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Monday, December 27, 2010

Young Photographer Captures Timeless Moments on Jeju

Top: Bethany Carlson's striking image of fellow English-language teacher Rachael Darden demonstrates the photographer's use of landscape in her portraiture. Photo by Bethany Carlson.

Center: Jenie Hahn, a lecturer at Jeju National University and the host of Arirang Radio's "All That Jeju" program, is one of many Jeju residents Carlson has photographed. Photo by Bethany Carlson

Carlson is equally at ease on either side of the camera. Photo by Angela Jacobus

Jeju Island, South Korea, Dec. 27 (Yonhap) -- Like many other young teachers of English in South Korea, Bethany Carlson came to the country partly out of a desire for travel and partly to pay off debt.

The country was, in fact, her second choice, but her recruiter recommended it over Japan as a better fit for her in terms of lifestyle and compensation. The 25-year-old has no regrets.

"Coming to Korea was one of the best decisions I have ever made," she said.

Carlson arrived on Jeju, an island-province off the Korean Peninsula's southern coast, in February 2010 to work for the English Program in Korea, a state-run initiative to expose children in public schools to native English-speaking teachers.

But it is for her leisure-time activity of photography that she is becoming best known, with residents and visitors to the island lining up to have her shoot their portraits. The resulting portfolio can be seen on her Bethany Carlson Photography Facebook page and on her blog at

A self-described "Air Force brat," Carlson was born in Hawaii but has lived in Oklahoma, California, Colorado and Ohio, and now considers San Diego her hometown. When she decided to work in Korea, Jeju was her first choice, thanks to research done by a friend who had initially planned to accompany her.

"She said, 'When you request, request for Jeju. That's the beach area and it's so nice.' I put it on my application and I got it," Carlson said.

Her photography shows the beauty of the island and captures the personalities of her portrait subjects. Jeju being a relatively small community, almost all here know many of Carlson's models.

The photographer puts her subjects instantly at ease and captures the essence of each individual vividly.

She says she is not a landscape photographer and seemed surprised when it was pointed out that the unique Jeju backdrop is a secondary subject in much of her work.

"When I say I don't do landscapes, I mean I can't look at a hill and be inspired," she said. "But a hill and person -- then I'm inspired!"

Although Carlson has loved photography since childhood, it was only after buying a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera in April that she got seriously involved in taking pictures.

Her interest in portraiture came almost by accident, when she wanted to repay a favor done for her by another English-speaking native speaker in Korea, Jack Quinn.

Quinn asked her to take some photos for his grandmother at home in the United States. Other friends asked her to photograph them, then their friends and "word of mouth spread around the island."

She now spends every weekend photographing and has shot subjects from "five continents and 13 countries." Apart from a two-week "Bethany-time" period before she is scheduled to leave Korea in February 2011, Carlson is booked solid with people wanting her to photograph them before she goes.

"It's been amazing that I've been able to have a job that brings in money while I do this and try to learn and go through the rough patches of trying to figure out what type of photographer I am and what my niche is," she said. "Korea gave me the time, resources, inspiration and desire to take my hobby to the next level."

She said she uses three words to best represent her individual photographic style; "The first is audacious -- I really want each photo to be bold in some way. Then, genuine -- I try to keep it genuine and do as little editing as possible."

Her third keyword is "timeless," she said. "I love that I can capture a person at a particular moment in time and bring out where they are at that moment."

Her year on Jeju has been one in which she has pushed herself the hardest she ever has, she said, even apart from photography. "God showed me more of myself and I have learned to appreciate who I am as a woman, a Christian, a traveler, a professional and an American."

When she returns "from the chaos of Korea to the chaos of America," she will be "starting from scratch" materially, with no "car, house, job, license, insurance or anything."

What she will have is the portfolio she has built while here and a goal to make her living as a photographer, specializing in couple and boudoir portraiture. She does not rule out returning to Korea some day, especially if visa conditions change to allow English teachers to work in secondary fields.

"I never want to go back to an office job again," she said. "That's my goal in life."

From the quality of her work and the enthusiastic response from her subjects, their friends and her followers, it seems a goal she will be able to achieve.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Ancient craft carried forward on Jeju Island

SEOUL, Dec. 20 (Yonhap) -- A common sight outside older homes throughout Korea is of at least one persimmon tree, its gold-red fruit a tasty marker of the onset of colder days.

On Jeju Island, the semi-tropical resort located off the southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, these trees are not only a source of nutrition but for centuries, their unripe fruit has been used to strengthen and color residents' clothing, called galot.

Fashion designer Yang Soon-ja has modernized traditional galot clothing with her Monsengee label, while also revitalizing the traditional craft for local women whose own mothers may not have learned the dyeing process.

Galot is clothing that is dyed with the juice of unripe persimmons and is the traditional workday clothing of Jeju farmers and fishers.

Prof. Kwon Sook-hee of Jeju National University's Department of Clothing and Textiles said the "gal" portion of the name comes from the Chinese character for leather and refers to the resilient nature of the fabric. The practice is believed to have started in the 15th century during the Choseon Dynasty.

There are no confirmed records of how the dyeing process was discovered but it is believed it may have been accidental, as residents noticed that persimmon juice spilled on their clothing not only left a permanent stain but strengthened the fabric. It was later discovered to have other useful traits.

"Galot has a lot of functions," Monsengee's Yang said. "It blocks more than 90 percent of the sun's rays." It also absorbs sweat without smelling and acts as a natural insect repellent, making it ideal for Jeju's climate and traditional rural community.

A native of a small Jeju village, Yang recalls watching her grandmother and other villagers working their land dressed in bright yellow galot.

Like many older Jeju residents, Yang learned the technique through watching.

"I learned from old ladies on Jeju many years ago," she said. "While I was a little girl growing up, I watched my mother doing it."

Yang studied fashion and design at the Kukje Fashion Design Institute and La Salle College of the Arts, both in Seoul, and at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

"I graduated from high school and the same day I went to Seoul," she said. "While I was out, I stayed in Seoul and New York. I came back 37 years after I left. This is my hometown."

Yang established her company in 1996, naming it Monsengee for the Jeju pony, and merged the fashion aesthetic she learned in Seoul and New York with the traditions of her home island. She returned to Jeju permanently in 2002 and now harvests her own trees, using the fruit to color a range of fabrics for her high-end garments.

The colors require sunlight to develop and set and Yang achieves color variations by redyeing and adding natural substances to the persimmon juice.

Yang, who won the the title of Grand Master of Galot in 2006, said that when she dies, the title will die with her, as no one else can do what she does. She was also elected as president of Jeju's Tourism and Handcrafts Corporation in September but does not allow her added duties to keep her from passing her craft onto younger residents.

"I teach people in the local jail," she said, "so that when they get out, they know a skill and can get a job."

She also teaches classes for local residents each week, including a class for disabled people.

Yang said she teaches because she wants to share her "sense of craft" with the younger generation.

"The present generation is only concerned with learning skills by rote," she said. "I want to impart to them the importance of creativity and freedom that has made me what I am today."

In doing so, she hopes to nurture more talent on Jeju in what is a unique craft and to raise the general level of artisans on the island. At least one of her students hopes, in turn, to pass the skills she learns to others.

"When I first came here I was more interested in the sewing but since I have been here, I have become more interested in the dyeing," said Yoon Sung-sook, a Jeju woman who has studied with Yang five days a week for the past two months.

Yoon hopes to pass the traditional technique to newcomers to the island. As in much of rural Korea, many of the local farmers have married women from overseas as young Korean women moved to the cities for education and careers.

"One of my motivations in learning how to do this is that I thought of opening a welfare center for migrant women," Yoon said. "I wanted to teach them a useful skill and perhaps connect them with Monsengee as workers later on."