In an effort to get some of my former published work, I've included the text of the first photo essay that I did for the Korea Herald's Weekender section, which dealt with the issue of foreign workers in Korea. It wasn't as if the topic hadn't been covered in the Korean media before, but the angle that I took wasn't that of making a show of how bad foreign workers had it, or covering helpful "good" Koreans working with foriegn workers and symbolically absolving everyday Koreans of a kind of collective guilt; I wanted my take on the issue to simply reflect what I saw, which in the end was two people with hard jobs and difficult circumstances just trying to make their best out of the poor hand of cards they'd been dealt. In other words, I was just trying to portray these workers as human beings just trying their best to enjoy as humane life as possible. I didn't want to write them in as cardboard character objects of pity, and with the pictures, I wanted the readers to see for themselves to see and feel the environment these two were living in, in all of its gritty, yet humane reality.
In any case, here's the raw (therefore someone extended, yet also less carefully edited) version of the Korea Herald article.
--- ARTICLE BEGINS ---
Every Christmas and New Year’s Day – at least in the United States – the local media like to do feel-good stories on the homeless getting fed turkey at a city shelter, or poor kids getting presents from a corporate CEO dressed up as Santa Claus. These are the stories that warm the heart, and people want to see and read about such things, stories that fit the holiday mood. But those stories never ask the question “So what are you going to do the day after New Year’s?” because the cheeky response would sound something like, “Well, I’m going to continue to be homeless and I won’t be getting any free eggnog or turkey dinners.” It in the spirit of this response that this story finds itself being written, since by talking with the two Indonesian migrant workers who are the focus of this photo essay, the irrelavance of such questions aboiut what they were doing for the holidays became clear. It is summed up in Rohman’s reply that “One day is no different from any other – I work.”
Such attitude adjustments were necessary from the beginning moments og writing this story. After first beginning to pursue leads and contacts to find a good story, it was quickly pointed out that the Korean words for “foreign worker” were not the terminology of choice, but that what translates into Korean as “migrant worker” is preferable. And it also became quickly obvious, as these initial contacts turned almost instantly cold, that media people were regarded with some degree of suspicion.
This is not to say that I blame anyone for looking askance at media people, especially an American photographer materialized out of nowhere wanting to take more pictures of “foreign laborers.” Indeed, the tale of migrant workers’ abuse, exploitation, and general life of hard knocks has reached the level of veritable cliché in the Korean media, as television news documentaries focus on the tough life of yet another brown man living in a tent, accompanied by syrupy music and melodramatic narration, which enables the conscientious Korean viewer to go through the requisite hand-wringing and head shaking that is simply part of the ritual of keeping up with the “social problem” of the hour. It would also be little surprise to find out that the migrant workers and the people who work with them are simply fed up with the callous demeanor typical of Korean photographers, who typically step over the invisible line that separates documentary and fiction, for posing shots and restaging events is the norm, rather than the unethical behavior of the very few.
Still, after being introduced to Rohman and Sakroni, things quickly became as easy as pie, for the goal was not the quick creation of easy pics to accompany a short news article, but was rather planned as a significant work of photo documentary, something that requires the subtleties of connecting as human beings and the photographer having a sense of respect for the subjects. Actually, being able to work with these two particular young men from Indonesia was a stroke of luck. Rohman and Sakroni are fairly representative of the migrant workers living here in Korea, who are largely single, male, and here to make money to send back home. The relative power of the Korean won has easily more than ten times the purchasing power of money made back home.
Rohman, the trim and muscular man of the pair, sends home as much as a million out of the 1.2 to 1.3 million won he makes working 12-hour shifts in a microchip board assembly plant. He is also representative of the minority of workers here here illegally, although he initially came on a legal work visa more than five years ago, again, like most people who find themselves in this status. His labor power is still needed and he has no problem finding work – but the powers that be would rather have green, unseasoned labor that constantly rotates out, rather than people like Rohman, who speak Korean relatively fluently and have become somewhat familiar with the law. It is worth noting that the reason aspects of this story are somewhat vague – e.g. how initial contact was made, where this photo story was shot, or anything else dangerously specific – is that such information could lead to Rohman’s arrest and deportation. So the fact that he stayed in the doorway of the bathroom I sat in the fast food restaurant we stopped in between stops on my tour of his life is the norm – this is the constant fear that illegal workers have to cope with as a part of everyday life.
Despite the present challenges of being illegal, or the fact that he cannot travel around outside during the daytime hours without fear of being randomly arrested by the immigration police (which is one of the reasons he works the 10 PM – 8 AM shift), Rohman’s story is one of relative success here. Over all the time he has been here, he has always consistently sent most of his salary home, and has always been able to suppress desires to buy frivolous items that are suddenly within his grasp given the money he makes here. He has an older-model green screen cellphone, a hand-me-down stereo and TV set, and scarce any other significant material possessions visible in his small room, besides a Korean-Indonesian dictionary, a small pack of CD’s, and clothes. Rohman, with his thrift and determination, is well on his way to buying the farm back home near Jakarta that means economic stability for his family. So the value of every won spent here means more than ten times that amount not going home. Rohman spends his only excess time and money at a neighborhood gym trying to keep his body healthy and stress levels down, as the tension and wear from working an electric sander all night long would be too much for him, he says.
Sakroni, on the other hand, is typical in that he is in Korea quite legally, but is unusual because he is not presently working. Also unfortunately typical for migrant workers in Korea are job-related injuries that permanently injure or maim them. Sakroni is quite lucky to be receiving not only governmental compensation for what has amounted to over 20 million won in medical costs, but he is receiving daily treatment and rehabilitation at a local hospital, which he says is completely responsible for his having regained almost full movement and use of his left leg, i.e. for him being able to walk. He is presently awaiting a doctor’s recommendation as to whether he requires further rehab, which will determine whether he will receive an extension of his work visa after he returns to Indonesia for a visit this January. If it is decided that he requires more of this treatment that he can’t afford back home, his visa will be extended; if the decision comes out otherwise, with his injured status, it is doubtful that he will ever be allowed to return to Korea. But putting the particulars of Sakroni’s situation aside, it is easy to see that, like many migrant workers, even the smallest decision or random event – such as a heavy piece of equipment falling down and nearly destroying the knee of the unfortunate soul working under it – can decide the fate of not only an individual’s life, but that of the people who depend upon his work and good health.
Given the timing of this photo essay, one of the most pressing questions as we were wrapping things up was that concerning the health of relatives back home in Indonesia after the devastating tsunamis that are the top of the news these days. Neither Rohman nor Sakroni had any relatives or close friends near the epicenter of the disaster, as both of them lived in towns near the island housing Jakarta, far away and on the opposite coast from the destruction. In this respect, it is difficult to say how repesentative they are, since there are so many of their Indonesian brethren working here with them. In this respect, they simply call themselves lucky.
But the point of this photo essay, as you might be able to tell from the images contained within it, is not simply that of reproducing the sob story that is typical of the “poor foreign worker” discourse here in Korea. Nor is there any intention to play down the fact that these workers have got it tough, much tougher than most of the other foreigners here who are typically white, from developed countries, and somehow or another here because of being a native speaker of English. What this photo essay is intended to be is a simple document of the lives of two migrant workers, a work that portrays them in the full breadth of their humanity, and not as the hapless victims that bleeding-heart progressives tend to paint them as, nor as the social liabilities that unenlightened conservatives falsely represent them to be. Rohman and Sakroni, for better or worse, are just two guys trying to work through life by taking the best options available, something that is typical of not only “migrant workers,” but of all of us “foreigners” who came across long stretches of sea to live and work here.