A photographer of one’s ownIn the Russian Far East in October of this year, photographer Park Jae-wan, 55, and his crew drove hundreds of miles from over a two-week period.
In each place they stopped, they were met by tens, and sometimes hundreds, of ethnic Koreans waiting at community centers or schools to have their pictures taken. The ethnic Koreans had often themselves traveled hundreds of miles from small rural towns in the hope of getting a memento they could leave their descendants.
Mr. Park’s own journey had begun three years earlier.
In 2003, while working for the public relations division of a subsidiary of KT Corp., Mr. Park went to the Russian Far East to produce a special article on ethnic Koreans in Russia to be published in the company’s monthly magazine. In Russia, he met hundreds of ethnic Koreans living in extreme poverty. Most had returned to the area from former Soviet republics in Central Asia, such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Mr. Park saw many living in rundown apartments on closed military bases without electricity, while farming wasteland using hoes and their bare hands.
One day, he went to a village and came across the humble funeral of an ethnic Korean whose hearse carried a very old faded photograph as the only indication of who he had been.
“The coffin was loaded on an old pickup truck and I saw a picture of a young man wearing a military uniform,” Mr. Park said.
Many of the people Mr. Park photographed asked for copies of their portraits. They said Korean television crews videotaped them and reporters took pictures of them, but they never saw their photographs. Few of them, if any, had their own cameras and the only photo shops were located in large cities far away.
After Mr. Park returned to Korea, he sent his photographs, along with letters, to the sitters in Russia. However, many of them were returned, marked “Address Unknown.” He thought he had written the addresses incorrectly in the Cyrillic alphabet, so he went to a university in Gwangju, where he resides, to ask Korean students studying Russian to readdress the letters, but again they came back.
Mr. Park then decided to travel back to the area with notebook computers and color printers and take and develop photographs of ethnic Koreans, so they could have them right away. In 2005, he boarded a ship from Sokcho, Gangwon province, for a two-day crossing of the East Sea (Sea of Japan) to the Russian Far East, with 18 other Koreans including an ethnic Korean interpreter. In one week, he took pictures of 450 people in cities including Usurisk and Novonezhno.
In May 2006, he won a grand prize in an essay contest for diabetes patients ― Mr. Park suffers from diabetes and gingival cancer ― sponsored by a German pharmaceutical company. The essay was about his journey to Russia. As his prize, the company paid most of the costs of Mr. Park’s October trip. Mr. Park, his team of photographers and a nurse took with them 10 suitcases containing clothes, gloves and kitchenware to distribute, as well as candy for the children. He visited five cities and took pictures of 600 people, mostly senior citizens.
“This time I felt I was more involved. They live very harsh lives. I felt that they were related to me by blood,” Mr. Park said.
Many of Mr. Park’s portrait subjects traveled two or three hours or several hundred miles to get to where he was taking photos. “Some of them took a train for more than seven hours to have their pictures taken. It was heartbreaking,” he said.
The effort to travel in a strange land and take pictures of hundreds of ethnic Koreans was worthwhile, he said, but was not without problems. While traveling, Mr. Park’s blood sugar level went up to dangerous levels.
During the 2005 trip, the police arrested Mr. Park’s son and son-in-law in Vladivostok because they went sightseeing in the port city, traveling beyond the areas indicated in their travel permit. Mr. Park paid 2,000 roubles ($76) to the police for them to be released.
The travel permit rules were very strict in Russia. Mr. Park’s wife said, “When I returned to Korea, I felt like I had escaped from confinement.”
After the October trip, Mr. Park hoped to return again, but surgery to treat his cancer delayed that plan. He is scheduled for more surgery in March.
Mr. Park said next time he wants to go to Central Asian countries that have large ethnic Korean populations. He hopes to find sponsors to help finance the trip.
“If I can take photographs for 100,000 people, I would consider that a success,” Mr. Park said.
According to the Koryosaram Aid & Sharing Movement, Koreans started emigrating to Russia as early as the 1860s. In 1869, 10,000 people settled in the Russian Far East because of a famine in the north of the peninsula. After Korea became a Japanese colony, more Koreans emigrated to Russia.
Between Sept. 21 and Nov. 15 of 1937, Stalin’s government forced ethnic Koreans ― 36,442 households of 171,781 people ― to move to Central Asia. They were transported in freight trains without windows. Each separate train journey, of which there were 124, took 40 days and covered 6,000 kilometers. No food was provided on the train and, on average, 60 percent of the children died. The survivors were released onto barren land, and many died during winter. According to a sample survey in 1938, 42 out of 1,000 people perished, including 20 percent of infants.
The ethnic Koreans strove to become government employees, teachers, doctors, researchers and heads of collective farms, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 they again had to face harsh realities. Former Soviet Union republics became independent and nationalism and Islam swept the countries. The mostly Russian-speaking ethnic Koreans were fired from their jobs and forced to learn the indigenous languages of each country. Many ethnic Koreans decided to move back to the Russian Far East, which they called their “fatherland,” and many became illegal immigrants in Russia. A total of 550,000 ethnic Koreans live in the former Soviet republics and Russia.
by Limb Jae-un