Monthly Archives: December 2011

Making Way for Modernity.

the last building to come down in the lot


Seoul is in a constant state up frenzied updating. The Guro-dong area used to be one of the main industrial centers of Korea, but recently the government has rebranded the area as a center of digital business. This is the heart of what is now called the Guro Digital Complex, and these photos show the demolition of the last old building. There are still many residential neighbourhoods surrounding the complex, but this central real estate has more value for a modern office complex like the ones seen in the background.

This is representative of the the fevered pace at which Seoul is modernizing, and has been for the last three decades. Within a few weeks this now-empty lot will be swarming with builders. Korea has an amazing ability to complete vast construction projects at incredible speeds, and entire buildings seem to be completed before you even notice construction has begun.

To get a look past the perimeter fencing I had to climb onto a parking garage and over some barbed wire, but it was only a matter of five minutes before I was confronted by security and escorted off the property.

a worker framed through a fence

a worker and machinery among the twisted remains.



Posted in Blog, South Korea

3D Jobs: Dirty, Demeaning, and Dangerous

Depending on who you talk to, the D’s in 3D job stand for dirty, dangerous, and demeaning (or difficult). This neologism, of Japanese origins (3K – Kitanai, kiken, kitsui), refers to any sort of blue collar job such as a construction worker or a production line hand.

While such jobs are rarely prized throughout the world, in Asia they tend to be looked on with a special kind of distaste. Unlike many Western cultures where forms of manual labour are often romanticized as rugged and manly (and often relatively well paid), the blue collar population of Korea enjoys no such reputation. In her book, The Koreas, Mary E. Connor asserts that “Manual labor is unthinkable for members of the new middle class.” While perhaps this statement is a little sweeping in its generalizations, I think it is essentially true.

A worker carries bricks to a nearby construction site.


As of 2005, there were around half a million foreign workers in South Korea, and approximately 185 000 of those were illegal (mainly from South Asian countries), meaning that they are not able to obtain a valid work permit – and therefore unable to unionize, own property, and in some cases even unable to enroll their children in schools. But while they refuse to validate these immigrants, they also are heavily reliant on them – affluent Koreans simply refuse to do 3D jobs.

As Korea moves into the global arena, it will be interesting to see how they respond to the growing number of working class immigrants trying to settle among Korea’s notably xenophobic population. As illegal workers approache a quarter million, surely the issue can no longer be ignored, however distasteful it may be for the government.

Posted in Blog, South Korea Tagged , , , |

Protest in Seoul: Opposing the FTA

Protestors listen to a speaker arguing against the FTA


To view the full image gallery, click HERE.

Well into the second month of protesting, demonstrators gather around Seoul’s city hall in the hundreds, despite the sub-zero weather.

Initially signed in 2007, adjustments to the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement in February 2011 give American companies increased advantages when entering the South Korean market. According to the  Office of the United States Trade Representative, “Once it enters into force, the Agreement will be the United States’ most commercially significant free trade agreement in more than 16 years.”

Many Koreans are less than supportive of the agreement, however, feeling that it is one sided and will benefit American interests above those of Korea. While large conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai stand to make substantial profits by gaining tariff-free access to U.S. customers, many Korean industries – such as agriculture and entertainment – feel they may be overwhelmed by American competitors.

The anti-FTA protests closer resemble a music festival than a violent confrontation. Performers dominate the small stage, singing about Korean President Lee Myun Bak’s American subservience and the evils of corporate greed. The scene hardly looks threatening.

Yet hours before the crowds gather, hundreds of police vehicles including buses, armoured cars and riot control vans arrive at City Hall. Riot police in the thousands spread out around the area in full body armour.

hours before protests begin, riot police surround the area.


There are no indicators of agression by either the police or the protestors, and the demonstration winds down as the sun sets and the temperature drops. As people attempt to leave the area, however, they find that the sidewalks have been blocked off, preventing access to the subway station. With no way around, the tension escalates.

a man shouts "rotten police"

A man argues with a police sergeant


The situation reaches its peak when a young girl is trampled after being pulled beneath the police lines.

A trampled girl recovers under a pile of jackets.


Realizing that they are exacerbating an otherwise peaceful group of people, police commanders abandon the sidewalk blockades and instead redeploy their men to protect local hotels and businesses.

Police move to redeploy around nearby hotels.


As quickly as they began, the hostilities cease. Protestors leave the area to seek warmth, and the police withdraw to their vehicles.

It seems unlikely that the protestors will prevail. South Korea’s current government is highly conservative, and President Lee is an individual with powerful corporate connections – he is a former top executive of the Hyundai Construction Corporation, and it is widely believed that many of his political decisions are based on the company’s interests. With the massive police presence (at least three officers to every protestor), President Lee seems to be more focused on demonstrating the power of the state rather than responding to public opinion.

The United States was once among the most popular countries for South Koreans, with many Koreans believing in the power of the American Dream. But the golden age of public relations seems to be dwindling, and many have become disillusioned with the U.S.

It remains to be seen whether or not the protests will have any affect on the FTA proceedings. Despite the weather, demonstrations can are scheduled every weekend at City Hall and Gwanghwamun station, and can be attended by anyone who is interested.

To see the full image gallery, click here.



Posted in Blog, Protest, South Korea Tagged , , , , , , |

First Snows…

    Dodging street vomit has been an occupational hazard of living in Korea, and it is something I have gotten strangely used to. Businessmen and adjashis (old men) often drink to excess to relieve the monotony of their work lives, but typically they have very little free time in which to do so. The popular solution is a simple one, if not overly elegant: drink faster. Now that the evidence is freezing overnight, I know that winter is officially on us.

Frozen vomit indicates the changing of the seasons.

     I haven’t seen snow in nearly 2 years, and I haven’t had a Christmas with my family since 2007. The light flakes landing in Seoul are making me reflect on my strange nomadic life and the consequences of these choices. As I move towards my goal of becoming a working photojournalist/humanitarian photographer, it doesn’t seem like I’ll be settling down anytime soon.

A large part of me is apprehensive – the part that is terrified of turning into a lonely 40-year-old drifter, semi-alcoholic and utterly lonely. But the other side of me, the dominant voice, is urging me forward. The safe option would be to continue with teaching, obtain a Master’s degree and enjoy a comfortable life of lecturing English Language classes at universities. The current plan, however, is to square my credit card debt, upgrade my camera, and buy a one-way ticket to Bangladesh.

The outcome is uncertain. There has never been a better time to showcase your work to the world, and photography has never been more accessible. But it has also never been more difficult to make a living at it. I have little formal training and my knowledge of the business and marketing side of photography is sparse at best. In his great book The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield defines these feelings of doubt as “resistance”, and I feel it strongly during almost every waking moment recently.

But then I remember what he says about dealing with it:

Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly  point to true North – meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing.

We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others.

Rule of thumb: the more important a call or action is to our souls’ evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

                                                                                                             – Stephen Pressfield, The War of Art

A very light snowfall lands on Seoul

Posted in Blog, South Korea Tagged , , , |

Meals on Wheels

A delivery bike speeds down a side street

 If there is one thing that Korea has really gotten right is its system of food delivery. Unlike Western society where delivery items are limited to pizza or similarly priced things, more or less everything that can be eaten can be delivered – regardless of quantity or cost. It is possible, even common, to order something which costs 5-6000 Won ($5 or less), and have it delivered to your door. The food will also come with real cutlery (i.e. metal and not plastic), and be served on dishes, not paper plates or take out containers. When you’re done eating, just put the plates outside your apartment door and someone will be by an hour later to pick them up. Magic.

How this system is cost efficient is beyond me, but everyone does it. Even McDonald’s delivers, usually 24 hours a day.

While Korean “bali bali culture” (fast fast) can be a negative force in fields like education or pretty much anything creative, when it comes to having things delivered, no one does it better. Restaurants employ small armies of scooter and motorcycle drivers who race through traffic at breakneck speeds, for whom traffic signals are suggestions, not laws. They tear through red lights, weave into oncoming lanes, and use the sidewalk as an extension of the road. Terrifying for pedestrians but wonderful for the hungry.

The drivers are known to be excellent multi-taskers as well, typically either smoking, texting or talking on a cell phone while driving. And they exemplify the job dedication that is so revered in Korean culture. Once a friend and I saw a pizza delivery driver drop his bike at high speed and slide violently into a concrete wall. When we asked if he was OK, his only response was to check to make sure the pizzas hadn’t been damaged.

Korean delivery men, I salute you. Now, just tell me how to say my current address in a way you will understand and we can begin a glorious reciprocal relationship.

Cell phone, cigarette, ignition.


Posted in South Korea Tagged , , , |

Re-Learning to Take Risks

Last year I got burned. Hard. And it has taken almost eight months to fully recover.

How or why exactly is an extremely long story, and one which I am working on telling fully – but for now I cannot do this tale the justice it deserves. In a nutshell, my best friend and I tried to have a grand adventure, and it ended in misery. We signed on as crew of a small yacht with the goal of sailing from Malaysia to Madagascar, but 3 months later we ended up stranded in the Maldives, mentally and financially broke.

This experience dealt a severe blow to my confidence, and my willingness to take risks. I thought seriously about giving up on what I wanted out of life and settling for something comfortable and secure. I convinced myself that achieving your dream life was an illusion, and that I was misguided in thinking that I could live it.

But last month I got my inspiration back. There was no catalyst, it just sort of happened one day. I am now ready to take risks again, to get what I want out of life or go down trying. Insert more motivational idioms here.

So today I put a down a hefty deposit on a photography workshop with Zoriah Miller, one of my favourite photojournalists, and someone whose work I have been following for the last 3 years. I’m not sure how I originally found him, but it was well before I had decided to pursue photography as anything more than a hobby.

What inspired me about Zoriah was not that he took amazingly moving images (which he does), but the fact that he shares the process with others. There are so many amazing people found on the internet who create wonderful things, but there is no insight into the how or the why. Zoriah’s site, however, is an in depth look at how a dedicated professional works – and, more importantly, why he is compelled to do what he does.

I am not expecting Zoriah to make me a great photographer, or to spoon feed me a photo opportunity that will get me published on the cover of Time Magazine. But its a start, and a positive one at that. There is a long road ahead, and there is no magic bullet for how to get what I want. I could get lucky and be supporting myself fully from photography by the end of next year, but I sincerely doubt it. Probably it will be a drawn out affair, developing slowly over 5 or 10 or 20 years. I am not counting on retiring any time soon.

The website, the writing, the worskhop – they are all manifestations of me trying to set myself on a track towards getting what I want. So if you read any of what I post on this blog, you don’t have to remind me that I am not a professional. My pictures are not the most moving frames you have ever seen. The material I have now is not going to change the world. I know all this. But I will get there.

If you need to hear this stuff from someone else, listen to this guy. He’s completely wired, but his words are still great. He’s high on dreams!

Posted in Writing Tagged , , , , , |

Inner Circle: Commuting on Seoul’s “Green Line”

At over 60km, the number 2 Seoul subway line (a.k.a. “the green line” or “circle line”), is the longest circular metro track in the world. Started in the late 1970’s, the line now has 52 stations and a mind boggling quantity of human traffic – roughly 2 million passengers daily, according to the city’s 2010 published statistics.

Many Korean’s will spend hours per day in Seoul’s subways, and I think that these prolonged periods of being trapped in transit have partially fueled the country’s obsession with small electronic gadgets.

Korea is the epicenter of the smartphone/tablet revolution. It is not uncommon to see a 7 year old kindergarten student with a touch screen cell phone fastened around their necks as they walk to school, and this trend solidifies with age. According to some studies, by the time they reach highschool, the average Korean youth will be sending more than 100 text messages per day. One friend of mine was given a free trip overseas for being crowned the fastest texter in his university.

Now that phones are also wired to the internet (South Korea boasts the fastest internet connections in the world and the most complete wifi network of any country), they have become more like extensions of their bodies rather than useful communication tools.

My views on technological addiction aside, I have spent innumerable hours on Seoul’s subways myself, most of them on the Green Line (in fact, to get these photos I did three full laps which totals 180km and about 4 hours). While the cars are often packed and nightmarish, I instead wanted to show just a few frozen moments, representative of these lives in commute.

passengers rush to board in the hopes of finding a seat.

passengers hurry to get any available seats

a young man watches TV, while an older man slumps forward asleep

an older man reclines in the seats reserved for seniors and the disabled.

a soldier watches the electronic subway map

few people can manage to find enough personal space to read

children are the privileged who manage to find excitement on the subways

young women talk and send messages continuously from the time they board.

many office workers use their commuting time to get much needed sleep

a young boy watches TV on his phone

three seniors share the reserved section

sleeping or using an electronic device - the staples of Seoul commuting.

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