“Bomb them all to Hell” read a private message to Aram Pan after announcing his next trip into North Korea.
This is not a sequel to the Hollywood comedy The Interview, which mocked North Korea and reinforced negative views of North Korea and its people.This is the true story of North Korea through the eyes of Aram, a Singaporean photographer who has been using existing and the bleeding edge technologies to visually document North Korea.
Aram first applied to the North Korean government for permission to do a photography project in the “Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea” back in 2013.
“I figured the world has more images of the deep ocean depths than we have of North Korea. One day I just decided to try contacting them to see if I could do some kind of photography project in their country.”
He was surprised when his project got approved.
“The impression I originally had was that it would be tough to gain access with so many stories about undercover reporters allege they are risking their lives with hidden cameras.”
The latest addition to Aram’s kit is his modified go-pro hero 4 black that shoots 360 degree video footage.
“The original lens has been ripped out and replaced with a 280 degree lens,” he said.
This gives an amazingly wide angle that enables interactive 360 degree viewing of the video on YouTube.
The viewer can change the angle of what they are watching which
offers a unique perspective given that those seemingly behind the camera are still being recorded and can be viewed in playback if wanted.
“Anyone can frame a shot and just show only one section of a scene,” Aram said. “The magic comes when you show everything.”
He took this philosophy one step further and mapped more than 60 interactive 360-degree panoramas all over North Korea using Google maps.
“I asked my guides to help explain what I’m doing and to get me permission to set up my 360 degree panoramic shoot at Panjunmon. It was difficult to explain to the officers and guards about the technology so I whipped out my iPhone and showed them samples. That immediately caught their attention and every single guard gathered around to play with the interactive virtual tours,” Aram said.
“At that moment, it was as though the war never existed. We were laughing, they were going ‘wow’ and everyone was excited. I got permission granted immediately and proceeded to capture this virtual tour.”
The Senior Lieutenant at Panmunjom JSA was so intrigued that he left his post and accompanied Aram on the tour bus to the next city Kaeson, watching Aram’s panoramas most of the way.
The Officers favourite is of the Pyongyang’s skyline from an elevated perspective. The photo is shot from a tower but the panorama gives the perspective that the viewer is floating above the city.
“He said ‘it’s beautiful’ and he wanted to know how I did it, making it ‘float’ above the tower. Where’s the magic if I told [him]?”
A comment below this photo on Facebook by the IVRPA – International VR Photography Association sums up the social connection Aram forms via his work.
“Peace through panoramas, very cool photo,” they wrote.
Another commenter said that Aram is building bridges into North Korea and their society.
Aram said he wants to exchange culture with North Koreans when practicable and also give interested viewers accurate insight into North Korea and its people.
“There are humans there. People with lives. Every life is precious,” he said.
“With this knowledge, I want the world to restrain their resentment against the country and consider first peaceful and friendly options to engage them. If we can create an environment and atmosphere of love, it will be felt on all sides.”
In a lot of Aram’s work there is vast space and few people.
“North Koreans have the strange habit of wanting places to look clear and clean. That results in them clearing out the locals when I do some of my shoots.”
Aram attempts to capture the everyday nature of the average North Korean.
“In the new north eastern areas, [guides] wonder why I want to photograph farmers at work. ‘They are all dirty. Not make good photos’ the guides will say.”
There are also some areas in North Korea where tourists are told they are not allowed to have their cameras out or do not get access to.
Aram said that so far he has not seen evidence of labor camps or persecution.
“We already have some of the most high tech satellites in space that can photograph galaxies light-years away in ultra high resolution. I’m sure if they really wanted to, they could simply snap a few shots of the labor camps and publish them anytime. So I’m just focusing on the humans going about their daily lives.”
When asked why his photographs only focus on the positive side to North Korea Aram made the point that tourists do not access the areas that might be sensitive.
“How do you photograph ‘no photo allowed’ areas? How do you photograph ‘no Internet available’? How do you photograph blackouts?”
Aram has copped criticism from some individuals who imply he is a mouthpiece for the North Korean regime.
“The most common comment I get is that everything I’m showing is nothing but state sanctioned propaganda and everything I’ve seen is fake.”
The Korea Observer can confirm that Aram has travelled vastly through a significant portion of North Korea including taking a helicopter flight over the countryside while on an aviation tour.
“I’ve covered over a thousand miles of territory. If they can setup all that just for me, one single man that would mean either I’m the most important person they’ve ever met (which I seriously doubt) or their organizational and planning skills are far beyond any civilized country.”
Aram will continue his project and has booked another trip into North Korea via Russia late 2015. He will also visually document this journey and catalogue his work on Google maps.
*This is the first of a series of stories covering guest’s perspectives of the Koreas.