The South Korean ferry Sewol capsized and sank on 16 April 2014. It claimed 304 lives, and 250 of the victims were students on a high school field trip. Layers of corruption and lax regulation led to the biggest man-made disaster in South Korea’s modern history. The then-ultra conservative government of President Park Geun-hye immediately shunned all accountability and politicized the issue. Rumors spread that the families were after money and privileges. Pro-government groups mocked the fasting father who went on a hunger strike for 46 days to gather support.
The Sewol families protests were brutally oppressed, sometimes with pepper spray and water cannon, and the hard-fought-and-won investigative committee’s truth-seeking efforts were met with budget cuts and political interferences. The Park administration systematically tried to obliterate the legacy and memory of the Sewol; it was later found out that South Korea’s spy agencies were monitoring the families. Artists supporting the families were secretly blacklisted.
The Sewol Aftermath was an underreported human rights crisis in a seemingly democratic and developed country. It shook the collective consciousness of the public and eventually contributed to South Korea’s Candlelight Revolution of 2016, which resulted in Park Geun-hye’s ouster and a peaceful regime change.
Five years after the fatal sinking, however, Sewol remains a politicized and divisive issue. Park’s supporters blame the Sewol for her downfall, spewing hateful words and sometimes inflicting violence on the Sewol sympathizers. While the South Korean public may have mitigated the problem on a macro level by aiding the regime change, they have turned their eyes away from the sufferings of the individuals. The families are still unable to find closure and grappling with trauma, inflicted by the disaster and aggravated by the aftermath.
Jun Michael Park is a documentary photographer and filmmaker from Seoul, South Korea. Jun studied English Literature at Queen’s University, Canada, and fell in love with photography while doing the 2-year mandatory military service in South Korea.
Over the course of his journey as a visual storyteller, Jun has documented various subjects from the families of the South Korean ferry victims to stranded refugees in Greece. He has worked on assignments and personal projects across the world including in Cuba, Pakistan, Germany, Indonesia, Russia, Nepal and Kyrgyzstan.
Jun is a winner of a Silver award in Press-Feature Story category at Prix de la Photographie Paris (Px3) 2015 and is a participant of the Eddie Adams Workshop XXVIII in New York. Jun’s long-term work “Sewol Aftermath” was selected for exhibition at the 2016 Lumix Festival for Young Photojournalism in Hanover, Germany.