This is why I blog.
Here is a comment worth putting up as a post (which I will get to if you stick with this post long enough), since it 1) was so well-thought out, and 2) really took the next, better step after my post, and hence, 3) caused me to realize that there's a lot more going on here than I was thinking about originally.
Some really good points, and ones that I'd like to present here as I take them to heart in my thinking about many of the possible things to consider with this problem.
A good point here is that if it is indeed true that these were the same kids that are some of my students who go do volunteer work overseas, but were so caught up in the ideological/theological fervor of say, a particular pastor or church's cult of personality, and they didn't go in with eyes wide open, then there is some pretty heavy responsibility to be shouldered by the people who sent them.
And if they die, then they will indeed be martyrs, but of a different sort.
And the new "Orientalism" that is a part of the Korean gaze is spot on, and it something I've written about as part of my dissertation. I wrote about it in relation to certain things I noticed about the travel shows that were popular in the mid-1990's, as well as the brief fad with Koreans using the trope of "return to nature" and Koreans going to Africa as images used in advertising.
Speaking of which, there's Hyori's recent trip to Africa, which reeked of self-aggrandizement and the same kind of self-serving volunteerism designed to give well-fed and coifed Korean students another notch on the resume, which, given the uniformity of educational and worldly experience for Korean students, is a valuable one to have with which to differentiate oneself from others in the applicant pool.
[pics taken from here]
No one's saying what she's doing is bad. I just question whether the good that supposedly is happening really is. So she bought them some books and facilities and perhaps even more; I really don't care, because in the big picture, the people who really go help aren't stars with film crews and photographers, nor students and missionaries going for week-long trips. It's people who join KOICA (I guess you could say Korea's version of the Peace Corps) and give up 2 years of their lives, or organizations that build meaningful and long-lasting relationships with organizations in the communities they have chosen to establish connections with.
The question is: what amount of this work is being done without Korean television film crews, professional photographers, or the "Alms Race" of the megachurches trying to "outgood" each other in very public ways? And anyone who has attended Korean church (this is one reason I hate church in Korea) knows that church is about far more than just God, but about who has power in the real world.
Otherwise, why would you have to write your name on the donation envelopes? Sure, we're glad you gave – but we also keep tallies, one that goes towards you getting more points (and power) in the real world.
As a photographer, I really think a lot about this sort of stuff. Photojournalism as separate bodies of documentary work essentially don't exist in Korea. Go to any book store – especially Kyobo, which has a good selection in their photography section – and you'll see the same pattern as you'll see for photo exhibits in Chongro: all kinds of work done in developing parts of Asia and Africa, but literally no contemporary work done in Korea.
Tellingly, the closest thing I saw that related to "documentary photography" were the several stacks of books that came from the World Cup 2002, which were chock full of the same images of quivering, crying, and/or jubilant fans.
Glaringly absent was any of the major works that could and should have been done by Korean photographers – migrant workers, sex workers, HIV+ citizens forced to live in government-enforced seclusion, the homeless, and any other topic you could think of.
Ah, there was one very smart work on the hell of a boy's high school. That was, I admit, pretty good; but I had to dig for that one, and that's the first I've seen in since 2002. Kim Ki Chan is dead, and with him, I think goes the last dragon from Korea's Cretaceous period of people who remember, photographically, that Korea was once as poor as the countries in question, and still does have serious social issues that need to be faced – and represented photographically – today. Right now. At home.
What happened to me and my photo contract with the Major-Korean-Publisher-Who-Will-Not-Be-Named and me working on the next entry in their series about Seoul, which they entitled "Seoul: An Interesting Hell" (the original Korean sounds much better: 서울: 재미있는 지옥) is informative here.
Since I fit the kind of photography they wanted (at first), and their idea of showing the charm of Seoul's irritations through photography, the charm of the dirty underbelly of life here, the charm of some of the richness not so apparent, yet present, in the streets here – I was down with their program.
Then, they started getting antsy, saying that Koreans didn't want to be depressed, but couldn't I take "happier" pictures? More "positive" pictures? Yeah – in a big with "Hell" in the title (their title!) and knowing that nowhere in the photo work I'd showed them was a picture of children running through the park, or couples walking gleefully, hand-in-hand, along the Han River. I don't do tourist brochures.
Anyway, they broke the contract, and I refused to give back my advance, because they couldn't give me back a year of my life. I thought that was fair enough. So far, I haven't gotten any more phone calls from them. And I firmly believe it was their loss.
What I take from this, however, is that it's not just the photographers' fault. More than even other countries, where doc photographers have to struggle to make ends meet, there is almost a certain hostility to "negative" images of Korea, even if only Koreans themselves are expected to be looking. I still remember my book editor's words: "Koreans want 'happy' pictures."
And you can tell a lot through this colonizing gaze in Korea, which is quite similar to the one that so deeply permeated that of the West from over a century ago: Koreans want to understand themselves in certain ways by the contrast with the impoverished Other, yet is deathly afraid to turn the camera on themselves.
Witness the near paranoia Koreans have about their pictures being taken (no doubt, partially related to the memory of being the subject of a colonial gaze, in addition to the specific Internet incidents of recent years), yet have zero qualms about pasting the pictures of African children all over the Korean Internet. Where's the mosaic tool, now? It doesn't make sense to have one, of course, when the dark and decontextualized faces of children is the whole point of going to some African country in the first place.
So all we see are pictures of Hyori playing with her oversized and animated pickaninny dolls, yet we don't see any visual depiction of the actual problems they face, any of their own community's efforts to deal with them, nor do we see a single adult in the pictures.
All we see is the continued depiction of infantilized dependence that was witnessed in Western art and anthrolopology recruited to do the ideological work of justifying colonialialism and "The White Man's Burden," but in the Korean case, it's obviously devoid of the colonial imperative.
In the Korean case, it's simply about using the imagery as part of a vanity project – to use the Korean term, it is the ultimate "selca" (self-camera) accessory. More than visually dominating the Other for concrete purposes in the real world, these pictures (and missions and weekend projects) are really about us. It really, in the big picture, matters only to us, as Koreans and Hyori fans and big studio producers.
Sure, the kids get a learning experience, and Hyori might have been moved by the whole "journey," but that's the point, right? It it weren't, and it were really about the issues, then wouldn't there be documentaries done about all the real volunteer workers, as well as movers and shakers doing important and good work in conflict zones?
Argh. Here's how her trip was typically reported in the Korean media (please excuse my 2 AM translation):
"Hyori: African Angel of Good Deeds"
You can read the article in Korean for yourselves, but in short, it was just a report of how Hyori was preparing for the trip to give vaccinations to Ethiopian kids "with a joyful heart." I know that this is an hasty and weird translation of "즐거운 마음", but regardless, I don't see how you go to Ethiopia that way. On the way, she was going to "give milk" and care to adopted kids in a Kangnam hospital – all with KBS1 watching, of course.
Shit. At least Madonna bothered to actually adopt one of them kids, for as much flak as she got for it.
Oh, and Star News picture editor – love the choice of "Black style" Hyori to go with the picture, with afro puffs, hip-hop gear, and Ghetto Fabulosity™! 'Cause now, she's REALLY an African angel, huh?
Visually and semiotically, this entire enterprise reeks to high heaven of the deepest racist and colonialist assumptions, yet they're so well presented, one barely notices.
Whew – I'm done for today. Let me present the comment that sparked some new ways of thinking about this issues, as well as rekindling some old intellectual embers that had been lying dormant for too long.
Big tip of the hat to you, "Rain Man."
I have been a reader of this blog for several years now. I check in with you, Michael, whenever I have a chance, wherever I am in the world. As a long-term resident (15 years) of Korea, I find that your observations are usually just spot-on, and your sincere passion for your subject just beams right out of the computer screen -- even in moments of scathing, molten criticism. But this posting is the dog's balls, the real deal: it really blows away any other commentary being made on this subject so far. Thank you for your bravery. (And thanks for, as you admitted, digesting things a few days first before beginning your trenchant, judicious rant: I didn't need the usual raincoat when facing the spittle emanating from my computer screen that normally attends your most passionate posts!!! Ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!
But seriously, there are a couple of points which you raise here, so frankly, which the media is just not saying so boldly, and need to be said:
1. Just as you say, these kids were on a summer fling, with heavy missionary bent. The media and government are saying it was just honest do-gooding, with no other program. Yet the facts alone destroy this made-for-media myth, this fig-leaf to cover the shame of the Protestant elders who flung them out there. They are described as "nurses and teachers," but in a 7- or 10-day planned "excursion" into a deadly war-zone, what continuity of either medical care or teaching could be expected to be accomplished? You yourself are a teacher: How much English penetrates in seven days? And their itinerary assumes a heck of a lot of moving along in their chartered bus: I guess they brought their students and patients along with them! That fact ALONE lays bare that stanky media red herring that they were doing simple volunteer work. Yet the media does not pick this up? I hope that people like you and serious-thinking folk in the mainstream media will lay bare the flagrant lie that this is. (Of course, I understand that the gov't and media may need -- FOR THE TIME BEING -- to put out this scent to dispel the Talibans' wrath, so the kids aren't offed on the spot. If so, OK, no problem: the compassion of expedient means. But if the myth continues after their safe return/miserable demise, then we know that it was, all along, a sop thrown to the myth-making media by people more interested in protecting their church asses -- legally, socially, politically, morally, what have you -- than anything else.)
2. I don't know if you got a look at the Saem Mul Church website in the early hours of this. If you didn't, I encourage you to get your hands on the "captures" of the foreign missions pages that seem to be floating around out there, as I've read that it has since been drastically changed. But when I saw the whole "rah-rah-rah" advertising to rouse young people into this sort of missionizing, I wanted to puke -- literally. Under the title of foreign mission programs such as "Rejoice! Afghanistan," they had this glossy, exuberant, utterly crass appeal to their Korean youths' obvious wish to go out in the world and do good (and, if possible, get some good pix and stories for their Cyworlds). (If they had titled this program, "Allahu, Akbar! Afghanistan" -- well, then, I'd be able to buy their whole "we're sensitive to other cultures, we love Afghanistan" crap.)
The point here is, the level of manipulative, utterly disingenuous behavior aimed at rousing their congregants' passions. This stuff was really almost evil. It was all polish and pizzazz, using youth-y words and emotions to hook these kids into what turns out to be work too dangerous even for battled-hardened soldiers.
My point is, the church leaders who sponsored this whole thing -- and by connection, sponsor like-minded projects in dozens of countries through literally hundreds of churches -- should be held to account. I and many others would appreciate if some sort of presentation of this crass manipulation of susceptible, romantic young peoples' hearts and souls for the sake of church/organizational glory could be exposed. Because it must. These kids were literally thrown into the maws of death by clean and coiffed gentlemen (cf., the pastor of their church, with trained half-bow of the head, "apologizing" in his air-conditioned office) for whom missions are, in the current Korean church (read: Protestant), the new "sacred cow." The big pastors become bigger, the unknown churches become known, when they can raise up these programs, garner huge donations (donations in most Protestant churches are focused around amassing holy war chests for mission), bring back STUNNING FOOTAGE of Korean young people doing hymns among dusty-colored colored helpless races. Korea -- as you well know, and have abundantly expressed -- is intoxicated with its new-found orientalism: the most popular programs on TV are stars going to far-off, destitute lands to have fumbling exchanges and weird eating experiences with the (again, nearly always) "well-tanned" locals.
I don't know why NO ONE is talking about it, but for Korean churches nowadays, they get their "self-signifying" power by showing how much more capable and equipped and functioning and richer than the "Other" that they are either a) having a beautiful young Korean singer or actress traipse with a "native" in some local or contrived stunt, the local "Other" unknowing and even confused but the camera capturing the "Other's" innocent (read: ignorant) fascination, nevertheless, with this Korean thing which is so beautiful and confident and free and has cameras and microphones. (It screams back to the homeland viewer: "Look! We're not poor anymore! We're not connected to that history of abject destitution fed us by our 'halmoni.' We're a liberated, 'in'-people!! It's these unfortunates -- how interesting they are!!"; or b) doing these loud mission programs where Koreans can show (and there's film of it! by God! is there ALWAYS a camera there to take in their Christ-likeness!!) that they are a developed country, a rich country, able to compassionately condescend just as fearlessly as their white overlords did before.
3. FUNDING. Michael, who paid for this trip? My gut feeling -- reading how they had travelled to several countries to avoid detection by the Korean gov't, which opposed their trip -- is that people that age don't have a whole hell of a lot of disposable cash laying around to fund evasive airplane trips. I don't know. But what I'm trying to say with this, what my gut is saying -- and it's not trying to just look for conspiratorial stuff, or be petty -- is that this trip MUST have been funded, in whole or in part, by the church that sent them. It would have been from funds raised for missions. My point is that this would completely show a) legal exposure on the part of church authorities; and b) [more darkly] that the argument (above) that these kids were just lassoed up as cannon fodder for the reputations of elder church-statesmen who could always trumpet (and each congregation DOES) the greater numbers that THEY are sending than this or that other church.
This point is made effectively more important when one reads that the leader of this church, the good reverend, is founder and head of the pseudo-non-denominational Korean People's something-or-other NGO thing that arranged this trip, to give non-religious cover for them to slip into areas where they are plainly "Christiana non grata."
Again, this point about funding for the trip, if a good and courageous reporter or blogger could dig up, would go a long way to EXPOSING THE COVER OF HOW KIDS ARE SENT AS CANNON FODDER for the greater glory and fame of their leaders, paid for by their leaders, to bring good images and stories which further gild their leaders' image and standing in the broader Christian community, and in Korean society;
4. The issue I raised above about Korean churches -- through missionary work to the dusty-colored ones -- being at the vanguard of this chic and sexy new reverse Orientalism that's happening throughout Korean consciousness, in so many other areas. (But you'll notice how the "talents" and singers who do the stuff for those godawful programs are also, invariably, prominent members of these Kangnam churches.) Does anyone want to look at that? And how this "missionary work," is, in fact, just the Orientalist's masturbatory self-joy, the revelation of the power and the perfection and the righteousness of his own image?
5. The issue of "foreign missionary work" versus "DOMESTIC missionary work." It is no accident that these churches send youth abroad during summer vacations, as much as possible, when isn't that our beloved rainy season? Isn't that the season of typhoons and flooding on grand scale, where military battalions are called in to clean up and especially FEED and provide MEDICAL ATTENTION and HOUSING to the displaced, here in "uri nara"? Now, I know that a good number of churches do this already, as do many Buddhist temples. But why not have these youth, passionate to ameliorate the world's suffering, be on standby (the "chang ma" is an entirely, specifically predictable event) as corps to help? I heard that Koreans in the number of some 14,000 are heading to overseas missions, the bulk of that during the summer months? Why not working on the homefront? (and here's the money shot) Because it would not present their churchmen overseers with the sexy camera footage, the glossy shots of the prostrate "Other," desperate for Korean power, the photographic material which can then be shown to congregations eager to dispel their own suffering image of THEMselves, and willing to donate dearly for that image's immediate erasure!
6. The issue of how this group was TOLD by the government not to go, and the government even somehow prevented their departure, etc., causing the church to threaten a lawsuit for infringing on their civil rights! And yet now -- and here's the point -- these organizations which are FULLY and WHOLLY EXEMPT from paying taxes to Caesar have now cost Caesar (and me and you) huge amounts. The fact that people SO reliant on "otherworld" power are suddenly clinging to the "this-world" boot of the necktie types toiling away down in Kwanghwa-Mun!
Achhh, I could go on. And I may have to, later. But I am not sure if this comment will go through, anyway -- I have never, EVER commented on a blog before in my life! So I'm not sure if you'll see this.
But I would hope that people like you and the Big Hominid and the Marmot would get down on some of these points and really STIMULATE SOME NOISE. So that this terrible manipulation of young people by their elders STOPS. You guys might be contributing, in some ways (I DO believe it, actually) to saving other people's lives, if this can be prevented from ever happening as "normal" practice again.