People's Faces Offer Insight Into A Walled-off World

VIEWFINDER

A photographer illuminates the lives of North Koreans

Ideas

November 11, 2007|By Chiaki Kawajiri | Chiaki Kawajiri,SUN PHOTOGRAPHER

People's faces offer insight into a walled-off world It started when I was in kindergarten in Japan. I saw lots of children wearing uniforms unlike mine going by one day and asked my mother why they were so different. She told me they were Korean and were going to a different school to learn about their culture.

She said Japanese people had treated Koreans very badly in the past and because of that I should make an extra effort to be kind to Koreans. So it was my mother who spurred me to respect Koreans.

Later, my sister's piano teacher and my electric organ teacher was from North Korea; she was elegant and kind and beautiful. The neighbors gave us a look when we went to her house for lessons, but we both adored her.

In college in California, two of my best friends were Koreans. At night, we often ate kimchee - a spicy Korean dish - to energize us to study longer.

In recent years I kept meeting people who were from North Korea or whose grandparents were from North Korea, and I started to realize that lots of people from North Korea were here living in the States.

Until very recently, North Korea was closed off from the world with little or no travel by ordinary people, in or out. The only news that came out was about their leaders' threats or famine or floods. We never got to see how North Koreans actually lived and, with all the negative news, I worred that Americans would judge the people in this walled-off world negatively.

I began wondering if we could find a way to look at this mysterious country through the faces of those who came to live here.

I contacted Dr. David Jung-Do Park, who lives in Baltimore County. I asked him if he would be willing to have his photograph taken. We got together and talked, and I was just overwhelmed by the fact that this man remembered so much about his childhood in North Korea. He would talk about his father, and his face would light up. I approached many others who had escaped North Korea, but their fears of retribution lingered and only a handful were willing to talk with me about their experiences and have their photos taken.

Taken together, the memories of Park and five others whom I photographed offered a rich picture of the lives and memories of these North Korean exiles. I wanted to photograph them in a way that would reveal some of the hidden feelings that they wouldn't or couldn't show.

In the Asian culture it is so hard to reveal your personal feelings and when I later looked at the images I had taken I felt so grateful for the openness they offered.

I would be happy if just one person would look at the pictures and listen to the audio and video material that was prepared for the Sun Web site and think about these people as fellow human beings who suffered and overcame many difficulties to come to this point in their lives. I want people here to feel connected to these North Koreans as human beings - to open their minds to those who have come so far in their lives to live among us.

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