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.

lkimfanEven 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.

pic_proxy_meitu_2In 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.

Screen shot 2013-08-20 at 10.06.23 PM_meitu_1Domestically, 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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  • Terri

    The one thing I really like about fansites is how they take fantastic pictures of idols and give an insight into their lives (moreso than what most of us international fans would be able to get otherwise). I think you’re right to say that they foster a warm relationship between idols and their fans. It’s really amazing the work that they do.
    However, I think it can go too far. I think once it interrupts your school/work life, that it is a bit too much. Rather than being dedicated, it came off as obsessed to me.

    What really annoys me about fan culture in SKorea particularly is the lavish gift giving. It is simply too excessive, IMO.
    I think the donations and the like are fine, but if a fan feels under pressure to donate, then I do not think it is right. It’s great to support your favourite artist and all, but I think fans need to take care of themselves and their finances first, rather than end up in financial troubles.

    Everything in moderation, as my mother says. I think that it would be great if fansites could foster this kind of mentality in their followers, but then, it might be a bit hypocritical, given the time they spend on tracking and photographing their fave idols.

  • sharaysabel

    As an international fan myself, I salute these fansites for the high-quality pictures.
    I think it is ok since they aren’t like sasaengs who are life-threatening. However, sometimes I think they are too much. I know it is a pleasure to always be where your idols are but how about they’re personal lives? I always wonder how it would be like one though. >.<

  • senshine

    I seriously can’t thank them enough for their efforts.

  • Amy

    I always wondered whether female idols had male fansite photographers or not but interesting that male idols might have male fansite masters LOL

  • Laura

    the thing is, some fansites are allowed into a concert with a camera and continue to photograph the moments because their staff are used to them being around and hence letting them take as much pictures as they want, throughout the whole concert, not just the first 3 songs, as what other media coverage would probably get. as a fan myself, I would probably enjoy the fact that they are doing it and are thankful for them, but see it in a media’s point of view. they’ll find this unfair as they won’t get to do the coverage for the whole concert while these fansites are allowed to do so.

  • fucksuckme

    Don’t get fansite masters who forget about their own lives and prefer going to an EXO concert/airport greeting rather than spending time with their friends or family. They don’t even know those idols personally. After all, all the kindness and cuteness of a person could be just an image and he could be a total jerk off-camera. It’s just delusional. Doing so much for someone who doesn’t even know your name. I bet many of them are going to regret how much time they’ve wasted. I’m not even a fansite runner, but I regret all the times I’ve spent on the Internet searching for information about groups, celebrities and just unnecessary information which I don’t even care about anymore. Should’ve studied instead. Dumbass me. The only group I’ll never regret being a fan of is probably EXO, who were the only reason I didn’t commit suicide last summer. A fucking K-Pop group was my only savior. I was that lonely.

    • Hajar!!

      Those people may sound extremely weird to you but just like you are thankful to exo for literally saving you from suicide, these people find joy and happiness in what they do. I saw some of amazing pics from shinee fansites noonas and those people are so talented it hurts. so honestly I’m thankful for what they do.

  • Nilza Silva

    I’m imenselly thankful to them! The only downside to me is whitewashing.