Photos capture political upheaval in Korea

By 이우영

Photo books by U.S. diplomat and Korean veteran photojournalist chronicle tumultuous periods in history

  • Published : Jan 4, 2016 - 18:09
  • Updated : Jan 4, 2016 - 18:09

Photographers are perhaps the most observant participants of major historical moments. They are at some of the most tumultuous events, capturing in a split second what will become an important new chapter in history.

Two dedicated witnesses of Korean history have recently published photo books offering glimpses into Korea’s turbulent moments in history.

The Seoul Museum of History published a book, featuring 174 pictures taken by Willard Straight (1880-1918), who lived in Korea for a total of five years -- one year as a Reuters correspondent and the next four years as a diplomat -- in the early 20th century. The museum uncovered the old photo archives of Straight at Cornell University and compiled them into a photo book. 

Japanese soldiers march in front of Sungnyemun Gate. (Seoul Museum of History)

“The book includes rare photos with significant academic value that are shown for the first time. It is a great material that offers understanding in early 20th century Seoul,” said Kang Hong-bin, president of the Seoul Museum of History, in a press release marking the book’s publication.

Straight visited Korea and Japan during the Russo-Japanese War from 1904 to 1905 to document the tumultuous time in East Asia and revisited Korea as vice consul of the U.S. Embassy in Seoul from 1905-1909.

The selected photos in the book are grouped by different places and events he witnessed during his time in Korea, such as the U.S. legation, a state funeral presumed to be for Empress Myeongheon, Russo-Japanese War in Seoul and visit to Korea by Alice Roosevelt, daughter of then U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.

Straight documented the process of Japanese colonization in Korea, capturing the Japanese soldiers marching toward Namdaemun Gate in the center of Seoul and Japanese delegations, including Ito Hirobumi and his officials taking a commemorative photo after signing the Japan-Korea Treaty, which deprived Korea of its sovereignty. 
“Eulsa Treaty commemorative photo,” taken Nov. 28, 1905, features Ito Hirobumi and Japanese officials after the signing of the Eulsa Treaty or Japan-Korea Protectorate Treaty, which deprived Korea of its diplomatic sovereignty. (Seoul Museum of History)

Photos taken at the U.S. legation, now the residence of the U.S. Ambassador, reveal the early lives of U.S. diplomats in Korea.

Straight had documented interior and exterior of the U.S. Embassy building, revealing its mix of Korean and Western styles. While the building was a traditional Korean house, or hanok, its interior was completely remodeled to suit the American lifestyle, with carpets on the floor, tables and chairs and electric lamps standing at every corner of the room. A photo of staff at the embassy reveals an interesting mix of Koreans, Chinese and Japanese who worked as household staff.

“The Cornell University Library Willard Dickerman Straight Photography Collection on Seoul” is available for viewing at major public libraries in Seoul. It can be purchased at the new Seoul City Hall library for 15,000 won ($12.70).

Another photo book published by veteran photojournalist Kwon Joo-hoon is an honest visual documentation of 47 years of political upheaval in Korea.

Kwon, who has worked at major news outlets such as Kyunghyang Shinmun, Hankook Ilbo, DongA Ilbo and Newsis, has compiled 200 photos of some of the most tumultuous historical events from the 1970s to the present. 
A Seoul National University student jumps off a school building after setting himself on fire in protest against the authoritarian Chun Doo-hwan government in this photo taken May 20, 1986. (Kwon Joo-hoon)

The selected photos include scoops that won him several journalism awards and stirred uproar in Korean society, such as a photo of a Seoul National University student jumping off a school building after setting himself on fire in protest against the authoritarian Chun Doo-hwan regime in 1986.

Feeling guilty for failing to prevent the student’s death, Kwon recalled later: “I still feel pain in my heart as I was not be able to jump and rescue him, but remained as a chronicler.”

The tragic death of the 24-year-old student sparked outrage among college students, leading to similar deaths of students nationwide. But no news outlets reported on the series of deaths, fearing the Korean government’s censorship. Kwon’s photo was the only one to be published, carried in the Hankook Ilbo on May 22, 1986, two days after the incident.

Kwon’s photos also offer insight into the evolution of the Korean National Assembly. 
Dark smoke rises as placards are burned after presidential candidate Roh Tae-woo’s campaign rally is dispersed on Dec. 12, 1987. (Kwon Joo-hoon)

While covering legislators for 40 years, Kwon recorded major events at the National Assembly, including breakups of coalitions, constitutional reforms, presidential inaugurations and controversies surrounding free trade agreements and fistfights between lawmakers.

By Lee Woo-young (