Monthly Archives: February 2012

Sheet Metal Church in the Guryong Shanty Town

A man walks past a sheet metal church in the Guryong Panjachon (shantytown)

The connection between poverty and religion is a strong one. Being a non-religious person, I can’t relate to the comfort people derive from spiritual belief, though I wish I could.

The Guryong Panjachon has an incredible amount of churches for such a small community, and the wood and metal crosses are the most prominent feature of the skyline.


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

Seoul’s Shantytowns Catch Fire

Nestled against the side of a small mountain, in the shadow of the city’s most affluent neighbourhood, is the Guryong Panjachon (shantytown. Literally “scrap wood village”). A byproduct of inflation and urban development, this community is home to those who cannot afford the rising housing costs in Seoul. Technically illegal, the panjachon is tolerated by the government because, quite simply, there is nowhere else for these people to go. Many residents are one step away from homelessness.

Because Seoul does not officially recognize this area as being part of the city, there is no access to reliable infrastructure. Power is syphoned from the main grid through a myriad of extension cables and there are virtually no safety regulations. Fires and floods are regular occurrences, and though I was of course saddened, I wasn’t surprised to see that a large cluster of houses had burned down.

Charred remains of a group of houses
Electrical fires and gas leaks are the common causes of such a fire
In the shadow of Gangnam, Seoul’s wealthiest neighbourhood. Churches are prevalent in the Guryong panjachon.
A dining table and a portable gas cooker amongst the ashes; a reminder that the people who live here likely have no place else to go.

I had visited once before a few months ago, but I had mostly forgotten about it as my schedule got increasingly hectic over the new year. So when an editor friend asked me to go back to shoot a photoessay for his magazine, it was a perfect excuse to re-open a neglected project. I made some great contacts with residents, and have plans to go back several times in the near future. More to come.

Posted in Blog, Poverty Tagged , , , , , , |

Korean High School Documentary

A friend of mine turned me on to this documentary a few weeks ago. Anyone who has talked to me since I have been living in South Korea will be familiar with stories of overworked children under unbelievable pressure to perform academically (and superficially). The fact that this doesn’t end in high school was the subject of my Under Pressure Interview Series.

This 19 year old girl deserves huge credit for doing what I always wanted to do – and doing it better than I probably could. After graduating from high school in the US, she enrolled in a South Korean public school and documented the story from the inside out. A gutsy move, and one that I can’t honestly say I would have been capable of at that age. An amazing achievement.

Watch the preview, visit the site and think about donating to make sure this project gets the support it deserves.

Korean High School (Documentary Preview) from Kelley Katzenmeyer on Vimeo.



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Back to the House of Sharing

A "halmoni" corrects the hairstyle of an international volunteer

As I’m heading back to House of Sharing tomorrow I thought I’d share this. Proclaiming “your hair looks like a lion”, one of the grandmothers, age 92, attempts to correct the hairstyle of one of the organizations international volunteers. Feminine opinions transcend age.


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a business man walks under a massive bilboard in Gasan, an old industrial neighbourhood

Gasan is a traditional working class neighbourhood in the Southwest of Seoul. Home to a large number of immigrants, Gasan’s gritty industrial past is evident despite rebranding efforts of local government.

This downtrodden looking business man caught my eye as he headed home, hunched and tired looking under the scrutiny of the fashion billboard.


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

Urban Flowers in Seoul


A young man runs past a flowery billboard in Hongdae

I’ve started taking a lot of pictures in Seoul’s side streets to try and represent the constant movement of people through this massive city. The series isn’t so much about people, but rather the city itself and the way people flow through it.

I love this image because it was taken in one of Seoul’s busiest neighbourhoods. The flowered billboard, blue sky, and steep hill give an impression of a natural environment which is infamously absent in this super-city.

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

Same World Same Chance

A piece of promotional material I made for Same World Same Chance. Shot in Kibombomene

A while ago I wrote and article for Groove magazine to try and raise awareness for Same World Same Chance, a community development program in Kibombomene, Zambia. I spent 6 weeks at the project site last year and was truly inspired by  the work they are doing. I wanted to repost this here because SWSC is an amazing organization and deserves all the support it can get. Get involved – volunteer, fundraise, donate.


In 2006, two university graduates from Canada landed in Africa with vague notions of making a difference in the world. Kim Hurley and Marissa Izma had no clear idea of how they would do this, but after several months they found themselves in the small community of Kibombomene, Zambia.

“We just wanted to be rural because the media portrayed such a negative image of Africa and we just needed to see it for ourselves,” says Izma. From this, Same World Same Chance was born – an independent, education based, community development organization.

Four years later, Izma still lives in Zambia while Mrs. Hurley has returned to Canada to raise funds. On the project site, a two-room schoolhouse, a library, staff housing, and an organic farm now stand where before there was only a diamond shaped plot of wild brush land.

In a time when people are becoming increasingly mistrustful of how NGOs spend their funding, Same World Same Chance is a prime example of how the compassion and drive of individuals is still the most effective force for social change.

“I have personally seen some NGOs running in Zambia that are misusing funds, [and] it makes me angry because SWSC strives on making our priority that every cent gets spent in the best way possible,” Izma states, though she makes it clear that she has also seen a lot of money being used effectively.

According to Izma, “The biggest challenge has been integrating into a rural community and into a culture that is so different from my own. It has been important though, because we knew that we had to immerse ourselves within the community to discover who the notable members were. We needed to know who could trust us, and who we could trust so that we could work together. Without the community of Kibombomene, the project is nothing.”

Education in Zambia, especially in rural areas, is sub-standard to say the least. While there was an existing primary school in the village before the arrival of SWSC, the reliability of teachers was a daily question. If and when they did show up, their effectiveness (and often their sobriety) was dubious. Local children would attend this school for years under the impression that they were receiving an education that would help them further their lives. But when it came time to write the national exams, many found that they were unable to read the questions.

Izma and Hurley hope that the free secondary education program offered by SWSC can be part of a solution. “We want people to graduate from here and move into the world and create more positive change.”

But SWSC also believes in helping Kibombomene help itself. Their goal is not simply to help students graduate so they can get a job in the nearest city, but rather give local residents the skills and education they need to so the village can thrive independently. Besides paying the salaries of two local teachers and funding an organic farming project, SWSC has established a local manufacturing industry which now makes tailored bags and blankets that are sold internationally. All proceeds from this initiative are put back into the project and, by extension, the community.

A health committee has been created to give free medical services to the village residents. Led by Candace Ngungu (a Canadian nurse who came to the project as a volunteer and ended up marrying a local man), the fledgling clinic will be invaluable for Kibombomene’s people, who have no real access to a hospital. In a country where AIDS and malaria are ongoing threats, having free professional medical assistance could mean the difference between life and death.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of SWSC is how ambitious it is in the scope of its long-term vision. When it reaches maturity, the project site will be home to six classrooms, a nursery, a trade school for continuing education, a boarding house for up to 200 students, a full health center, a community assembly hall, and eventually even roadside restaurants and shops, so that the operation can be truly self sustaining. Staff numbers are steadily increasing, with volunteers expected from Canada, the US, Germany, and Japan.

Though the future looks bright for SWSC, this project remains an intense labour of love, and it would not exist without the persistence and dedication of its leaders. “This isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t perfect,” says Izma, “but I never have to force myself out of bed in order to do it. That makes it all worthwhile.”

SWSC cannot exist without independent support. To get involved, consider a modest donation, buying some locally produced goods, or exploring the various volunteering opportunities available. Visit for more information.

Posted in Blog, NGO Work Tagged , , , , , |

Street Graffiti

Graffiti near Seoul's Hongik University.

Graffiti near Seoul's Hongik University.

In many ways creativity is discouraged in Korean society. This is not to say that Koreans do not appreciate art or culture, but from a young age children are often told that the only worthy professional pursuits are those which are the most lucrative. In a country where 80% of the population hold university degrees, the result is a glut of engineers, IT specialists and international business students.

But as the competition in these fields increases, young Koreans are bucking this outdated definition of success. A burgeoning art scene shows how some youth are moving away from traditional career paths and try to express themselves creatively. Though Korea is still far from an artist’s haven, places in Seoul, Busan, and the small Southern city of Gwangju are carving out reputations as creative communities.

Korea has experienced 50+ years of frenzied development, and it will be interesting to see how this is manifested in art.

in a K-pop dominated music scene, this is definitely unusual

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

Street Photography: Daerim Station

Daerim station, on the number 2 subway line, or “The Green Line”, is an immigrant neighbourhood with a large Chinese population. The mix of cultures and the gritty side streets make for interesting images. Seoul is a city of alleys, and they are constantly in motion – Daerim is no exception.

Walking path, Daerim Station, Seoul

in a city with extremely high urban density, walking paths are often located beneath overpasses

Street photography near Daerim Station, Seoul, South korea

new buildings often pop up overnight, so construction is typically ignored

street photography - Daerim Station, Seoul, South Korea

gritty remnants of an industrial past

street photography - Daerim Station, Seoul, South Korea

Christianity flourishes in Korea. Some reports indicate over 25% of the population is actively faithful.The Catholic church has enjoyed a 70% growth rate in the last 10 years.

street photography - Daerim Station, Seoul, South Korea

a man grinds down metal parts for resale

street photography - Daerim Station, Seoul, South Korea


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Under Pressure: Byun Ho San | Part 2

Part 2 of  Byun Ho San’s interview will be the last in my series on pressure and stress in South Korean society. Mr. Byun is in a special position to comment on these issues as he has both seen the birth of the high pressure culture and worked his way diligently to the top of it. His company, KOSTAT, is the biggest and most profitable of its kind in Korea, with factories across Asia. This interview is a fitting end to the series as Mr. Byun, having worked incredibly hard for the best part of 30 years, is in the process of slowing down. While the first interview focused on the origins of the bali bali culture, this (much shorter) portion is centered around his personal perceptions and solutions. He has gone full circle within the bali bali business world of Korea, and a quote from my talk with him best sums up the whole Under Pressure series: Bali bali – good for the economy and bad for the soul.

These interviews have been both educational and entertaining for me and I feel like I have come out of it understanding the mystery that is South Korea a little bit more. As I have access to a large group of mostly bilingual adults, I am open to suggestions if there are people out there who would like to have their questions about this country answered by Koreans instead of a Wikipedia page or a bitter English teacher! Contact me.

After doing quite a few of these interviews, I want to make it clear at this point that all of the people I have talked to are proud to be Korean and love their country. The topic being discussed is an unfortunately negative aspect of Korean culture, and therefore elicits  appropriately negative responses. 
Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.
Byun Ho San, 55, in one of his Seoul factories.

What Personal Stress Do You Have?

My 30’s were the most stressful time in my life. I started a business and I had no leverage or money. I had to survive by myself, there was no one to help me. When I established my company I rented a very small office and employed a young girl. I borrowed 2 million won (about $2000) from a friend. I had to find more clients so I was working day and night. There were many bad situations that I had to face. I could have taken a job at a big company but I had made up my mind to become a businessman. Sometimes when I met my friends who worked for companies like Samsung and LG I envied them and wondered why I chose to start a small business instead. But I had made a decision and I couldn’t give up. When I started my business I didn’t think about how stressful Korea was. But once I got into business I realized how difficult it was.

Out of my friends, less than 5% tried to start a business – the rest went to work for companies where they tried to advance. To advance they had to compete against many people and the competition is very intense. The working culture is still like this.

In the future I expect this culture will change a little bit. People want to enjoy their life and be with their family.

What is Your Solution?

I am very accustomed to the bali bali system. I know that it isn’t good for the soul and if we want to have a stable life we need to control this high speed. Right now I am trying to slow down gradually. At first it was very hard to calm down so I needed some practice on how to stabilize my mind. After I stabilized my soul I have felt much happier than before.

I have a very unique solution to the problem and it has made me very happy. I go to bookstores once a month and I read. Recently I have read many books on how to relax my soul. There were many methods. We need to learn more from Buddhism – especially the Buddhism from India. By reading these books I have made a final conclusion and created a solution for myself. It took five years.

 When I get up in the morning I think by myself for 20-30 minutes – about everything. I think about things that are good, better, and positive. Nothing negative. I have visions of hope, not sadness. Then my mind naturally calms down and I have dreams. I write them down five times and read them five times. After that I go to work I am ready. This is the secret to my success.

Byun Ho San sits in an empty board room in one of his corporate offices.




Posted in Blog, Interviews, South Korea, Under Pressure Tagged , , , , |