’m quite the product of this world’s democratic, capitalistic system. However that doesn’t mean that I can’t get along and make friends with people who are communist or socialist. Just because they have different ideals doesn’t automatically make them the enemy. I guess it is this belief that allowed me to gain access and to make friends with them. I think if you are honest about extending a hand of friendship, they will reciprocate likewise.
As for the funding of this project, so far I’ve been doing everything on my own time and expense. The travel company — Universal Travel Corporation in Singapore — organized my first trip there. I plan to make subsequent trips at different times of the year to capture North Korea in the seasonal colors. I’m hoping of course to have more sponsors help out.
You don’t think tourism is indirectly funding their militarism?
No country has ever built up its military might through tourism. All the money in the world is actually going to China. From iPhones to Coach bags, almost everything is made in China nowadays. Money is being sent there every time we buy consumer goods. Now take a good long look at China’s army.
It is my opinion that tourism to North Korea could be the solution to regional stability. The more the world interacts with North Korea, the more relations can be built. As visitors to North Korea, we are all ambassadors of our country. How we talk to them and how we behave will ultimately send the message of friendship across. The more they interact with foreigners, the more comfortable they will be.
What do you ultimately hope to achieve?
Well I’m hoping that the 360° panoramas will give people a sense of what it is really like there. Regular photos are all framed shots. Anything outside that frame can’t be seen. A 360° panorama offers a complete view. I’ve also photographed my experiences there and I hope that those images will give people a layman’s look into North Korea. There are really quite a number of beautiful places with unspoiled scenery. I’m hoping to change people’s perception of the country. Once you start to see the good that is in the people, you won’t get all up in arms and panicky at the mention of their name.
So what are your thoughts and what are your plans down the road?
Everyone I met there was warm and friendly. It was nothing that I had expected. The locals are just as curious about me as I am of them. Nothing I’ve experienced seems to match what I’ve read and seen on the news. It just makes me want to know more. There are a few companies conducting tours into North Korea. I would recommend trying them out. The place is a photographer’s dream come true. You feel like you are in a different universe altogether. I don’t know if everyone will receive the same treatment as I did but you simply have to see the place for yourself.
Right now I’m planning a trip up there in spring 2014. I’ve submitted my requests for certain places I wanted to shoot and I’m waiting for confirmation. I’d love to go there in winter too but we’ll see how it goes. It might be too late to arrange a winter trip.
So ultimately you’re convinced photography can bring people together, and I mean photography as a means to explain what words and politics often fail to explain?
Yes of course. Humans are very visual creatures. Think North Korea and you visualize either rows of military personnel marching in step or their leader, or maybe even an ICBM. Such images have always been tied to news reports. The people of North Korea and the very land itself seems to be lost in the beating drums of war. My photography shows the other side of the coin. The side rarely seen. Take this photo of a girl on the street:
If I were to casually mention that she is Korean, you would probably think she was from South Korea. This just shows the similarity the North Korean people have with the rest of the world. In fact the photo below reminds me of the residential estates in my own country.
Through photography, people will peep inside and begin to remember there are regular folks there just like you and me. Once people are able to visualize a different North Korea, they will not fear so much and be more ready to extend that hand of friendship.