An American in Busan.
Three things you ought to know about Busan: it is big, it is gritty, and it never sleeps.
Busan is the second largest city in Korea (almost 4 million people) and the fifth largest port on the planet. To travel to the city’s eastern edge and look out upon the Pacific is gaze upon a seemingly never-ending parade of cargo, freighter, tugboats and fishing vessels streaming in and out of port.
The city surrounds, and is surrounded by, the many mountains that flank the Nakdong and Suyeong Rivers. While the mountains lie undeveloped in the heart of the city, people jam themselves tighter and tighter into the valleys in between them. This geography of mountains and narrow valleys means the city is constantly condensing, growing “up” rather than “out”. Groupings of high-rise apartment complexes seem to fight upward, competing for the light, like a twisted parody of nature that shrouds many areas of the city in shadow. Many of the smaller buildings crowd together in a haphazard fashion, creating twisted mazes of alleys that are almost impossible for the uninitiated to navigate.
Down in the developed valleys there are hardly any other green spaces. It is grey, dirty, man-made. Neon signs fight for attention. There is a constant drone of interchangeable pop-music. Non-stop shopping by day; non-stop revelry by night. Pass out, wake up, do it all over again. Fit work in there somewhere. Sleep is negotiable.
When I first moved to this Asian metropolis I floated through all this like a dream. Not knowing any other foreigners yet (or being able to speak Korean), I hardly spoke to anyone for nearly four months. I wandered the streets, ghost-like with hungry eyes. Looking for a way to deal with that a lack of human contact in my life, I picked up a camera and started to document the things that demanded my attention. I felt like the city had something to tell me yet I wasn’t able to ask it questions, or read its signs, or overhear snatches of conversation. What I could do was pay attention. I could look closer at what was in front of me.
It wasn’t a perfect system. There was still some disorientation (vital pieces of information missing) but I like a little disconnect; it makes things interesting. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am an outsider. Living as a foreigner in one of the world’s most ethnically homogenous countries makes that unavoidable. Sometimes it’s a blessing, sometimes a curse. Unlike someone who’s lived there whole life here, I don’t instinctively know (or have assumptions about) the way that things, people or culture fit together.
I try to bring a fresh perspective to what I am seeing. Photography is a conversation between myself and the spaces around me. I photograph. I learn. What I learn affects what I photograph next. I then learn more things from the next photographs I take. The cycle continues.