Tag Archives: Seoul

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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Buddhism in Modern Seoul

Buddhism is a religion that, to me, seems synonymous with ancient times. I was interested to see what place it has in the ultra-modern, high tech (to the point of obsessiveness) society that is Seoul. With the help of a friend I was given access to a temple a few kilometers outside the capital, and was able to interview the head monk about Buddhism’s place in South Korea. Here are a few images from my first trip, I will be going back once more at the end of the month before leaving South Korea for Bangladesh.

Unique to South Korea, this small structure is where monks honour the traditional Korean gods which are fused into local Buddhism.

A monk finishes his morning prayers

The temple’s head monk, Hyun Yuh talks about Buddhism in modern Korea. His small room is an interesting mix of tradition and technology.

An electronic doorbell contrasts the traditional door handles of the temple.

Each piece of paper represents someone who has passed away.


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Gasan Chinatown

While I work on posting some of the interviews I did with North Korean defectors, here are a few photos from the small Chinatown near Gasan, Seoul.

An elderly woman walks slowly past a small manufacturing business in Gasan's small Chinatown

This very friendly man was thrilled when I gave him my camera to play with for a few minutes.

Running full speed down a hill seems like a great way to spend Sunday afternoon.

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North Korean Night Protest

Since I’m waiting for my translator to finish the transcription of the most recent North Korean defector interview – which turned out to be an amazing story – here are some images from one of the night protests outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul. Despite the cold rain, activists were outside advocating North Korean rights, something they say they will do every day and night for 1000 days.


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North Korean Repatriation Night Protests

I’ve been completely swamped recently trying to meet a writing deadline, so I apologize for the lack of posts recently.

Since taking part in the North Korean Repatriation protests outside the Chinese embassy a few weeks ago, I’ve started to build up a contact base among some North Korean defectors. With the help of my friend Moon Yeong acting as translator, I’ve been able to start interviewing some of these people and we’ve heard some amazing stories. The process has been slow as many defectors are nervous about having their photo taken (many have families remaining in North Korea and they will face harsh punishments if it is discovered they are related to a defector), but it promises to be a great project.

Here are a couple of nice images of the evening protests, held every night. The full stories will be coming as soon as I can get caught up with my assignments.

Choi Joo Wual, president of the North Korean Defectors Association, has helped over 10,000 defectors settle in new countries.

A teenager holds a candle as he prays for the Chinese government to change their repatriation policies

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Seoul Shanty Towns…

Gwangfan Piao takes a break from his work in a recycling yard in the Guryong shanty town

 My connections in the Seoul shanty towns are getting stronger with each visit. I’ve made a pretty solid connection with this man, who I thought until recently was named Park Kwang Beom, but in fact this is just a Korean name he has chosen for himself. He is actually Gwangfan Piao, a Chinese immigrant who works in Korea to earn money which he sends back to his family in China. I said in my last post that I would be releasing an account of my overly eventful visit to his home, but it is turning out to be longer than I expected and too long for a normal blog entry, so this image serves as a holder until I can finish writing it up. The full story will be available in the next few days as a free download.

Posted in Blog, Poverty Also tagged , , , , , |

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.

Posted in Blog, Poverty, South Korea Also tagged , , , , , , , |

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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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.

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