I lived in Seoul for 10 months from November '04 until just a few days ago in September '05. Some would say (me, repeatedly) that it is not the best place for photography, but it is always interesting. The city is one of the most quickly modernizing today, and in half a decade the South Korean population has shifted from living mostly in rural villages in the mountains to concentrating fully one-quarter of its mass—that is, 13 million people—into the densely-packed metropolis of Seoul. The contrast between old and new in Korea is played out daily everywhere in this city, in all areas of life. Particularly significant for the culture at large are the changes occuring in the country's spiritual life; though formerly practicing a long tradition of Buddhism inexorably intertwined with shamanism, Korea is today more Christian than any other Asian nation. However, old ways have not yet completely disappeared.
In the mountains of Seoul (Korea is 80% mountains) one can still find practicing Buddhists and shamanists on religious retreat from the city life. Only 20 minutes away from the subway station on Ingwansan mountain, in the center of the city and in full view of the endless towering high-rises, you can hear the chants of Buddhist prayer and crashing drums of shamanist rituals coming through the trees. From the beginning of my hike through this area I wanted an image that would convey this juxtaposition of ancient faiths in a modern and quickly Westernizing city.
At the end of the day I came upon this woman burning incense on a stony lookout over the city in preparation for meditation and prayer. To any Korean who has experience with more traditional Korean faiths, she is recognizable as not merely a meditating figure but a shamanist, though this is a context most viewers won't have. I took the shot at over 200 mm on my telephoto zoom, both to prevent intruding upon her and to compress foreground and background and place her directly against the high-rises behind her, visually emphasizing the juxtaposition of themes. However, I included some of her surroundings to illustrate the contrast between her natural environment and the city just outside it. There had been birds scattering all over the mountain throughout the day, and I thought that if I waited long enough I could probably get one or two in the frame with her, further separating her from the city and adding a symbolic dimension to the photograph. After a while a flock landed at the base of her rock and then flew up together seconds later, which was fortunate as it placed them on the same plane of focus as the woman within the very narrow depth-of-field. Finally, though there is little choice when shooting in Seoul, the haze helped further contrast her natural setting against the smoggy city beyond.
To me this photo speaks of a crossroads in Korea's history, which is perhaps an instructive microcosm of what is occuring in the world at large. But it also reminds me, optimistically, that people with centuries-old traditions do not change as easily as McDonald's are installed, that under the surface of an apparently very Western city—literally just outside direct observation in the city itself, in this case—an ancient and unique culture still exerts a powerful influence on daily life.