The Sewol Ferry Crisis and the Dangers of Blind Cultural Blaming

I’ve been meaning to do a post about the South Korean Sewol ferry disaster for a while now, and today a TIME article caught my eye highlighting precisely what I’d been feeling while reading numerous media reports. On the spur of the moment I vented in the form of a facebook status. But facebook isn’t exactly the best medium for explaining thought in more detail, so I decided to expound a little on the blog, and hopefully shed light on what I believe to be is an extremely misguided and sensationalist tendency in today’s journalism.

Summer last year, T.K. from AskAKorean did a now fairly widely-read post on Gladwell’s cultural bias in making (non)sense of Korean aviation disasters. It’s an excellent read which will help shed light on what I mean to say. If you have the time, I’d urge you to give it a scroll-through.

As the TIME article shows, here’s a glimpse of what Western “viewpoints” journalism has to say about the South Korean ferry disaster:

Reuters: “Many of the children did not question their elders, as is customary in hierarchical Korean society. They paid for their obedience with their lives.”

Dallas Morning News: “If that was a boatload of American students, you know they would have been finding any and every way to get off that ferry. But in Asian cultures… compliance is de rigueur.”


It is appealing, is it not, to reduce a crisis comprising a myriad of issues at every level of disgustingly incapable and responsibility-fearing government, media censorship, and a visceral public temperament, all to an unfortunate development of a cultural stereotype? It’s an intellectual sensationalism. And why not, right? If I don’t like it, that’s my problem, not yours. Because it’s just an evaluation; a point of view — and mind, everyone’s entitled to their point of view.

Not if it’s perpetuating a deeply flawed practice of jumping and perpetuating stereotypes now quickly establishing itself in mainstream media as what’s fun, smart, and cool. Dallas Morning News is one thing, but Reuters? CNN? It’s mass-scale cultural stereotyping, and in fact, it is extremely dangerous. It absolves the authorities by diverting attention from them, and slings the blame into an “inherently flawed” cultural education system – something on which I have strong views but which I will not discuss here – and a tangentially related tradition. Suddenly, it’s the fault of the hundreds of innocent civilians involved in the disaster. It’s a convoluted way of saying: it was inevitable. Here sit our beloved media sources telling us: tragic, tragic; sucks for you South Koreans, you should have known to disobey the Captain’s orders, like they would have done in America! As if it’s common sense to be actively contemplating an escape seconds before being lurched to the side inside a tipping ferry, after urgent orders that advised that it was, in fact, safer to stay inside. To put things in perspective, here are another few minute details, not as widely publicised outside of Korea. There weren’t nearly enough life jackets aboard the ship for all passengers, and the life rafts have been judged to have malfunctioned during the accident. Nor were the passengers notified of emergency exits prior to departure. I beg that a media reporter explain to me how a culture of submission played a bigger part in the crisis than — among innumerable other factors — a corporation overlooking safety regulations, a captain that doesn’t even make the “abandon ship” announcement before he hops on a rescue boat (called to the scene, by the way, by a passenger still trapped inside) with 20 of his 29 crew members, and a handful of politicians sitting there, nodding their heads and pointing fingers at other politicians.

As I find now, Sweet Pickles & Corn also did a similar post on this, asking why there is “a recurring temptation to see Koreans as hapless victims of a defective national culture, rather than as victims of a merely human tendency to occasionally fall short of living up to what are otherwise sound ideals”. While not without a point, I must say that this is, in addition to “How did Confucianism affect the crisis?”, just as wrong a question to ask. Because it was never about “falling short of living up to what are otherwise sound ideals” in the first place. That sort of thinking still chains readers to a blind culturalist lens.

What’s wrong is the philosophy behind cultural blaming. For one thing, it sets forth a ridiculously simplified version of a nation’s culture, intricate and nuanced as can be, which doesn’t even fit the frame of how one is to make sense of the situation (see above). Second, it condescends on this cultural tendency by rendering it a cause of the disaster. Third: so now to blame are the dead and the missing who, apparently, should have “thought for themselves”. The last announcement you heard before things got critical was an affirmation of safety inside cabins, and you were seated within a group of others which, psychologically, dilutes individual resistance regardless of culture. “If that was a boatload of American students…” to quote Dallas Morning News. I am truly gobsmacked. Fourth, this way of thinking fixes the reader’s understanding of what actually happened, by making the situation out to be an immutable consequence that couldn’t really have been any other way. But the outcome could have been so very different; so many more lives could have been saved. Is the fact that it wasn’t any different the fault of culture, too? Those aboard the Sewol are wronged thrice — first by the crew, second by the nation, and now by the international community. Journalists who have but a superficial understanding of the issue, and who nonetheless excrete claims dripping with denseness that culture is to blame — I’d advise that they seriously reconsider their career in the profession. Such writing does the world harm with false consciousness.

The Sewol ferry disaster does indeed tell many tales about how appallingly wrong things can go. A “submissive and obedient” Confucian culture definitely isn’t one of them. Even if it is, it is certainly not one that can be righteously flaunted by Western media as the standout culprit. There are so many problems with this, and I am sincerely offended. Get it the heck right. Get it into your heads that blind cultural blaming is a supremacy of its own. And more importantly, stop brainwashing the public with an idea that’s nothing but destructive to South Korea’s struggles both domestically and internationally, and which at best humiliates the very ethics of honest and undebased journalism.


Subject to Object

Photos I, IV: SOUTH KOREA. Seoul. 2013.
Photo II: SOUTH KOREA. Busan. 2013.
Photo III: SOUTH KOREA. Bundang. 2013.

Photography is a still. By this I mean that, regardless of the motion–unless the motion itself is part of the capture–the subjects photographed are necessarily also objects in the scene. The relationship in the shot with the man juxtaposed with the lighthouse is, in this sense, not man-lighthouse but object-object. Then there are such inanimate objects as mannequins which, in photographs, take on a personality. Photography conflates the two.

I was never really interested in street photography until the combination of an excellent art history class on 20th-century photography and an awesome friend got me into it. Over last year’s winter break that I spent in Korea, I started randomly wandering the streets and shooting scenes I found interesting. The temperature often fell quite far below zero; I remember being paranoid about having my camera malfunction, since I knew even less about handling cameras properly then than I do now. I’m still not too far along, but already in retrospect I’m convinced that getting into street photography was probably one of the best decisions of my life. Hopefully I’ll see progress as I carry on with the blog.

Variety in Vertical

FRANCE. Paris. 2014.

Hooray for updated watermarks! All existing and upcoming photos have been re-marked after I figured that big, obtrusive blocks of texts weren’t exactly conducive to viewing pleasure. I’ll henceforth be sticking to the revised signature.

Lately I’ve been trying some new stuff with vertical framing. All four shots above were taken on the same day, consciously framed very differently. I’ve noticed that when taking photos, I subconsciously focus on a distinct unit — for example, a single person or object or a single group of people or objects — then frame using the background. Stepping away from this habit was part of the challenge. Also: over these past two weeks of no posts, I’ve accumulated here in Paris a bunch of photos that I haven’t yet had the chance to go through. Once again, I’ve been working most extensively with black-and-white photography, but I suspect we may be getting a little more colour soon! In the meantime I’ll begin uploading photos that I took during my visit home to South Korea last winter (partly to make up for my recent lack of posts). Expect more content over the next few days!

Inspiration: David Gray

“Gulls” is among David Gray’s latest song releases, and I absolutely love the videography! While there’s nothing complicated in this, the camerawork is excellent and the scenes blend into the song. The video itself neither uber-creative nor outstanding — but it feels genuine, and for me that’s what in turn makes its simplicity so creative and outstanding. It’s a “quiet creative”. This reservedness takes full expression in David Gray’s songwriting:

This land belongs to the gulls
And the gulls to their cry
And their cry to the wind
And the wind belongs to no-one
Gulls (“Multineers”, 2014)

And sometimes my soul flickers
As the wind of change blows cold
Over the mire of repetition
Down the corridors of rigmarole
Let the Truth Sting (“A Century Ends”, 1993)

But the subtleties of expression do not diminish the message:

Once you sang your own song
Now you’re dancing to the same drum
What have you become?
And what is that you’re wearing?
Money’s ugly confidence
What Are You? (“Flesh”, 1994)

And they can plunder
The cave of sorrows
They can strip the gallery bare […]
In our heads, choke every spark
In a cloak of despair
But we got something
They can’t stifle
With their price tags
And picture frames
Got a flower for every rifle
Putting flesh on the bones of my dreams
Flesh, David Gray (“Flesh”, 1994)

The feeling I get is that David Gray speaks not to a “listener out there”, but to the self and to experience. And when he does, his lyrics are thickly saturated with deep, personal meaning:

I told her people had been talking
About how dark she was inside
She said my hopes are buried in the soil
Deep in the earth outside
And with one twist of the world
She brought me to her side
She asked me for the truth one time
And all I did was lie
Lead Me Upstairs (“A Century Ends”, 1993)

I went looking for someone I left behind
Yeah but no-one, just a stranger did I find
I never noticed hadn’t seen it as it grew
The void between us where the flame turns blue
Flame Turns Blue (“Lost Songs 95-98”, 2000)

Condensed, poetic:

A million to one outsiders
Can’t see
Your bright eyes are what
The time is
Twenty five past eternity
Nightblindness (“White Ladder”, 1998)

And his metaphors are some of the most vivid that I’ve encountered. Like those in Nemesis:

‘Neath an avalanche – soft as moss
I’m a creeping and intangible sense of loss
I’m the memory you can’t get out your head
If I leave you now
You’ll wish you were somewhere else instead
I’m the manta ray — I’m the louse
I am a photograph they found in your burned out house
I’m the sound of money washing down the drain
I am the pack of lies baby that keeps you sane
Nemesis (“Draw the Line”, 2009)

David Gray has a music style that, I guess, may be more of a love-or-hate thing, but he’s definitely worth a listen. The variety of voice in the lyrics runs the gamut from intense personal experience to more distant reflections, and in listening, each song evokes the sense that every line is David Gray’s own. With respect to photography, I identify as the candid observer — candid, not in the sense that the camera captures objectively what is the case, but in the sense that it captures best how I see the world. It’s precisely this personal realness that I love, and which David Gray does so well. He delivers it like he means it.

As for my updates: yes, I do have many, many photos on the line. I just haven’t had a chance to go through them yet. I’ll be uploading sets this weekend, so keep an eye out for those!

Scenes from First Week

FRANCE. Paris. 2014.

A few scenes from the streets of Paris! The last shows the gates of Cité Universitaire, my residence during the three-month stay here. All preceding photos were taken either on Boulevard Jourdan, the street on which Cité is located, or on my walk to my university’s Centre in Paris.


FRANCE. Paris. 2014.

Fourth day in Paris = about time I put up a post! I’ve been experimenting with geometry lately, so no real spur-of-the-moment or movement-oriented shots here. The place I’m staying is around 20 minutes by public transport to where I have class, but day two onward I’ve taken to walking instead (it’s a nice distance and not at all too complicated). In general Paris seems pretty navigable on foot. And thanks to the secondhand compact camera I managed to pick up just before I left, I’m no longer lugging around a heavy SLR on lighter walks. Photos 1, 3, 4, and 6 were taken with the compact.

Upon arrival I’ve adjusted into an unfortunate sleep schedule due to a few impending deadlines, but otherwise, all is good. The only problem I have thus far is that the grocery store and bakery are a 15-minute walk from the dorms, and in the time it takes me to get back I manage to nibble through half of my baguette. In general life I’m getting by in everyday interactions with the abysmal French I have; in terms of coursework, the shift from philosophy to a more facts-based history has been an interesting one. But above all I appreciate that I don’t feel harried here. It’s okay to take my time (as long as I’m respectful of yours), chill a little, sit on the banks of the Seine without feeling as if I should always be on the move. A nice break from what’s been the most hectic six months in a long, long time. Life is interesting again, so I guess I’m settling in.