About Luc Forsyth
Luc Forsyth is a freelance photojournalist and writer who specializes in social and humanitarian storytelling. This is his blog, a place to share photography, writing and ideas.
You can contact Luc at firstname.lastname@example.org
Luc is a collaborating member of the Ruom Collective. Bringing together journalists, researchers, videographers, and photographers, the collective provides an opportunity to exchange and share information - providing multiple perspectives and more depth to long-term documentary projects.
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Tag Archives: Korea
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.
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But as the competition in these fields increases, young Koreans are bucking this outdated definition of success.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 small compound in the hills outside a small city near Seoul, seven elderly women live together. The youngest of these women is well into her 80′s while the oldest resident is approaching 91. In most ways this house is like any other seniors residence, complete with cooks, caretakers, and visiting grandchildren, but it differs in one major way. These seven women are not united by age, nationality or illness; they are all former sexual slaves of the Japanese Imperial military.
In 1910 Japan formally occupied the Korean peninsula, dissolving existing political structures and beginning a period of colonial rule which lasted for 35 years. During the war years (1939-1945) over five million Koreans were used as forced labourers to replace the Japanese conscripted into combat. Of this number, approximately 200 000 women were military sex slaves. Dubbed “comfort women”, they were deemed necessary to prevent soldiers from raping the local populations of occupied countries. Often still teenagers, these women were taken from their homes and scattered throughout Asia to “service” as many as 60 men per day. Many were not able to return to their home country for decades, and only a third of the total number is estimated to have survived the ordeal.
Of those that survived and returned to Korea, many were shamed into silence by a patriarchal and conservative society. It wasn’t until 1991 when Kim Hak-soon, a former “comfort woman”, publicly spoke out about the issue. She was the first such woman to talk openly about her experiences using her real name, and from her activism a modern movement was born.
The House of Sharing, established in 1995, is now home to seven women, who are no longer called “comfort women”, but are referred to respectfully as Halmoni – the Korean word for grandmother. A modest but comfortable place, it aims to provide a measure of security for these women in their final years.
This was my first visit to the house, but not the last. I am currently in conversation with the volunteer staff and project leaders about how to best document this stage in these women’s incredible lives without intruding too much on their privacy. While this project won’t be finished for some time yet, it is easy for anyone who is interested to get involved in the meantime. The Korean Council has information about attending the weekly protests in Seoul, and through the House of Sharing it is possible to visit the Halmoni on selected days every month or so.Note: The title “comfort women” was the imperial Japanese nomenclature for these military sexual slaves. Since these women did not find their experience anything resembling comfortable, the term is used in quotation marks throughout.
If there is one thing that Korea has really gotten right is its system of food delivery. Unlike Western society where delivery items are limited to pizza or similarly priced things, more or less everything that can be eaten can be delivered – regardless of quantity or cost. It is possible, even common, to order something which costs 5-6000 Won ($5 or less), and have it delivered to your door. The food will also come with real cutlery (i.e. metal and not plastic), and be served on dishes, not paper plates or take out containers. When you’re done eating, just put the plates outside your apartment door and someone will be by an hour later to pick them up. Magic.
How this system is cost efficient is beyond me, but everyone does it. Even McDonald’s delivers, usually 24 hours a day.
While Korean “bali bali culture” (fast fast) can be a negative force in fields like education or pretty much anything creative, when it comes to having things delivered, no one does it better. Restaurants employ small armies of scooter and motorcycle drivers who race through traffic at breakneck speeds, for whom traffic signals are suggestions, not laws. They tear through red lights, weave into oncoming lanes, and use the sidewalk as an extension of the road. Terrifying for pedestrians but wonderful for the hungry.
The drivers are known to be excellent multi-taskers as well, typically either smoking, texting or talking on a cell phone while driving. And they exemplify the job dedication that is so revered in Korean culture. Once a friend and I saw a pizza delivery driver drop his bike at high speed and slide violently into a concrete wall. When we asked if he was OK, his only response was to check to make sure the pizzas hadn’t been damaged.
Korean delivery men, I salute you. Now, just tell me how to say my current address in a way you will understand and we can begin a glorious reciprocal relationship.
While walking around the sidestreets of Nam Guro with some friends, I met a nun named Hong Seun-Hwa. Korean religious types, particularly of the Catholic and Jehova’s Witness persuasion, always seem eager to talk with foreigners – and more often than not have a decent command of English. Seun-Hwa curiously approached me as I was sitting on a ledge taking photos of a small blue door. Apparently she lived behind said blue door along with 35 of her sisters. For the next 25 minutes she gave me some historical background of the area (as well as encouraging me to see the wisdom of God).
Apparently the name Guro comes from a legend that once nine (“gu” in Korean) old men enjoyed “a miraculously long life in the area”, and so the neighbourhood was renamed in celebration of their longevity. Having lived in the area for many years, Seun-Hwa had witnessed the dramatic changes in the area as the municipal government rezoned Guro into a modern digital business area.
I wasn’t allowed to follow her into the convent, though I’m not sure if thats because I’m a man, or because I told her I wasn’t Catholic. But the fact that there were 35 Korean nuns living behind a non-descript concrete wall confirms that in Seoul there is a story behind every door, even if it can’t be seen from the street.
While walking around to the West of Guro Digital station, I stumbled on this strange school zone, ringed in barbed wire. In Seoul nothing is particularly surprising, but finding children surrounded by factories and military grade barbed wire is a little surreal.
Particularly amazing to me was the fire escape, completely wrapped in wire. While I suppose this is likely an effective deterrent against thieves, in the event of a serious fire I can’t help but think this decision will be regretted…Seoul is never short of visuals.
In a move to give Seoul a makeover, previously lower class neighbourhoods are being rezoned into designated business and digital areas. The former Garibong Station has been rebranded “Gasan Digital Complex” and is now the home of many glass-walled high rise office towers and franchise restaurants. There are cranes and construction are everywhere, and the area around the subway station practically gleams.
Several kilometers to the South, however, is Gwangmyeong. Pushed up against the side of a small mountain, Gwangmyeong overlooks the developments around the Gasan station. The streets are typically small and bleak, and everything is uphill. I was told by a friend that this is an area where many lower class immigrants settle, and the fact that there are only Chinese characters on the front of many apartments seems to confirm this.
Though Gwangmyeong is by no means a slum by global standards, it represents the gritty conditions many of Seoul’s citizens live in. As Koreans are often opposed to having lower class housing near their neighbourhoods, the government of Seoul generally tries to keep these places out of the public eye.
Seoul has never been accused of being an attractive city, and the area around Daerim Station on the East side is no exception. I am always fascinated by the cookie cutter architecture in this country, endless rows of tenement style apartments. Some are painted bright or pastel colours to give the illusion of cheer, but in general they are massively depressing. Walking around this neighbourhood I was aware of the fact that there were literally thousands of people in a one block radius, crammed into these homogenous monoliths. Seoul’s population density is nearly twice that of New York City (this neighbourhood in particular is listed by the Seoul Statistical Yearbook as having over 17 000 people per square kilometer) and I could really sense the weight of the crowding in this neighbourhood.