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‘Failed revolutionary’ seeks another way

Park No-hae turns to pen and camera to quietly change the world

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Published : 2014-02-28 20:07
Updated : 2014-02-28 20:07

Park No-hae poses at his photo exhibition “Another Way,” which runs until March 3, at Sejong Center on Feb. 10.
(Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

He says he is a “failed revolutionary,” but there is not a trace of defeat in his eyes.

A revolutionary-turned-poet and photographer, Park Ki-pyung, better known by his penname Park No-hae, meaning liberation of laborers in Korean, has abandoned socialist revolution. But there is purposefulness in his slow, articulate speech and a steely resolve in his voice ― marks of a man with a mission.

As he sits down for an interview on Feb. 10 at Sejong Center in Seoul, the venue of his latest photo exhibition, it is not difficult to recall him as a young revolutionary who was photographed as he entered the courthouse on Aug. 19, 1991, facing a possible death sentence, looking defiant and self-righteous.

In 1984, working as a laborer, Park published a book of poems, “Dawn of Labor,” that was promptly banned by the authoritarian regime. Despite the ban, about a million copies were published.

The powerful, gushing poems of laborers’ anguish shocked both critics and readers with their rawness. Without a face to put to the name, Park became an icon of the repressive 1980s, a symbol of resistance.

A wanted man, Park continued to publish, fueling speculation that he was a made-up person, a group of writers writing under the same pseudonym. In 1989, he formed the first indigenous socialist movement in South Korea since the end of the Korean War. In 1991, after nearly seven years on the run, he was arrested, his face finally revealed.

On the last day of his trial, Park read out a 190-minute-long final testimony before he was stopped. Prison bars could not stop the words from flowing out of him ― he published two books of poems while in prison.

Upon his release in 1998 on a special amnesty by President Kim Dae-jung, Park declared “I will not sell the past to live today,” signaling a fresh start.

That he has done, transforming himself into a peace activist, using a camera and a pen as instruments of change.

“Chai Time,” taken at Barsat village, Gaguch, Pakistan, 2011. 
(Park No-hae)

The current photo exhibition, titled “Another Way,” is his third exhibition since 2010. Against the soothing background of music from the six countries he roamed are displayed more than 120 works, most of them black-and-white, depicting the local villagers he came across in Indonesia, Pakistan, Laos, Burma, India and Tibet.

“I spent at least a week in a village, living in the community. In some places, I stayed a month,” Park said, explaining the often intimate shots. In Aceh, Indonesia, and Pakistan, places affected by great natural disasters and isolation, Park saw the people build wells and emergency shelters, and engage in “creative sharing” to be self-sufficient. He also witnessed native villages disappearing rapidly, swept up in the tide of globalization and industrialization.

The photographs on display have been selected from some 70,000 shots taken over three years. He had wanted to show more but the space was inadequate. Already, the walls and dividers are crowded with several photographs each, leaving little space for quiet reflection between works.

“I tried to restrain myself but each village had so many stories to tell,” he said. He focused on what he loved, what he hated and what enraged him. “What moved me was the greatness of the everyday lives of the nameless people who accept the inevitable but yet fight against it,” Park said.

Each photograph is accompanied by a verbose caption, described as a poem. The poems leave little to the imagination, robbing the viewers of a chance to form their own thoughts about what they are seeing or to react viscerally to the photographs. Park seems intent on getting a message across to the viewers ― if images fail to convey the message, then there are the words.

Park denies that he is trying to tell people something. “But I think my feelings are being conveyed to the viewers,” he said, explaining how many of the visitors are moved to tears.

Yet, he is telling people something, starting with the title of the exhibition, “Another Way.”

“In life, everyone has his own, different path. I am suggesting, let’s try another way in search of our true self,” he said.

Park has traveled a different path, a path of his own. “In the ’70s and the ’80s I thought socialism was the way to human liberation,” he said.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s, however, made him realize otherwise.

“Truth must be verified in reality. The fall of the Soviet Union led me to deep soul-searching,” he recalled.

“Socialism is not the way,” he said with a sense of finality, adding that he felt responsible as a leader of the socialist movement.

“Since I’ve become a free man, my heart has been living in hell,” he said, in an apparent reference to being called a traitor by some of his former comrades. In Korean society, deeply divided by ideology, people label him either a “red” or a traitor, depending on where they fall on the ideological spectrum; there is no in-between.

“When there was absolute evil, the truth was self-evident. I was not lonely,” he said of the ’70s and ’80s, when Korea was ruled by a succession of authoritarian regimes.

He had not expected the changes in Korean society that were to come ― democracy and personal liberty. “We have more freedom and rights than ever before. Yet, as individual freedom grows, shared good has become weak,” he said.

“Am I thinking of another revolution?” he asked rhetorically.

“Love is extremely restricted. I want to see love spread out. Just as there is no end to love, revolution continues,” he said.

The revolution he envisions now involves farming communities. “Power should shift to farming villages. The current speed of life, competition, mass production and mass consumption cannot be sustained,” he said.

The model farming village would have a communal character, yet individual personality would be respected. This utopian village Park envisions has already been set up, albeit on a small scale, in Yangju, Gyeonggi Province, in the form of a weekend farm. The farm is part of Nanum Munhwa, an NGO that Park established in 2000 to engage in global peace activities.

Park admitted that many similar experiments in the West have failed, attributing the failures to overreliance on religion, progressives who bring their ideology with them, non-inclusiveness and the application of business and market considerations to their operations. “I continue to communicate and observe trends in Europe and the U.S., and the sensibilities of the youths,” he said.

“I know that the revolution I seek will fail. I am prepared for it. But I do my best and I do it with joy. If my life looks good and happy, perhaps others will join me,” he said.

Park is due to publish a new book in June. Twenty years of writing 10 hours a day have culminated in 15,000 pages of manuscript. Whittling that down to 1,000 pages ― a vast compendium still ― is taking about a year. “The book is about ideology, philosophy. How are we to live? What is the good life? What is to be done?” he said.

The book is not intended for intellectuals, he said. “They are not my audience. I have no faith in them.”

By Kim Hoo-ran, Senior writer

(khooran@heraldcorp.com)

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