S'porean's photos show rarely seen side of N Korean life
S'porean photographer experiences ordinary life in notoriously elusive North Korea
North Korea has a reputation for staging the daily life of locals for tourists who visit the country.
But freelance photographer Aram Pan, 38, feels that what he saw and photographed on his trips to the country, an authoritarian regime, were "definitely not staged".
The Singaporean's photos have been featured by news agencies such as UK's The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Daily Mail.
Mr Pan visited North Korea for the first time in August last year and the second time in May this year.
He has documented pictures and videos of his visits on Facebook and on his website. He specialises in panoramic shots where viewers can navigate each photo to "look around".
Mr Pan's first visit was a specially arranged week-long one where he went to the country with travel agents from Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.
His second trip was a solo trip, also lasting seven days. He was accompanied throughout the visit by four North Koreans- a driver, a photographer, a translator and an official.
On both trips, he stayed in hotels provided for him.
When asked why he felt that the sights he saw could not have been carefully crafted, Mr Pan said: "There was no set itinerary. Sometimes, we would just be driving by a place and I would ask to stop.
"It was so immediate. I doubt they would have been able to mobilise people to set up the scene that quickly."
He was given permission to enter and photograph the secretive state after sending e-mails to North Korean embassies all over the world about two years ago.
ALLOWED TO RETURN
After his first trip last year, he asked to make another trip to capture more pictures. He was allowed to return this year to continue his project.
He was classified as a member of the media and granted a photography permit, which tourists do not get.
Aside from visiting and shooting typical North Korean tourist spots like Kim Il-Sung Square and the Mansudae Grand Monument, and attending the annual Arirang Games (a gymnastics and artistic festival), Mr Pan was allowed to see and capture a side of the country that most people have not.
He had his hair cut at a local hairdresser, took a dip with the locals in a swimming complex and even tasted unusual fare such as clams cooked in gasoline.
He said: "The clams weren't bad. You have to be careful to choose those that are fully cooked so they won't have the gasoline taste."Mr Pan said that the photos he posted online did not get any adverse reaction and that his project is apolitical.
"I'm not promoting their government or trying to disprove anything.
"It's all about the people. I'll leave the politics for the politicians to sort out."
Business booming despite danger
Three US citizens have been detained by North Korea in the last eight months while on tourist trips. The latest being Mr Jeffrey Fowle who was arrested last month.
Despite the risks, tour operators say business to North Korea is booming. Tourism is one of the few sources for foreign currency it relies on to overcome US sanctions. Travel agencies estimate that as many as 6,000 Westerners visit the country every year, compared to just 700 a decade ago.
Most are adventure-seekers curious about life behind the last slither of the iron curtain, and ignore critics who say their dollars are propping up a repressive regime.
The majority of tourists to North Korea are from neighbouring China, the country's main ally.
"People are people," said Mr Keith Ballard, an American tourist currently in North Korea. "I can take politics out of it. Some people said why would you even go there to support that government. I said, 'hey it's basically just tourism'." - Reuters.