Fabulous 2016!

Photography helps me to make some sort of sense of the world!  With every photo that I make, I take small steps in interpreting and connecting with my environment and the people that I encounter. In the last year I have experienced some major lifestyle changes. I moved interstate and am now back living in a city.  After almost fifteen years in a small coastal town, I love the vibrancy of living in a more multicultural place – it feels like home.

I have been a regular visitor to South Korea for many years and 2016 was no exception when I spent five weeks photographing and exploring the east coast from Busan up to the North Korean border. Korea continues to be a favourite place to visit and photograph.

During my stay in Korea I received news that my eldest daughter was going to have a baby!  The happy thought of a new member in the family has warmly coloured the feel of this last year and we are looking forward to greeting our first grandchild later this month!

The past twelve months seemed to be dominated with kids and dogs.  Despite the old warning to ‘never work with children and animals,’ this was exactly what we seemed to have done for a big part of the year.  Not only did my youngest daughter come home with a rescue dog, hello Maxi!, my wife and I finished the year off with a ‘Healthy Dogs, Healthy Peoples’ project in far north Queensland.  Working in a remote aboriginal community was a rewarding and challenging opportunity and for us another chance to use storytelling and photography as a form of  communication.

Every year I try and select a set of photographs that best reflect the past year. Here are 16 from 2016.

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The Ghosts Of Okpo Land – Abandoned Amusement Park In South Korea

I am a regular traveller to South Korea. On Geoje Island, I learned of an abandoned amusement park overlooking the town. The fun park, called Okpo Land, had been closed down in 1999 due to a series of accidents, the last when a young girl tragically fell to her death from a ride.

The park, perched on top of a hill, was in the process of being reclaimed by the surrounding bushland. Although it was deserted, graffti, rubbish and empty beer bottles were evidence that it was still being used as a ‘fun park.’ On that day, I was the only person there, but I had an eerie feeling that I was not alone. Was it my imagination, or was there really a restless spirit inhabiting the area?

I have since returned to Geoje Island but Okpo Land has now been demolished to make room for a hotel. To honour the people who died at this site, author and storyteller Morgan Schatz Blackrose, and I have published a book dedicated to the lost souls of Okpo Land. You can download it as a PDF file for free here:  carousel

The Number 1 Bus to North Korea

It looked ominous. Suddenly we were surrounded by dozens of tanks and army personnel carriers. On every street corner soldiers stood guard. The sound of the tanks rumbling was only superseded by the occasional screech of fighter jets overhead.

The tranquility of our ride on Bus Number 1 along the east coast of South Korea had come to an end.  I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised, as Bus Number 1 from Sokcho heads up to the North Korean border. The destination for the day was the Demilitarised Zone in Goseong, also known as the DMZ. The observatory there is the closest to North Korea and the northernmost point of South Korea.  More than one million people visit this area on an annual basis. Visitors can see the Geumgangsan (Diamond Mountains) and the Haegeumgang in North Korea, and unlike many other observatories, there are no restrictions on photographs.

As luck would have it, the South Korean army was staging a military exercise, and this underlay the seriousness of the ongoing tension between North and South Korea. Looking out the window of the bus was like traveling back in time, as the villages had a 1950’s appearance.  This region is a long way from the modern mega-cities that are in other parts of the country.  The road winds its way north, past farmland and beautiful beaches. However there are constant reminders of where we are, as the beaches are fenced off with barbed wire and there are a number of observation lookouts along the coast. The threat of invasion from the North is still extant.

 After an hour’s bus ride we arrived at the last stop, a little bus depot on the side of the road. We then had to walk the last fifteen minutes to the DMZ registration office. It was a quiet day with only a few visitors and the souvenir shop vendors looked sleepy.  Once we registered ourselves, the officer ordered a taxi to take us to the observatory.  To get there we passed the border crossing between the two countries. There is a multi-laned highway leading up to several check points, however they are not operational. There is nowhere you can access North Korea from South Korea.  After passing a military checkpoint, where the car was carefully inspected including the boot, we were cleared to access the observatory.

There is a time limit of one hour to be on the site.  We were lucky to get the best taxi driver in Korea on the day, and he drove us right to the top of the observation point, saving us the walk up the hill from the carpark. He lent us his good binoculars then left while we explored the surreal environment that is the DMZ.  The first thing that struck me was how peaceful it was, after all it was still an active war site.  The weather had turned and we found ourselves looking into North Korea on a grey, misty day.  The sound of tank artillery from the distant military exercise by the South Korean’s gave the experience a poignant soundtrack. Up here at the observatory it was quiet, with only a handful of visitors, although the big viewing platform with many seats and mounted binoculars hinted at how many people frequented this place. However, it wasn’t just people looking across the border, also facing the one party dictatorship of North Korea were giant statues of Buddha and Mary; a symbolic gesture of the openness of South Korea.

The ride home on Bus Number 1 offered the same adventurous view as the journey north.  More tanks and army on the move, but by now we were used to them.  This was only an exercise and I can’t imagine the terror that the local population went through during the active War in 1950 – 1953.  I see the old people and know that many of them have families across the border, that they may never see again. A sombre feeling juxtaposed by the peaceful landscape that we were passing through.

Back in Sokcho, we finished the day off in the Abai Village, eating a delicious North Korean meal of Ojingeo Sundae (오징어 순대) stuffed squid sausage.  The village consists of a small group of houses and shops located on what used to be a sandbar offshore from the main city of Sokcho. As the North Korean army retreated from South Korea in 1950, a large number of North Koreans ended up trapped on the southern side of the newly established border between the two nations. With nowhere else to go, what began as temporary accommodation eventually became permanent.

My hope is that in the near future the Korean people will once again be united to live in peace and as one nation, and that Bus Number 1 will take passengers all the way to Pyongyang.

The Jeju Diary – My camera bag

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I am about to embark on a month long photo hike to Jeju Island, the largest island in South Korea.  Jeju is famous for three abundances, or samda: wind, stone and women.  These three abundances will be my guiding themes for my photographic project.  I will be hiking on the Jeju Olle, over 200km of connecting paths that will take travellers along the south coast of Jeju Island.  This network of hiking tracks Is inspired by the famous Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Here is my camera bag that I will be taking on the journey:

Olympus OMD EM1 with Panasonic 20mm f/1.7
(my main camera with only one lens, means I never have to worry about having to change focal length)
Lumix LX5
(My trusty, sharp, macro, zoom, landscape and always ready camera)
Fujifilm Instax mini 8 plus film
(The perfect ice breaker camera)
iPhone 4s
(It’s a phone, a computer and a camera … perfect)
Spare battery for the Olympus
extra SD cards
Polaroid filter
Camera cleaning gear
Business cards
Note book and pen
Swiss Army knife (I never travel without one!)

My camera bag is an old messenger bag that I bought about 10 years ago in Korea, I have many other bags but I keep coming back to this one.  It is kinda my Dr. Suess bag, old bag, new bag! It is now fitted with a camera box to protect the equipment.

Looking at the list it doesn’t look that light, considering I’ll be carrying a full back pack as well.  But this is about as minimal that I am prepared to go for this project.  I am not taking a laptop, only relying on the iPhone for quick editing if needed. (this works really well with the Olympus’s wifi capability) The phone also makes for a handy third camera. The Instax camera was a last minute decision and is a wonderful tool to break the language barrier. I love giving away photos to people that let me take pictures of them.

On top of fake mountain

I love mountains, which is probably not surprising, as I grew up in Switzerland.  One of my favourite places to visit is South Korea, a country that reminds me of Switzerland.  The Koreans are keen hikers, the train system is excellent and there are lots of mountains. When I first visited the port city of Tongyeong  in the South Gyeongsang Province a few years ago, I took a cable car ride to the top of Mireuksan mountain. From here you have one of the most spectacular views in South Korea. In clear weather, visitors can even see Tsushima Island (in Japan), Cheongwangbong Peak in Jirisan, and Dolsando in Yeosu.

I promised myself, that the day when my good friend Marcel Meier comes to visit Korea with me, I will take him here.  That day finally came last year, as the two of us spent one week in the county for a photo project.  I was really looking forward to revisiting the mountain and to show off some of Korea’s finest views.  Time was short and we only had one day in Tongyeong. Unfortunately the mountain cable car was closed for maintenance and would not be opened for a few weeks!  I was very disappointed but there was nothing we could do about it.  We took our cameras and headed for the local port near our hotel. It was here that we discovered another mountain range.  You won’t find these hills in any guide book!

Best of 2013

 

“Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable.”  Albert Camus

This year has been a busy one for me. I was lucky enough to travel for my photo and art projects.  My work continues to concentrate on time and space. I am exploring the essence of a place through its people and their environments.  In 2013 I visited some of my favourite countries; South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Switzerland, Turkey and of course my current home base, Australia.

The age of digital photography is both a blessing and a curse, resulting in 1000’s of images being taken. Selecting the right photos is more time-consuming than taking them. My working philosophy this year has been to narrow the images down to the essential, that is to capture the emotions of the people or places I am photographing.

Here is the selection of my 12 best images from 2013.