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Seoul snaps: Capturing the big picture

January 29, 2015
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Walking through Seoul today with its neon lights and coffee shops, where every person is on a smartphone and K-pop streams out open doorways, it’s easy to forget just how far the city has come. Rocketing away from its devastated, post-Korean War state, Seoul has attained economic prosperity, fashion superstardom and the world’s fastest Internet connections—and all in a little more than 60 years.

With this new prosperity, the city has exploded with trendy restaurants and shops. Corporations—with the government’s support—have flattened entire neighborhoods to build swaths of identical, high-rise apartments in their place. Such redevelopment doesn’t just change Seoul’s skyline; it also obliterates what was beneath it. Deciding what should stay and what should go raises difficult gentrification issues that trouble every city in flux.

Seoul’s voracious development has consumed much of its ancient history, but one notable holdout is a collection of small, older neighborhoods that younger residents and visitors are now calling Seochon. Seochon, a residential district noted for its hanoks—or traditional Korean houses—mom-and-pop shops, and alleys, has recently found favor among younger residents. Seochon’s residents are feeling the tension of their neighborhood’s rising popularity as businesses that appeal to tourists begin to crowd out businesses that provision the neighborhood. Even neighborhood fixtures struggle to compete with the new businesses that cater to the tourists who arrive every weekend to visit Seochon’s galleries and restaurants—and take and share pictures of themselves doing so on social media.

The pictures and social media are of particular interest to Nora Hauk, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of Michigan.

“Many residents worry that Seochon is in danger of transitioning from a quiet residential neighborhood to a tourist site frequented by young Seoulites,” she says. “I am looking at the way they’re using digital photography and social media to tell the story of neighborhood change.

Construction equipment is just as common as traditional hanok homes in Seochun and other districts of Seoul.  (Photo by Nora Hauk)

Construction equipment is just as common as traditional hanok homes in Seochun and other districts of Seoul. (Photo by Nora Hauk)

“I’m interested in how photography is widely used both as a means of consumption and as a means to make social critique,” she continues. “I am also interested in the way Seoulites commemorate their activities through photography, and how they circulate those photographs on the web.”

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A sociocultural anthropology graduate student, Hauk has spent extended periods of time in Seoul getting to know its residents and its neighborhoods.

“I first lived in Seochon in the summer of 2009. At that time, it was a relatively quiet residential neighborhood filled with a mix of traditional hanoks and multi-family villas, comingled with small businesses. There were already some galleries, restaurants, and cafes, but when I moved back in 2012, I noticed even more, and the changes really seemed to speed up this year.”

Until recently, Seochon has largely been protected from the redevelopment that’s blazed through Seoul. The Korean presidential residence, whose presence limits surrounding buildings to a certain height, is on one side, and a small mountain called Inwangsan is on the other.

There has also been neighborhood opposition to the scale of redevelopment that has swept through other neighborhoods in Seoul. Seochon is certainly the site of a great deal of construction, but in Seochon construction moves building-by-building rather than engulfing the entire district. The result: Seochon’s relative lack of redevelopment gives it an appealing charm which, in turn, has drawn tourists and the businesses that serve them. But that, in turn, accelerates the rate at which valued neighborhood establishments, such as rice sellers who don’t cater to tourists, disappear.

Real-time Lag

Seoul’s culture thrives on Korea’s blistering Internet speed. More than 78 percent of South Korea’s residents use smartphones, compared to 56 percent of U.S. residents. When you narrow the population to 18–24-year-olds, that number surges to a stunning 97 percent. This suggests, notes Hauk, that there are more people taking and sharing digital photographs in Seoul than anywhere else in the world.

A sign for a store that rents comic books to readers. The shops are closing across Seoul as people find new ways to consume media online. (Photo by Nora Hauk)

A sign for a store that rents comic books to readers. The shops are closing across Seoul as people find new ways to consume media online. (Photo by Nora Hauk)

“Many people who come to Seochon to go to a cafe or restaurant on weekends come with their cameras in hand to take pictures of popular sites,” Hauk said. “And while most people carry cell phone cameras all the time, many visitors to Seochon come with larger DSLRs [digital cameras] to take pictures of the neighborhood space.”

While tourists take and share photos of Seochon’s winding alleys and artistic latte designs, Seochon’s residents point their cameras at the piles of plastic cups the tourists leave behind. Residents photograph the owners of longstanding neighborhood businesses closing their shops for the last time, and they post these images to social media sites, such as neighborhood Facebook groups.

“Residents use photography in many ways: to document violations of rules or code, to garner support or to protest development,” she said.

Space Case

In jam-packed Seoul, the social meaning of space has a long, charged history. During the Japanese occupation, the Japanese government rearranged space in the city to communicate who held authority—and who didn’t. They turned the city’s palaces, which had previously been the center of governance, into civic parks and public monuments and stripped them of governmental authority. Their municipal redesign turned Seoul’s residents into colonial subjects.

In the decades since the occupation, the Korean government has invested significantly to restore the city’s monuments to their pre-colonial past. Given its proximity to the central palace, such acts particularly affected Seochon.

Issues concerning space continue to be in play in Seochon. Recent protests have sparked a citizen movement called “Today Is Also History.” A central issue is the Cultural Heritage Administration’s plan to demolish the district library, the community center, the elementary school and Seoul’s only children’s library in order to restore a shrine called Sajikdan, which had been made into a park during the Japanese colonial period.

Weighing the benefits of historical preservation against its cost to the neighborhood, Hauk said, is a way in which people are debating questions of history. And they’re difficult questions. Will Seoul decide pre-colonial history is the only type worth preserving, or will it figure out how to cherish its past while honoring the lives people are creating today? The process is likely to be captured in the photographs Seochon’s residents take and share.

This story was originally published by LSA Today.

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