Filial photography catches hope in a fishing net
My father is a fisherman. But he is not an ordinary fisherman: He sees fish with his heart and not with eyes. He lost his sight 10 years ago due to complications from diabetes. Trapped in darkness, the sea is his only light. He walks slowly to the fishing nets beyond the foreshore about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away from home twice a day, during low tide. He almost died when he fell into the water and when he stayed too long in the fishing nets without recognizing that the tide was rising. After these incidents, I didn’t expect him to go to the fishing nets again, and I decided I wouldn’t let him go again. But the next day, he tossed on his boots and bulky mesh bag as usual. I only look at him from a distance. I take photos of him smiling, examining fish by their smell, sensing whether they’re mullet or hogfish, and barely managing to mend torn-up nets after several fruitless attempts. I hold back tears when I press the shutter. By now, I’ve taken thousands of photos of him.
My son is taking photos. When I pull the fish out of the net, I can hear a run of clicking sounds from the camera shutter. I regret that I can’t see the photos he takes. Because of me, he dropped out of college and came down to this island to live with me. Instead of dissuading his obstinate father from going out to sea, he made a rope that guides me to the fishing nets. I call the rope a “life cord.” My son follows me when I walk to the nets, feeling the rope [which is on the ground] with my stick. I am, of course, afraid of the dark sea, of the unknown. But I’m still going to the foreshore, recognizing where the wind is blowing from with my cheeks, and the direction with the sunshine above my head. My son understands that these fishing nets, which could be torn up at any time by the raging waves, is all that’s left to me.
These two, father and son, live on Seonjae Island, off Incheon. The father, Kim Seon-ho, 64, had been a carpenter and a smith, but lost his vision. In despair, he stopped eating for 10 days. His son, Kim Yeon-yong, at that time was in the military; the son recieved a letter informing him of his father’s condition, and he returned to the island. No longer able to do carpentry, the father fixed a fishing net off the shore. The son built a house with a clear view of the fishing nets. The two make a living renting out rooms to travelers and running a restaurant, “Scent of the Sea,” broiling the fish the father catches. From time to time, the son looks over the foreshore with a pair of binoculars to check if the father has fallen into the sea. After checking it several times, he rides a tractor to the foreshore. He walks around his father, saying that he’s just taking photos.
It’s 5:40 a.m. I’m on the way home after staying up the night at a friend’s house; the friend has recently lost a family member. Looking at the sea, I see a dark shade moving on the foreshore. Father has already gone out to check if the net was damaged by the strong winds. Should I take him back on the tractor? But I feel really tired now. I’ll get him after taking a rest for a while. I thought I slept for only a few minutes, but it’s already bright outside. I jump up. Father is sleeping next to me. I blame myself. One day, father got vertigo and fell down on the way back home alone. He couldn’t move at all because of his hypoglycemia, and he said he chewed on the fish he had just caught in order to survive until someone came to rescue him. When the neighbors brought him back, I vowed that I would take him back on my own as often as possible. I look into his sleeping face: The mucus in the corners of his eyes and his deep hollowed cheeks. I should have taken him back and not thought about resting.
When I come back from the foreshore, I hear my son sleeping peacefully. His forehead is covered with sweat. He must have been really tired staying up all night at the friend’s house. I’m sure he’ll give me an earful when he wakes up ― I should have just stayed at home when there’s yellow sand and it’s cold. Whenever he grumbles, I pretend I don’t hear it and just turn my back. The tide, after all, goes in and out. I wake up several times at dawn, thinking of the fish that might be tangled up in the net. If I don’t come at the right time, the fishing nets where the water flows off become a grave for them. I shouldn’t be so greedy, even when I’m lucky to find many fish in my net. As I’m a slow worker, I need to leave by the time I’ve grabbed only a few fish. Once I stayed a bit longer, saying “one more, one more” ― I could have died. In just a few seconds the cold water had gone up to my knees. I thought, “If only I could see, I could have done it 10 times faster,” but didn’t say it out loud, because my son, for sure, thought about that as well. Since then, my son turns on loud music around the time that the tide starts coming in. When I hear the music, I prepare to come back home and leave my greed on the beach.
At first, Yeon-yong held his father back, telling him to stop working at sea and to stay at home. But one day when he prepared to go to the fishing nets alone, he saw his father hanging his head, and realized that the father was not happy. He realized that he hadn’t ever asked his father what kind of life he wants, thinking that a devoted son wouldn’t let his blind father go to the rough sea. Yeon-yong bought a stick that has a hook on the end, and strong nylon strings to make a rope to the fishing nets. During the 30-minute walk to the foreshore, the smile never left his father’s face.
“When my father’s story was broadcast, and I wrote a book with photos of him, people made cynical remarks, suggesting I was making money by selling my dad. But I don’t care anymore, because respecting his decision and watching over him are the ways I love my father,” Yeon-yong said.
He will hold his second exhibition of his photos at Gallery Hwan in Insa-dong, central Seoul, from June 14 to 20.
by Shin Eun-jin