Ulsan man can’t get enough of Bangudae glyphs

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Ulsan man can’t get enough of Bangudae glyphs

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Kim Tae-kwan, the former honorary custodian of the Bangudae engravings, said “I’m not a professional photographer, but I hope my photos raise the awareness of the preservation issues of the petroglyphs” By Kwon Hyuk-jae

Kim Tae-kawn has a collection of 8,000 photos of Bangudae petroglyphs he has taken over the last eight years.

He didn’t start photographing them until he was appointed honorary custodian of the heritage site in March 2000, but the 65-year-old amateur photographer was stunned by the landscape the moment he saw it.

He recalled his impressions to a reporter. “I was speechless when I saw the rock art in full sunlight. It seemed like the whales, deer and tigers on the rock were dancing together,” he said.

The Bangudae engravings, located in the southeastern city of Ulsan, are prehistoric petroglyphs featuring 300 drawings of animals, humans and hunting tools of the period.

The 10-meter (33-feet) wide and four-meter high petroglyphs are presumed to have been made some time between the late Neolithic period and the Bronze Age and were designated as the 285th National Treasure in 1995.

Unfortunately, the treasures are in crisis as they have spent up to 140 days a year submerged after the construction of the Sayeon Dam in the 1960s.

The central government, the Ulsan city government and civil activists have long argued over the situation, finally reaching a consensus on June 16 after a decade of conflict, to build a transparent dike-like movable dam.

Although the measure has still drawn some controversy over its feasibility, it provides temporary relief for many people. Among them may be Kim Tae-kwan, who used to take pictures of them every day, rain or shine.

He has lived a 10- to 15-minute walk away from the site for over a decade. But he was too busy eking out a living to visit the place. He explained how he started to take so many snapshots. “I felt compelled to record the scene by taking pictures,” he said. At first, he mainly focused on the engravings but later expanded to the surrounding nature.

Now he has four albums thick with 1,000 photos of the engravings and the backdrops that show every aspect of the petroglyphs, from land cracked by drought under the cliffs to petroglyphs fully submerged in water as well as covered in a blanket of snow.

As the water began to rise and flood the 8,000-year-old petroglyphs, Kim documented the progress of the rising level of the water. His note reads the waters began rising on June 2006 and completely swallowed the engravings on July 19 in the same year.

He also documented the times when they are fully bathed in sunshine like five minutes from 5:10 p.m. on March 5, 2001.

From time to time, his fascination with the ruins caused his wife to complain, “He is wasting his time. I guess he must have been an engraver in the Stone Age in a previous life.”

Kim said “I am not a professional photographer or heritage expert. I don’t even know anything about camera techniques like how to take angles. But I felt somehow obligated to do it as a custodian who safeguards the petroglyphs.”

Kim mentioned a time when a throng of foreigners visited the spot without knowing it was submerged.

“I felt ashamed that I had to tell those visitors who had come all that way that they came at the wrong time.” After seeing the moss growing over the art after the water ebbed, Kim felt a rush of anger.

As the issue has gained traction, his photos are being newly valued. Recently, some of them were featured in a book, “The History of Bangudae Engravings In Photos,” published by Yemac, a Korean publishing company.

After quitting his custodian job in 2008, he is now working as a taxi driver. Now he can’t visit the place as often as he once did. But his love for it endures as he says “Every time I take pictures, I notice they are being worn away, which really breaks my heart. We should stop arguing over the problem and find a way to preserve them.”

BY LEE YOUNG-HEE [estyle@joongang.co.kr]

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