In Korean culture, the word “hometown” means more than just the place you grew up. It’s a word infused with sentimentality, longing, love and connection. And it’s something I think many Americans like me – transient as we are – probably don’t feel in the same way that Koreans do.
An example: During major holidays in South Korea, EVERYONE beelines for their hometown, resulting in traffic jams of eight hours and more out of Seoul (where 20% of the population lives) to the rest of the country. In normal traffic, the longest it takes to drive from one end of South Korea to the other is about five hours. To not be able to visit your hometown is one of the saddest situations for a Korean; one well-known Korean song begins, “I miss my hometown and I can’t even go.”
And so it was that I spent the recent Chuseok (Thanksgiving) holiday with hundreds of Koreans who can’t visit their hometowns because those places are in North Korea. Instead, all these people gathered at Imjingak, a park on the border with North Korea. This is as close as they’ll ever get to their hometowns. Here, on an outdoor stage-like area under a blazing sun, these yisan-kajok (separated families) performed all the Chuseok ancestral rituals – such as food and drink offerings and bowing to honor your deceased relatives – that you would normally carry out in your hometown. The South Korean government has organized this Chuseok gathering for the last 46 years.
Most yisan-kajok came south before and during the Korean War and ended up permanently separated from their families. More than 80% of them are 70 and older, according to the South Korean Red Cross. “I just want to see my hometown one more time before I die,” was something I heard over and over at Imjingak.
Looking at North Korea. Thousands of South Koreans have been separated from their hometowns and families in the north since the Korean War ended in 1953. They’ll likely never see either before they die.
Lining up to perform ancestral rituals for Chuseok at Imjingak. Directly behind the offering area is the wooden Bridge of Freedom, built specifically to exchange Korean War POWs; a functioning railroad bridge (back left) that takes tourist from Imjingak and points south to the last stop in South Korea, Dorasan; and the old railroad bridge (back right).
Traditionally, Koreans bow all the way to the ground during these rituals, but Christians often don’t because it’s considered idol worship.
Standing during the national anthem as the official Chuseok program started at Imjingak. More than 80% of South Koreans separated from their families in the north are 70 and older.
I love that this man broke out his harmonica to accompany the band’s playing of the national anthem.
Speeches, speeches, speeches under the noon-day sun. I thought the event organizers could have thrown up some tents for all these mostly elderly people to sit under. At least the organizers provided these humongous blue-and-white striped paper hats.
Is it too late to share my 2015 video reel? This is my first one, and it actually encompasses work from 2013-2014 plus a couple clips from before then. I enjoyed editing this and remembering all these wonderful people, their stories, and the fantastic friends and colleagues I worked with on these stories. The music is from Podington Bear’s Sound of Picture library.
Laura Elizabeth Pohl 2015 Reel from Laura Elizabeth Pohl on Vimeo.
I was excited when The Chronicle of Higher Education photo editor Erica Lusk contacted me about documenting a day in the life of Kepler Kigali, one of Rwanda’s newest universities. Kigali’s a small town, so I already knew about Kepler, and their model intrigued me. Kepler uses massive open online courses (MOOCs) in conjunction with in-person teaching so students can earn an associate degree through Southern New Hampshire University. All the students are from disadvantaged backgrounds (they’re genocide orphans, come from very poor families, etc.) and for now, the university is free to its students.
I was sent to photograph during student orientation week. When I was an undergrad, I remember orientation covering topics like responsible drinking, how to register for classes, and where to access psychological services. At Kepler, the day’s orientation included a presentation on self-confidence and personal responsibility.
After the morning’s lectures, all 50 students broke for lunch. Everyone carried their plastic chairs from the lecture room to a tent outside, where they sat and enjoyed a hot lunch and drinks provided by Kepler Kigali.
The skies were clear and beautiful when lunch started. But this being rainy season, a tremendous storm poured down after about 30 minutes. I really felt like the tent might blow away. All the women scattered back into the orientation building as soon as signs of a storm appeared. Most of the men stayed under the tent until they absolutely had to leave. I stayed with them – good pictures, right? – and hoped they would go inside soon.
Back inside, one young woman laughed at another who had left a banana on a seat for her friend. Even though the students had just met a few days earlier, they all seemed like fast friends, all happiness and excitement. I talked with several students who were beyond thrilled to be going to college – they hadn’t thought it would really be possible for them due to the financial burden. One of the Kepler administrators I spoke with said it will cost about $1,000 per yer to educate each student.
During an orientation workshop earlier in the week, students wrote down the names of their male and female role models. Among the most popular? Nelson Mandela and Jeannette Kagame, the First Lady of Rwanda.
The actual classroom space was still under construction when I visited, so I spent some time documenting the progress. In the picture above, a welder constructs a table. All furniture for Kepler Kigali is custom-made because it’s about the same price or slightly less expensive than importing it.
Kepler Kigali is the brainchild of Generation Rwanda, a nonprofit that has been offering university scholarships to underprivileged Rwandan students since 2004. A Generation Rwanda graduate made and gave this token of thanks to the program’s staff. He graduated from a Rwandan university in 2012 with a civil engineering degree.
I’ve already posted several photos of the hanbok dyeing room at Yemi Hanbok in China, but here are a few more from that shoot. The wonderful window light and beautiful color hypontized me. It was like a fluorescent cotton candy machine exploded over half the room. I felt like I was in a cartoon, though in a cartoon I wouldn’t have to worry about becoming pink myself (you know, pink is not my favorite color at all). And I imagine a cartoon wouldn’t have such poor ventilation and toxic fumes. I never felt so jealous of a person wearing a gas mask. I wasn’t there to do a story on working conditions – and honestly, this factory is probably 100 times safer and cleaner and brighter than most factories in the world – but boy did I want a fan in there for this woman who dyes fabric all day, six days a week.
Everyone jostled their way out of the bus and spread out in an empty dirt parking lot in the waning twilight. The bus driver cranked up a CD of dance music. I suddenly realized all the Yaemi Hanbok employees were going to dance. And this after a four-hour bus ride to Jingpohu (a national park in Heilongjiang province) that started at 4am and 10 hours spent walking and hiking and wandering and eating and playing. Even Yaemi Hanbok founder Ryu Sung-ok in her pink company t-shirt joined the dance. I thought this was some spontaneous exertion but Johanna found out the factory workers start their work day with 30 minutes of dancing whenever possible, led by the girl above wearing white. Although I’m sure something like this wouldn’t fly in the US, everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Certainly, it was an interesting way to end a company picnic.
Sometimes you start your day interviewing a Korean fashion designer in her factory and you end your day picking corn and hot peppers with her at her small farm about an hour outside the city. Johanna and I spent a full and fun day with Ryu Sung-ok but the full report will have to wait until later. I need to go to sleep because we’re getting up at 2:45 am to join Ryu and her employees on a very early picnic. We’re still not quite sure why this outing starts before sunrise. It should be interesting!