More than just a pretty picture: Fansite culture in the K-pop fandom
Imagine this: an intimate knowledge of your idol’s schedule, absolute dedication, unquestionable patience and camera equipment worth thousands of dollars. An entire life that revolves around a group or a person. This is the standard requirement of a fansite – individuals or a small group of people who catalogue the life of an idol through a series of pictures but these images, as this article will explain, represent more than just photographs.
Even for fans, and certainly for non K-pop fans, this idea of a fansite culture is one of the most unusual and intriguing aspects of the culture of the K-pop fandom. But first: what is a fansite photographer, and what makes them different from a sasaeng fan? A fansite photographer is one who takes photos of a particular idol (or the entire group, but fansites tend to focus on a single member) at a public place, such as during a filming, at an airport or at a concert using professional grade lenses. These fans are typically female, but there are male fansite photographers as well, for example, the fansite maintained for BAP’s Daehyun. Unlike sasaengs, these sites do not expose an idol’s private life or document questionable activities by following them in speeding vans or planting cameras. Many fansites are also international students who study in Seoul and many of these fans also travel to most, if not all, schedules an idol attends, from Busan to Singapore. It is plain to see that their commitment to the idol comes before anything else, even their own personal interest for the idol as they forfeit engaging in typical fan practices, such as cheering or singing along at concerts because they are busy recording or photographing the performances as steadily and silently as possible.
This is a strange idea – that the people in charge of fansites seem to put their own personal enjoyment aside. This plays into an overarching idea: sustaining the fandom both domestically and perhaps more importantly, internationally. For international fans, there is nowhere else one can turn to in order to access what goes on in an idol’s life on a particular day or what he or she is wearing if these sites do not exist. This is where fansites fill the roles of official outlets. Entertainment companies rarely update fancafes with photos or videos of an idol or group’s schedule and most of the better photos come from fansites (who sneak cameras in at great risk) instead of official photographers of news outlets or broadcasting channels, which often feature awkward angles and unflattering expressions. Fansite photos thus become the only link many fans have with their idols when they are not promoting on music shows or appearing in variety shows, and dedicated fansites sustain fans of groups on long hiatuses. EXO can be used as an example: after their debut, they went through a sustained break and fans were alleviated only by fansites who turned airports into runways. Fansites can then be thought of as the ultimate fans showing steadfast dedication for the benefit of other fans.
In addition to this, fansites are also those responsible for idol birthday gifts. Fundraising drives are held months in advance to collect donations from fans in exchange for photobooks and printed photographs, and fansite culture demonstrates how K-pop fans, international and domestic, can not only be passive consumers, but active participants in fandoms. This is a particularly important point for international fans who might not ever see their idols live but are able to participate directly in projects like this. As a result, these gifts are often over the top and extravagant, from iMacs to a signed football from an idol’s favourite football club (Chelsea in the case EXO’s Kai). Infinite’s L, who is known to enjoy photography, received lenses worth tens of thousands of dollars from a number of different fanclubs on top of other gifts. Birthday gifts are not always just for the idol themselves, but also give back to the community such as donations of books or helping charities under an idol’s name. An obvious downside to this is when fansites try to outdo each other with their gifts, resulting in conflicts and even verbal wars over Twitter.
Domestically, fansites are also involved in many projects that ultimately have a direct impact on the idols themselves. This is a personal example as I was recently in Seoul for the start of Infinite’s ‘One Great Step’ world tour and on their second Seoul concert event, seven of Infinite’s largest fansites came together for a fan project and distributed 15,000 banners with instructions that they were to be held up during the encore song. This was to literally show the group that their domestic fans will wait for them to return to South Korea.
Fan projects like this do more than move groups to tears, but also forge a bond between fans and their idols – and also between fans themselves. Central to the idea of a successful K-pop group is its fandom, and fansites work from the frontlines for this.
As an international fan, it’s fascinating to watch such a world unravel before you. It’s incredibly complex, but also extremely rewarding as a consumer. Where else would you be able to get such well taken, high quality photos of your idols up close on stage or at the airport on the Internet? Fansite photographers brave the weather and the chaos of the crowds for a few shots of your favourite idols but in reality, their dedication does more than just that. I do believe that all this is done in order to sustain your interest in a group, which in turn maintains the number of fans regardless of promotional cycles. Even more broadly, this keeps fans inside the K-pop bubble, sustaining the Hallyu Wave.
The next time you browse through your favourite fantaken photographs, perhaps think about them being more than just pretty photos, but as a result of an organized, intricate and unique fan culture.
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