Tag 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.

Posted in Blog, South Korea Also tagged , |

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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North Korean Defections: Kang Won Cheol

While working on my project about the lives of North Korean defectors I was asked to document Justice for North Korea’s six-week conference on human rights. The event is divided into six two-hour lectures featuring documentary films, guest speakers and human rights activists, and aims to give a close up and personal look at the challenges facing North Koreans.

Kang Won Cheol, a North Korean defector who now lives in Seoul.

On the first night I was able to spend some time speaking to and photographing this man, Kang Won Cheol, a defector who successfully reached South Korea in 2005.

On his first attempt to flee North Korea he was only 14 years old (13 in the Western system of birthdays). Though he was able to escape to China, he found himself lost and confused until he was picked up by Chinese border police and forcefully repatriated. The flight back to Pyongyang was the first time he had ever been on an airplane, an experience that he says would have been “a dream come true for any North Korean” had the circumstances been different.

Once in custody of the North Korean secret police he was, along with a dozen or so others, interrogated for weeks while they tried to get him to admit to being a defector. While under the scrutiny of the interrogators he witnessed the torture – and in some cases the executions – of the others in the group, uncertain of his future. During this time he remembered thinking that if he was able to survive he would never again try to escape.

He managed to resist however, and the police were unable to conclusively prove that he was planning on defecting, instead believing his story that he had just been searching for food. Foraging attempts are becoming increasingly common as the food situation in North Korea becomes  desperate, says Kang.

Despite his promise to himself that he would not put himself in such a dangerous situation again, Won Cheol decided to attempt escape again soon after he was released. In 2005, still a teenager, he snuck into China for a second time. To be caught was almost certain death, or a lifetime in a labor camp at the very least.

With the help of a South Korean missionary he was eventually able to cross into Mongolia where he was flown to Seoul and given South Korean citizenship. I can’t possibly imagine any high school students I know being capable of such a feat.

I will be speaking to Won Cheol again in more detail as this project continues, but if the conference continues to put me in touch with more people like this, the next six weeks should be an amazing and enlightening experience.

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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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North Korean Refugee Protests in Seoul

A protestor outside the Chinese embassy in Seoul

An elderly man protests the Chinese repatriation of North Korean refugees on a chilly day in Seoul.

The international media loves North Korea. It seems like a perfect example of a place of repression where life is tough and the hardships are never ending. So it is not surprising to read accounts of people so desperate to get out that they will risk not only their own life, but the lives of anyone they have any sort of close relationship with. Since three armies (South Korean, North Korean and American) fortify the Southern border, the only way out of the world’s last truly closed country is North, into China. Would be escapees must swim across the Yalu/Amnok river and hope to be accepted as refugees on the other side. The punishment for getting caught, to the best of my knowledge, is summary execution.

If they are successful in getting into China, the refugees then begin the laborious process of trying to start a new life. Many head to South Korea where they are given instant asylum and citizenship. Some resettle in South East Asia, and some relocate to whichever Western countries are willing to take them. But what if these people go through the harrowing ordeal of sneaking past security forces and swimming to their perceived freedom only to be seized by Chinese authorities and unceremoniously shipping back to North Korea to face their almost certain death?

This is the most recent challenge facing North Korean defectors, 31 of whom were apparently “repatriated” in secret this month. And since the 100-days of mourning for the death of Kim Jong-Il is still in effect, Kim Jong-Eun, his son, has mandated that anyone guilty of attempting escape during this period will be punished by having three generations of their family exterminated.

This has caused an outcry among human rights groups and North Korean refugees around the world, those in Seoul being no exception, against the Chinese policy. These images are from a protest outside the Chinese embassy where several activists are camped out on a hunger strike. One man I met had gone 22 days without eating and was barely able to stand up.

They were very welcoming and pleased that I was interested in their cause, and it looks hopeful that I’ll be able to do a more in depth project about the lives of North Korean refugees. More to come.

Ju Wual Choi, a North Korean refugee, camps outside the Chinese embassy, six days into a hunger strike. He gives me a surreal business card that states his title as the president of "The Association of the North Korean Defectors"


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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…

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

Habitation for the Planet

Cats sit on the cloth and sheet metal roof tops of Seoul's Guryong shanty town.

I was recently contacted by Ruban Selvanayagam, a journalist and social enterprise activist based in Brazil, about using some of my images for an article on Habitation for The Planet’s web site. While I am happy to share my photos around the web, I was a little bit hesitant about emailing full resolution files to people who email me out of the blue. But after reading the article he has written on the lack of adequate housing for the poor in Korea, I am proud to be involved. Well written and thoroughly researched, this article is a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the reasons why places like the Guryong Panjachon exist.

This is just an excerpt from his article. Read the full version here.

Now well reputed as an Asian economic success story, South Korea has made huge strides in terms of growth since the end of the war with the North – transforming from an aid recipient nation with an income per head on a par with the poorest parts of Africa to a member of the OECD development assistance committee (the so called “rich man’s club”).  When looking at the housing sector in its current form, however, progress has not been so exemplary with the familiar global story of poor living conditions mirroring rising disparate wealth distribution.  As outlined below, despite modern history demonstrating some impetus from the government to incentivise and regulate the social housing sector, much of what has been achieved has fallen short of what is necessary – evidently placing more priority on middle-upper class biased models.

Since the late 1980s, the government´s role in housing policy increased somewhat and, as Kim Dae Jung was ruled into power, it was acknowledged that past policies did not pay enough attention to the needs of the poor.  The notion that it was the South Koreans themselves that needed to develop their own communities broadly based on bringing a more balanced relationship between individuals, communities and the government was deemed as the most appropriate direction.  From the 1960s up until this point, the country – as with much of East Asia – adopted a guiding principle of social policy being immediately linked to economic growth and that rising incomes would assumedly lead to better standards of housing, fuelled largely by the private sector but supported by preferential interest rates / mortgage finance and delivery system improvements.  However, particularly due to rapid urban population growth, demand outpaced supply which not only led to rapidly inflated prices but also the growth of slum settlements, particularly in urban areas such as Seoul.   The growing conflict of interest was well demonstrated in the eviction of an estimated 700,000 people between 1985 and 1988 in the build up to the Seoul Olympic Games.

Under the pressure and watchful eye of increasingly present NGO and other housing campaigning activity, the government was seen stepping up its efforts towards the end of the 1980s.  Yet whilst the 1989 launch of the “Two Million Housing Construction Plan” was deemed successful from a broader market perspective, it left the low income market relatively untouched.  Indeed, by 1995 the Korea National Housing Corporation (KNHC) demonstrated that 13 percent of urban households were using one room for the whole family; 34 percent of national stock did not meet national minimum standards and 49,370 households were living in squatter settlements (a figure that had doubled by the year 2000 as a result of the Asian financial crisis).  The early 1990s saw private rented housing being given more permanent status – however due to the very small size of the units; the distant locations from where residents worked and complicated financial management which limited access to those in the low income groups, real demand remained low.  The government subsequently continued to remain largely criticised for not addressing the issue of poor housing standards in contrast to the bullish growth of urbanisation and real estate development for the privileged economic groups……read the rest of the article here.

Posted in Blog, Guest Posts, NGO Work 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.


Posted in Blog, Poverty, South Korea Also 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.

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