To foreigners, South Korea is known for its advanced technology, impressive skyscrapers, delicious food, and honorable traditions. However, there is a side of the country that visitors rarely see, such as ‘Goshiwon’ and ‘Goshitel’— cramped, cheap, tiny home units where South Korea’s poor live.
South Korean photographer Sim Kyu-dong spent around 5 years living in Goshiwon in Seoul when he moved there for work and documented the lives of the poor people there with his camera. The photographer who arrived from Gangneung in Gangwon Province had no other choice for better living conditions because the rent for Goshiwon was cheap, there was no need for a deposit, and there were no maintenance fees.
In an in-depth interview with Bored Panda, Sim explained what inspired him to do the photo series, talked about his passion as a photographer, and mused about what it takes to become a professional photographer.
“Goshiwon is actually built for examinees preparing for various tests such as the state bar exam or civil service examinations. I used Goshiwon whenever I leave my home and stay in Seoul. It was good accommodation,” Sim said. “In such a way, I spent about 5 years in Seoul’s Goshiwon.”
Goshiwon rooms are very similar to dormitory rooms, have shared kitchen areas and bathrooms, and attract a lot of students and migrant workers. Meanwhile, Goshitel rooms are slightly more spacious but much barer. Goshiwon and Goshitel are often used as synonyms in South Korea.
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The prices in Seoul can be sky-high, so the photographer was glad that he was paying only 220,000 won (now around 186 dollars or 169 euro) per month in rent for a room in Sillim-dong. Depending on the area, a month’s rent in Goshiwon or Goshitel can be nearly double that in some places.
The rooms in Goshiwon usually have a bed, a desk, and a closet for your things, but everything else is shared with other residents. The vast majority of Goshitel are in Seoul, but there some others peppered around the country. The quality of living in Goshiwon is quite bad, even if the base necessities are there. It's no wonder that some people who live there, including the photographer Sim, became depressed.
“I naturally recognized that Goshiwon was used as a new type of dwelling,” the photographer told Bored Panda, saying that they were perfect for him, not just examinees. “One day, when I told someone that I am living in Goshiwon, their answer was: ‘Which exam are you preparing for?’ I felt strange whenever I heard this question.”
According to Sim, he had an “unpleasant feeling” whenever he heard that question because people implied that the place he lived in wasn’t “right.”
“So, I decided to show the new residence form of Goshiwon with photographs. Once the public became aware of these new facts, I thought it would be meaningful to those living in the Goshiwon.”
Sim revealed to Bored Panda that he majored in nursing at university. “When preparing for college entrance exams, I heard that a male nurse tends to get a job more easily and I applied to this major. However, I thought that my future life as a nurse might not be pleasant for me.”
“I wondered whether I could live doing pleasant work. So I tried a lot of different jobs. Just then, I enjoyed taking pictures and I was thinking of my job as a photographer. After that, I went on the road as a travel and wedding photographer. But soon, I felt that the commercial photographs took away from the charm of the photos which purely I liked. At that time, I thought I should show Goshiwon and the best way I could do that was with photography. That’s why I took pictures of Goshiwon. As my photos were released, I was called a photographer.”
The photographer admitted that the project “was pretty tough” and that he had hoped to show off his pictures at an exhibition or in the media. “In a system which is dominant with professional photographers, I am just an amateur.”
“Consider why you want to be a photographer if you want to become a professional photographer. If your answer is just that it looks cool to be popular, stop it. Ask yourself again whether you really want to be a photographer based on the photos themselves, not the reputation,” Sim gave some very direct and blunt advice to people who want to become professional photographers.
“Originally, I did not want to be a photographer,” he said, noting that he simply enjoyed taking pictures that “represented” him. “I even wanted to be able to live off of only taking photos. It is pretty hard to succeed as a photographer. Of course, I was not successful either and I do not want it anymore. I just would like to live doing what I really want and enjoy passionately. That is all.”