North Korea shown in stunning aerial shots
Known as the most politically isolated country on Earth, North Korea is highly selective about who is allowed inside its borders and what they may do there — especially involving photography.
One of the people who has been able to photograph in North Korea is 39-year-old Aram Pan from Singapore who has been there 10 times since 2013 — and braves the criticism that his pictures serve the repressive regime's propaganda purposes.
"I'm helping them to understand how the world perceives them. At the same time, I learn how they perceive the world, and I help them to realign these perceptions and push the boundaries to what can be photographed," Pan told The Blade in an email exchange after a series of aerial pictures of North Korean capital Pyongyang was published earlier this month.
Pan is in the incongruously named Democratic People's Republic of Korea on another photo expedition right now. He is known for his 360-degree photographs, and calls his ongoing project DPRK 360 — The North Korea Photography Project.
The aerial pictures were taken from a North Korean-built light airplane, what looks like a four-seater at best. A 15-minute video shows Korean military officials politely escorting Pan and his companion into the plane and then the pilot and the two visitors flying around over the sprawling — and evidently cold — city of Pyongyang.
In any other country, Pan's aerial pictures would be unremarkable. But any picture taken in North Korea is a curiosity to the outside world.
In his aerial pictures, smoke rises from two power plants, apartment building blocks spread out in every direction looking like medium-security cellblocks or 1950s-style college dormitories.
From the air, there's little evidence of human activity. Wide, empty boulevards are nearly devoid of cars.
"There are much less vehicles in North Korea than other cities. Coupled with the fact that North Korea builds dramatically wide roads, it gives the impression that the city is empty," Pan told The Blade.
"As with every city in the world, the train station is not packed at every minute of the day, right? You can choose a photo when it's off peak and say 'A-ha! It is empty!!!' And you can choose a photo filled with people and say 'A-ha! It is full!!!' " he wrote.
People who haven't spent much time in North Korea, he said, make that mistake.
"Once you reach street level, you will see that Pyongyang is bustling with life. I have hundreds of photos that show life in the streets of Pyongyang. It's strange these photos never seem newsworthy," Pan said.
Pan indeed has plenty of published photos showing life on the streets, in the farm fields, at train stations, in parks. Few of the pictures are posed, the subjects either not seeing him or catching him with a sidelong glance. Many pictures show machinery such as trains, tractors and bicycles. His pictures often include his female escorts.
A category of photos on his Facebook page is "Objects, Items, artifacts and curiosities."
Pan's North Korea is not as grim and joyless as we might think. Pan has a selfie of him with a military-clad female museum guard alongside, smiling at the camera. In fact, a number of his pictures portray Korean women directing traffic, or standing primly waiting for traffic to arrive, or smiling widely.
Pictures show men doing construction work or carrying briefcases and riding bicycles.
From the ground, the apartment buildings portrayed appear modern, brilliantly lighted, and, of course, clean and neat.
A Facebook page of his 360-degree photos records a farmhouse, a university, public monuments, a dam, a cooperative farm, a water-bottling station, a theater, an Italian restaurant, an industrial port, and a "fashion show" attended by thousands.
His captions don't conceal the fact that his handlers — rather than he himself — decide what he may photograph.
"DPRK citizens gather at the beaches just like everyone else. Driving past the beach, I was allowed to stop and observe them for a while," reads one caption.
Pan does not speak Korean and is Singaporean of Chinese heritage.
Commenters on Facebook supply context to his work:
"At night in these buildings there is complete darkness. The people can't afford the electricity that comes on sometimes. That is the only thing they are required to pay. Everything else is provided to them," writes commenter Pixel Sullivan.
Another commenter writes, "I feel good when I see your pics. They take out the fog from North Korea and its people. Maybe don't take it all but at least shot down some lies."
Pan gets sponsors to pay his travel expenses, including a Japanese company that provided equipment to create the world's first 360-degree video in North Korea, and travel agencies.
"I started my project purely by luck," Pan said. He emailed North Korean embassies around Southeast Asia and finally found someone willing to view his portfolio in 2012.
"They liked my photos and the technology that I used, namely 360-degree VR imaging," he said. He made his first trip to North Korea in August, 2013.
He said all he gets from the government is approval to take pictures — no payment — even though some critics have called him a tool of the regime for allowing his pictures to present a selectively positive view.
"You probably heard some rumors floating around that I'm paid by the North Korean government," Pan said.
That story, he said, was promoted by a rival to the travel company he is associated with, the DPRK 360 alliance.
"The DPRK 360 project is an alliance of me and travel companies that work together to help North Korea open up and integrate into a one world community," he wrote in his email contact.
Alliance members, Pan said, "work toward helping North Korea integrate, and supporting one another is crucial."
"Me and the members of the DPRK 360 alliance have been pushing for aerial photography over Pyongyang since last year. Now that this has been achieved, even travel companies not part of the alliance will benefit," he said.
Helping to publicize images of the North Korean interior — even if on terms that North Korea controls — is better than nothing, Pan's philosophy seems to be.
"Rather than be a person who does nothing and criticizes, I decided to be the one actually doing something and let everyone else sit around and criticize," Pan said.
He said he's traveled widely in North Korea over land, from Rason in the northeast to the capital, Pyongyang, and to the heavily armed and guarded Demilitarized Zone along the South Korean border.
"I've seen the situation with my own eyes. The conditions of the countryside are no different from how China was like as it began to develop in the 1990s. I do see a very strong push in agriculture with entire fields being worked on by thousands of soldiers," he wrote.
"Unfortunately, they still have a strict 'no photography' policy when it comes to the military, so it isn't something I am yet able to showcase. Over these two years, I've come to understand that the North Korean military as a multipurpose force that isn't just there for combat. Nowadays, I see them being deployed on a massive scale doing building and agricultural projects. This is something I'll never see in any other country."
Anyone can follow Mr. Pan's work by visiting dprk360.com or facebook.com/dprk360.
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