Exercise: Exploring function

For the first exercise of Part 3 of the course, I will be using my images from Danwon High School. I approached this shoot with this module in mind, and this fits into the first exercise brief nicely.

I had previously photographed the interview of two fathers whose children had perished in the Sewol ferry disaster in April 2014, and this project followed on from the interview. Myself and one more photographer were permitted access to the school to shoot the classrooms of the students who were lost last year. Most of the 2nd Grade perished in the disaster and many of the classrooms sat completely empty of students and teachers for the remainder of the year.

The focus of my images was to be the classroom space itself, the school the students spent so much of their time learning and growing into young adults. An empty school is slightly eerie but knowing why these classrooms stood empty was harrowing and shocking. I aimed to get across the design of the space and how it is intended to be used. I found the functionality of the classroom – empty chairs and desks, unused books, lockers with students names on – takes on a new, special significance when set in the context of the terrible events of last year, and my images convey something of this meaning to the viewer.

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See the project write up here:

william513082a.prosite.com/395493/5935459/gallery/danwon-…

And in Photographers in Korea magazine:

www.madeinkorea.photography/photo-essays/sewol-a-tribute/

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Exercise: Exploring function

Assignment 2: A public event

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There has been quite a lengthy gap between shooting the photos for this assignment and writing my reflection – a gap that I hadn’t planned but I’ve been happy with the time for reflection. I shot the “activity” itself two months ago in Korea, and I have been thinking over my choice of subject matter carefully.

Myself and another photographer had been asked to shoot an interview of families of the victims of the April 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in Korea, a tragedy that saw the loss of 300 people including over 200 school children. I shot the interview of two of the fathers of children lost in the disaster, who have been protesting since last year against the government’s handling of the accident and what they see as cover ups by the those at the top. The interview took place in Gwanghwamun square in the centre of Seoul, in close proximity to many government offices and not far from the President’s house.

I went into the shoot with some nerves as I realised the sensitive nature of the event and the fact that I may not have much time to get my shots. I was also aware that I may not have much control therefore I went in aiming to capture shots documenting the interview rather than attempting to intervene and pose the subjects. This was also in line with the requirements for Assignment two, so I looked for the “moments” that told the story and explained the event.

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The interview started off quite tense for all parties, the interviewer was not a Korean speaker and the fathers could not speak English so there was a translator at the ready. I noticed immediately how tired the fathers looked and they both talked quietly and softly in response to the first set of questions. 

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The father above was much more animated and you could clearly see that he spoke for the pair as he was willing to give longer answers and warmed up to the interview much faster than the other.

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The father above was more pensive and reserved and you could see the sense of hopelessness and desperation etched into his face over the state of the protest. It is worth noting that these two men (along with many other families of the victims of the sinking) have been living in the square for the entire time since the sinking. At the time of the interview this was 10 months. They sleep in tents in Gwanghwamun square, wash in subway station toilets, and refuse to give up their vigil until they have received a satisfactory explanation of what happened to their children.

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As the interview wore on, I noticed the other father started to warm up to the questions and gave an extremely vivid and heartfelt account of the day he went to pick up his son’s body and went into the public mortuary to identify him for the police. As he gave this account the translator (see photo above) looked incredibly moved and struggled with the rest of the translation for the questions.

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As the interview wrapped up we thanked the fathers who thanked us in turn and asked for our future support for the Sewol parents’ cause. We walked outside with the fathers who retreated to their tent for some lunch and we melted back into the busy Seoul crowds. The shot above shows a part of Gwanghwamun square, the ribbons tied to the benches are in support of the Sewol parents protest.

Overall it was a difficult event to shoot and I was happy with the final set of images. I shot both digital and film shots, but once again found the frames from the roll I shot on the day better captured the intensely personal moments of the interview. If I was to shoot it again I would approach with perhaps a different aim in mind, focusing not just on straight portraits of the subjects but perhaps aim to capture different gestures, a range of expressions, or focusing on different body parts such as hands or the back of the head. Not being able to control the shoot was a strange scenario for myself as I have had little experience of documenting events and journalistic scenarios such as magazine interviews. Some control over the shoot would have been welcome and I would have liked to set up portraits of the fathers rather than shooting as they talked, but for the shots I did get I was pleased with the consistency, and the fact it showed a few personal moments from a difficult interview.

Assignment 2: A public event

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:

http://william513082a.prosite.com/395493/5935459/gallery/danwon-remembers

Danwon High School Project