Category Archives: South Korea

Businessman at 4am

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.

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Walking Past Brothels in Seoul

I was out in the low income neighbourhood of South Guro, in the southwestern part of Seoul, looking at the feasibility of a story on the immigrant sex workers who are prevalent in the area. As I waited outside the steel shutters of one of the numerous small brothels, this woman walked by and it seemed like a great burst of happiness in a dreary environment. Sometimes its nicer not to find what you’re looking for.

a woman walks past a small brothel, which is shuttered during the daytime.

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Some colour for a change…

A traditional performance near Namsan

As I continue working on my project about life in Seoul’s shantytowns, I thought I’d change it up a little and post something a little more lighthearted. During the cold winter months I’d forgotten that Korea can actually be a vibrant and colourful place if you’re in the right place at the right time. I stumbled on this traditional drum and dance performance while hiking on Namsan mountain with a few friends recently. Definitely a nice break from the bleak greyness of the city.

I’m finishing up a post giving an account of my most recent trip to the Guryong shantytown, which should be ready in the next few days. It was definitely the most eventful visit to date. Without telling the full story I will say that it involved alcohol,  some culturally sensitive confrontations, and some lessons learned. More on that later…

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The Benefits of Giving Back

As the work continues on my project about life in Seoul’s Guryong shanty town, I wanted to share some thoughts about getting access and giving back to the people I photograph. At its core, the concept of taking someone’s photo implies a one way relationship, something that David DuChemin has inspired me to move away from. For a long time I viewed photography as a way of getting something for myself, and I approached people as tools to use in order to add great images to my portfolio. But this is fundamentally flawed as it created a distance between me and the subjects, something which was somehow apparent in the photos.

While David and other photographers often carry portable devices to make on the spot prints, my finances are in no position to support such a purchase. On my last visit I snapped a quick portrait of two recycling yard workers – so when I headed back to the Panjachon (shanty town) this weekend, I made a quick stop off at a department store photo desk and had an 8 x 10 print made for 1 500 Korean Won (about $1.25). You get what you pay for and this was certainly no professional grade printing, but I figured it was better than nothing.

While not a gallery piece by any means, this cheap print opened more doors than any amount of time or money could have.

This was my third visit to the Guryong community, and truth be told I was nervous going in. Not because of any fear about my safety (Koreans are some of the most trustworthy and unthreatening people in the world), but because I felt truly out of place. The Panjachon has been the subject of a fair bit of media publicity recently as multiple news outlets have begun to run features about the frequency of fires and flooding, and as a foreigner carrying $3000 worth of camera gear in one of Seoul’s poorest neighbourhoods, I knew how I must have looked to the residents. Yet another person coming to take stereotypical photos of decrepit houses, perpetuating the “otherness” of the people who live there, the “thank God that’s not me” style of images that are so prevalent.

So when I approached the recycling yard looking for Park Kwang Beom (the man on the left), I was not surprised by the suspicious looks from the other workers. It wasn’t anger, just a kind of frustration from people who think they are about to be exploited. But when I pulled those two crappy 8 x 10’s out of my backpack, the change in mood was incredible. Scowls transformed into huge grins, cheerful laughter, and shouts of Chingu! Chingu! (friend! friend!). The manager of the yard came hurrying out of his office to bring me a paper cup of instant coffee. The workers all reached into their pockets offering me Chinese cigarettes.

My arrival was poorly timed, and all the guys had to get back to work, but instead of just awkwardly nodding thanks and shuffling away like I had done so many times in the past when taking pictures of people, I was being invited back. With the aid of a tattered calendar, they indicated that I should return next Sunday when they weren’t working. The body language and the repetition of the word Soju (rice wine) told me that I should expect something special.

Lesson learned. Instead of taking photographs, with a little giving on my part I can make photographs with people. The results are infinitely better, both more meaningful and far more intimate.

An image like this would not be possible without being accepted by the person I am photographing.

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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.


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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.


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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.

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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

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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.




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