Asia

Photographer Spends Three Years Capturing the Living Conditions of South Korea’s Poor

A South Korean photographer is letting his images tell the story of the poor, overworked and isolated Koreans living in cramped affordable housing units called a “goshiwon.”

The low-cost temporary accommodation, which is basically a tiny flat as big as three to five square meters, has been around for almost half a century. In its early years, Korean university students who wanted to shut themselves off from all distractions to study for the country’s toughest exams (goshi) were the goshiwon’s typical settlers.

Inside, the room basically has a desk, a bed, and a closet with a communal bathroom and kitchen for all residents. There is also a more spacious but spartan version called the goshitel (goshiwon+hotel) which oftentimes are referred to interchangeably with the goshiwon. Although there are thousands of goshiwons/goshitels scattered across South Korea, most of them are in Seoul.

Today, the cheap flats serve a larger demographic as housing costs have become more expensive in the country’s capital. Many low-salary earners recently began to take advantage of the price of either the goshiwon or goshitel, which ranges from 200,000 – 400,000 won per month ($175 – $345).

For some people like 29-year-old photographer Sim Kyu-dong, there was no other option but a goshitel. Originally from the city of Gangneung in Gangwon Province, Sim moved to Seoul to get a job. Unable to afford a studio, which requires a large deposit, he spent over three years living in different goshitels.

He first settled in a goshitel in Sillim-dong, paying only 220,000 won ($200) per month in rent. Discovering that his new habitat was indeed a place where mostly the poor seek refuge, he was inspired to turn his goshiwon story into a photography project.

He began documenting his goshi-neighbors in the unnamed goshitel where he stayed for 10 months. In an interview translated by Korea Expose, Sim shared his experience. 

“People around me asked, ‘Are you going to prepare for an exam?’, but that wasn’t it,” Sim shared with Korea Expose. “I had many big questions when I first went into this particular goshitel. I have been living in goshitels for years on and off, and I was curious how and why old people still live there.”

The people’s stories and their poor living conditions at the goshitel began to deeply affect Sim.

“At first, I had a clear notion that I came here to take pictures and that I was different from all the other residents. But living there and befriending the residents, I felt like that I was becoming one of them. One night a brawl broke out between the residents and police officers came over. I was shocked when an officer around my age looked at me. In his eyes, I was no different.”

He found that for many, living in a goshitel has become synonymous with being poor, overworked, and cut off from society. Many were either driven to develop hatred towards their country or themselves.  

“People with means — ordinary, middle-class people, too — don’t really understand that you end up in a goshitel because you can’t help it, because you have no other options. I thought I must tell that story,” Sim explained.

Sim himself experienced depression during his three-year goshitel experience.

Thankfully, he has returned to Gangneung where he is trying his best to cheer himself up by eating better and keeping himself entertained. Living in a goshitel made Sim discover the tremendous difficulties residents of goshitels go through on a daily basis.

“Before, I was pretty conservative and didn’t empathize with homeless or poor people much. But living in the goshitel changed my perception and thinking completely. There are people who can’t help it. Their stories are too complicated to dismiss.”

Source: Korea Expose

All images are copyrighted by Sim Kyu-dong and were republished with permission. 

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