Danwon High School Project

As well as working on my course exercises, I recently helped out on a documentary project on the April 2014 Sewol disaster in Korea. Sewol was a ferry carrying nearly 500 people to the holiday island of Jeju. Amongst the passengers were over 300 students and teachers of Danwon High School. The incident has caused huge controversy in Korea, not least because of the terrible loss of 300 people including 250 students from Danwon, but also because of the captain and crew’s abandonment of the ferry. The government have also come under heavy criticism of the handling of the disaster and the rescue operation’s failure to save more lives.

This was a hugely sensitive project and I entered the school to find the classrooms as they had been left a year ago. I was moved by the flowers and sentimental tokens such as letters, photos, and snacks left on the students’ desks, but I found myself intrigued by the feeling of emptiness in the school and the fact that nothing had really been moved or touched since before the tragedy. My series became much more of a focus on the space of the school and the memories it holds for the parents of the victims, and the survivors.

The full series can be viewed here:


Danwon High School Project

Exercise: Standard focal length


For this exercise I selected my Rolleiflex camera for some street photography and walked around a busy Seoul market. I had to do this exercise before the tele and wide angle exercises to wait to borrow a long lens and wide lens (as I lack both).


The Rolleiflex has a 75mm F3.5 Schneider lens, but this in 35mm equivalent is somewhere between 40-50mm due to the 6x6cm medium format negative. The Rolleiflex is a fantastic camera for street shooting and is made to feel all the more discreet by its waist level viewfinder. To most people I’m sure it would look like you are merely fiddling with a box.


Gear aside, the standard focal length with 12 shots per roll and quite a slow lens really forces you to slow down and observe the scene. Like the last exercise I usually stand around and wait for significant moments to emerge, and a busy market place is perfect for finding these moments.


The standard focal length is also perfect as it is neither too wide nor too close – perfect for capturing small groups of people interacting, or for portraits of single subjects. I can imagine a wide angle lens in a market would be very difficult as it would perhaps capture too much whilst a telephoto lens would capture too little. The photos in this article were all from the same roll of Portra I shot in Dongmyo.




I look forward to the next two exercises and am already thinking about locations that would work with a longer focal length and a wider angle frame. As I rarely shoot beyond 35-50mm focal lengths I am anticipating a steep learning curve!

Exercise: Standard focal length

Exercise: Capturing the Moment


I set out to complete this exercise knowing that there would be a lot of activity in the location I had selected. The location was Gwanghwamun Plaza in central Seoul, a traditional centre of protest and anti-government activity as it is located close to the Korean president’s residence and to many government buildings and foreign embassies. The Plaza is currently dominated by activists protesting against what they see as their government’s inept and corrupt handling of the Sewol disaster in April 2014, where a ferry sank off the south coast of Korea causing the deaths of over 300 people including hundreds of school children from the same school. The activists include many parents of the student victims of the disaster, and on the day I decided to head down a group of the parents had decided to undertake a demonstration.

With the nature of the exercise in mind, I looked around for moments that told me something about the people around me, and this didn’t necessarily have to include the protesters in the Plaza. As I walked towards the centre of activity I noticed there were many people about and a few couples walking in the same direction. I had a couple of successful results in capturing revealing gestures, in these two examples the couples embrace or hold hands.


I decided to add these to this exercise as I felt these two images provide a stark contrast to the seriousness of the activities in the Plaza and add a bit of context to the city surrounds. Although perhaps “safe” gestures and commonly seen by all of us on a daily basis,  I feel this is a useful demonstration of the “decisive” moment.


When I arrived at the Plaza I was immediately struck by the white boiler suits the protesters had chosen to wear, and this immediately made them stand out from the crowd. The Plaza was very chaotic when I arrived, but eventually the bystanders were asked to make room for the protesters and I finally saw the moment to begin shooting.


The protesters then proceeded to begin bowing whilst a drum beat, possibly due to their buddhist or other religious heritage, and I suddenly saw many “moments” I could capture. It was finding the moment with the strongest composition, and which told the story of the scene the best that I had to wait for. I worked the scene from a variety of angles and with different timings and finished my roll of film very quickly! The contact sheet of the negatives below shows the process I went through to find the right moment. The image below is what I selected as the defining moment of the protest.


Despite what the two previous images seem to say about the scene, it was in fact quite a chaotic location and there were a lot of people mixing with the participants of the protest before and after. I aimed to capture this chaos and waited for the right moment that demonstrated the emotionally charged nature of the event.


This was a very difficult location and event to shoot, and I felt it was a great activity to fulfil the objectives of the set exercise. I feel I was successful in capturing the moments that tell the story of the scene, and it also showed me the value of working over a scene and looking for moments from different angles and experimenting with settings to find the final image. The contact sheet below shows my progression throughout the day, and how I ended up with the final series of images.


Exercise: Capturing the Moment