As I get ready to leave South Korea after two years, this image remains one of my favourites. Truly this country has been very accommodating to me, and the people are almost always friendly and go out of their way to be helpful when they can. While getting stared at openly in public can be somewhat draining, after six-odd years of nearly constant travel this is pretty much the norm. Overall I am extremely grateful to this country and the people in it – I can’t honestly say that my home country of Canada would be as welcoming to them should they choose to emigrate.
The reason this image sticks with me is for slightly less positive reasons, however. Over the last few years one fact that has become clear to me is that Korea would not be a fun place to try and make a career. Working hours are excessively long for the typical employee, and 12-14 hour days are not uncommon. Overtime is ubiquitous and mostly unpaid. Total dedication to one’s company is expected, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. Exhausted workers will often need an entire weekend of sleeping to recover from the rigors of the workweek.
This was taken at around 4 am in southwestern Seoul in an area designated as a digital business zone; more than 100 000 workers are estimated to pass through the local subway station. Mandatory nights of heavy drinking are part of Korean office culture, further compounding the lack of sleep. This man standing alone in front of a parking garage will forever remind me of the Korean daily grind, and how lucky I am to not be a part of it. Upon looking at this picture a Korean friend of mine said simply “life is tired”.
To those “salarymen” who work these hellish hours for 30+ years, I both salute you and feel for you. It may not be a perfect society, but in many of the important ways it is better than most. So long Korea, and thanks for all the great memories.
I’ll be flying off to Dahaka, Bangladesh next week to start an intensive 10-day workshop with Zoriah Miller, one of my favourite photojournalists, as well as work on a few personal projects in the area. From there I’ll be heading to the Philippines for some work on poverty and the environment, and perhaps even some precious time on the beach. I’m looking forward to getting back on the road and I’ll make posts whenever possible.