Photographers are typically adventurers and explorers by nature and by trade. To keep the creative fire churning, we head out on journeys often with no real destination or return date in mind, searching for unfamiliar faces, vistas, ways of life. While we try to do this as much as possible, we all know that life (finances, weather, work, whatever) gets in the way sometimes forcing us to stay close to home. In those times it’s nice having a place close by to go through the motions and keep the eye and mind sharp. For me, for the last 7 years, that place was Bamgol Maeul.
Bamgol Maeul (maeul = village), located just outside of Sangdo Station in Dongjak District and about 5 minutes from my house, was one of the last remaining moon villages, or 달동네s, in Seoul. These villages, constructed on the sides of mountains and therefore relatively closer to the moon, were built hastily right after the time of the Korea War by and for the working, industrious class. With Seoul’s recent gentrification push, they have all but become extinct.
While I have known about moon villages for a long time, I had no idea there was one in Sangdo when I moved here 7 years ago. I had always associated these villages as being north of the river, in the older parts of the city. I moved over here to the south of the river because of the close proximity to my university (it’s a 6 minute, 47 second walk from my front door to my office on a dry day in my black dress shoes), but I didn’t know much about the town at the time. During the first couple of weeks of familiarizing myself I had a bad first impression. While the neighborhood was clean and quiet, it was also quite stale. Every street I turned on looked just like the one I turned from. There was only one restaurant, a Chinese place, and everyone seemed really young or really old. But as I looked out in the distance, up on the hill, there seemed to be this place with some character and charm that kept catching my eye. That place turned out to be Bamgol Maeul.
Its narrow, winding alleys and splashes of vibrant murals on the walls, which are characteristics of all moon villages, set an interesting juxtaposition and backdrop from a photography perspective. When you went deeper into the village and saw the old well (yes, a well!) – which every alley from every direction led to, the tree and meeting area on the top of the hill, and countless relics, you could start to piece together stories from the past. Because of all this, I spent countless hours and took thousands of photographs in Bamgol Maeul over the years, and it was always my escape from the busy city life in those times when I couldn’t flee properly.
In this post I’d like to share images from two of my final visits to Bamgol.
Bamgol’s Final Winter
On the day of the biggest snowstorm of 2017, I took a long walk over to and around the village. This was my first time hearing, or seeing in this case, that Bamgol was going to be knocked down. Almost all of the houses had been evacuated and marked with big red “Don’t Enter” style Xs by this point, but heavy deconstruction had not started yet so I was able to capture the area basically in its entirety for the last time.
Bamgol’s Final Sunset
A few weeks later I returned to see the “progress” made. I waited for all the construction workers to leave and made my way into one of the surviving houses to capture this sunset.
The next day I returned, and this house was gone.
After packing up my camera and tripod I made my way out of Bamgol Maeul for one of the last times and saw the blueprint of what’s to come – yet another stale, high-rise development that will fit right in with the rest of Sangdo. I Seoul U, as they say.
As I ponder my plans for another weekend stuck in Seoul due to life, I start to miss my old escape right across the street. Well, time to move on and find a new place I guess, just like the former residents of Bamgol Maeul had to do ~