I’ve always divided my life into two parts: before and after I went to Korea. I arrived at Kunsan in August of 1970, age 22, to spend a year as a weather observer at Kunsan Air Force Base. I had never been out of the United States before, much less lived in Asia. The image of Korea in my mind had mostly been formed by stark black and white photos and newsreels from the Korean War era. The first night, my new roommate, Ed Trout, showed me around downtown Kunsan. He took me to a restaurant, ordered bulgogi, and showed me how to use chopsticks. I was pleasantly surprised to find I had come to a colorful, inviting place… with good food.
An unfortunate marriage had just ended and, not being anxious to return home, I looked forward to exploring this completely new world. I bought a Yashica 35mm camera and found that Koreans enjoyed being photographed. The first things I noticed were the delightful children that were everywhere, and the innate dignity and good nature of the people I came into contact with. That’s what I tried to capture in my photographs.
Apart from Kunsan, the place that drew me back over and over again was the city of Chonju. I loved the beautiful park with the observation pavilion and the friendly people, many unused to seeing westerners. Whenever I had a couple of days free, I went there and stayed in a small hotel I had discovered. My whole year was spent in these two cities, and I think I captured some very special images from this corner of a rapidly changing Korea.
I recently read an article in The Financial Times, titled “South Korea Wallows in Existential Angst”. It talked about how, despite the amazing prosperity of modern Korea, the intense pressures of school exams, finding and keeping a good job, and an uncertain future weigh heavily on people. Wealthy Koreans feel the emptiness of “Gangnam Style” and gross materialism, and ask “Is this all there is?”, just as folks in the U.S. and Europe have been doing for years. And they can remember a different Korea not so many years ago.
The young people in my photographs, now in their 50s and 60s, are the generation that built Korea into the world-class economic powerhouse that it is today. I’ve come to feel as if these are my children; that I’ve cared for them for more than forty years, and now they’re going out into the world.
Michael Leonard Fogarty
New York City