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[Herald Interview] Evidence needs to be preserved: photographer who documented Gwangju Democratization Movement


Norman Thorpe (Culture Ministry)
Norman Thorpe (Culture Ministry)

On the morning of May 27, 1980, Norman Knute Thorpe, a correspondent for the Asian Wall Street Journal, walked into the South Jeolla Provincial Office in South Korea. The dead bodies of young men lay on the floor, blood splattered here and there. Before the Korean military could clean up, Thorpe photographed the tragic scene.

The bodies belonged to victims of military killings, following the Gwangju Democratic Uprising on May 18. Thorpe’s work is now accessible to the public through a special exhibition that runs until July 31 at the South Jeolla Provincial Office, now in Muan County.

“I think it is very important to disclose the true events that happened, and photographs are an important medium to do that,” Thorpe told The Korea Herald during an email interview.

“I don’t know if I was the first reporter to enter the building, but it’s true that I was one of the first,” he recalled. “It was scary and shocking to walk through the building and see the bodies as the soldiers carried the bodies downstairs. When I went into the building I expected that someone would stop me, but to my surprise, that didn’t happen and I could walk everywhere.”

Along with around 20 photos of the scene inside the South Jeolla Provincial Office, the exhibition displays over 200 items donated by Thorpe, including photos of people taken from May 21 to May 27, 1980, in Gwangju and nearby Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, as well as the camera he used at the time.

Thorpe added that his main reason for donating the items was to ensure the evidence was preserved.

“As I grow older I also worry about what might happen to the photos after I die. I wanted them to be preserved in some way where they also could be available to scholars and researchers,” he said.

As much as he believes that the items are crucial for research, the former correspondent was also considerate of the feelings of the victims’ families.

“I understand that some of my photos in the exhibition helped family members of the victims to know more specifically the details of a loved one’s death. That would be terribly painful for family members, and I am sorry because of that,” he said.
 
Norman Thorpe took this photo inside the South Jeolla Provincial Office on May 23, 1980. (Culture Ministry)
Norman Thorpe took this photo inside the South Jeolla Provincial Office on May 23, 1980. (Culture Ministry)

According to the Culture Ministry, the exhibition is being held with the consent of the victims’ families, who have also emphasized the need to uncover more evidence of what happened in 1980.

The exhibition also is special as it includes photos that inspired the Booker International Prize-winning author Han Kang when she wrote “Human Acts.” The book depicts the story of a young boy named Dong-ho, who is killed in the bloody military crackdown after the Gwangju Democratic Uprising of May 1980.

Thorpe said he has not read the book.

“I have intentionally avoided contact with fiction and feature films about 5.18 because I don’t want to mix up my own memories with someone else’s literary creations,” Thorpe said. “That is not to say that fiction about events like 5.18 isn’t important. It is very important because it reaches an audience that might not be reached otherwise.”
 
People gather in front of Mokpo Station in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, May 24, 1980, in this photo taken by Norman Thorpe. (Culture Ministry)
People gather in front of Mokpo Station in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, May 24, 1980, in this photo taken by Norman Thorpe. (Culture Ministry)

At the end of the interview, Thorpe briefly commented about the ongoing violence and murders that are happening in Myanmar in the aftermath of the military coup on Feb. 1.

“The crisis in Myanmar reflects many parallels with events in Korea, but progress there seems to be stalled,” he said.

By Song Seung-hyun (ssh@heraldcorp.com)
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