Gwangju: Voice of the Voiceless
Words by Oisin Feeney
Photographs by Kyeongcheol Park
Kyeongcheol has been living in Gwangju for 26 years. He found his passion for photography in this city but it was no easy journey. As he says himself:
“After my family went bankrupt suddenly, I recall having almost 20 different types of jobs, from working as a construction worker to a delivery boy. Fortunately, I found photography and it became my life.”
Kyeongcheol is a true blue documentary photographer. He is fascinated by people and by individual lives co-existing together in Korea. His photos are usually shot in black and white and offer no frills; he keeps processing to an absolute minimum. For me his style is raw, intimate and emotive. Each photo imbues its own strong sense of identity. I love the composition in his photos; his use of shapes and reflections is stunning. I asked him how he creates such interesting images shooting in Gwangju:
“Despite the familiarity, I discover something new every day through photography. Ordinary people are my favorite subjects. I see truth in their world. I see meaning in their life. Each life has a story and each person has a story worth remembering. For me, ordinary people are extraordinary.”
His photos focus on people going about their day to day lives but they don’t feel intrusive or forced. Many photographers struggle with this when it comes to taking pictures of people. Capturing a natural expression or shooting in an intimate location is not an easy thing to do. I asked Kyeongcheol how he overcame this issue to take such special photos and he had this to say: “Social relationships are very valued in our society. I have to approach my subjects and attempt to be their friend first. Yet most of the time, they usually reject me and push me away as they do not want their lives to be documented and exposed to the public. As a South Korean I completely understand their temperament so I would visit them again and again to gradually gain their trust. Only until I get their consent and after they let me into their world, I photograph their stories realistically.”
But why does he enjoy photographing people so much? There are two reasons. The first is that he wants to share with the world the unique way in which he views his own people; “Generally, South Koreans are very modest people. If we do not take up a high position in the society, we see ourselves as ordinary people and we keep our lives to ourselves. So most of the time, we remain very courteous and reserved. On the contrary, I believe that every ordinary person is extraordinary. Sometimes, the most ordinary people in the most difficult situations display the most remarkable traits. They exhibit great values and attitudes in life so I want to document their extraordinariness through photography”.
As well as that Kyeongcheol is very influenced by the Social Realism art movement in Korea. Through photography he is enabling and empowering the voiceless members of Korean society:
“I like to write the everyday stories of working classes, the young, the poor and the old through my photography. For me, every individual is unique and equal before my lenses. My photographs show realistic reflections of simple, everyday people and occasions. As a documentary photographer, to keep my photographs as realistic as possible, I like to present my photographs and my subjects the way I see them in reality.”
For the immediate future Kyeongcheol will continue to document people. But he is not a passive photographer; he also wants to enact change to improve people’s lives. His most recent project involved revamping an abandoned shelter to improve the quality of life for the local people in the area. He truly cares about his community and I hope he continues to take such unique photos of the people in his country.