Photographing Air | Seoul’s pollution problem

They used to call it Yellow Dust” or “Hwang Sa” in Korean. Every spring for about one month, a thin layer of yellow dust would cover every surface in South Korea. The dust was so fine it would find its way inside your home, cupboards and even into a sealed container in the refrigerator it seemed. Luxury car owners hated the dust, they would take any opportunity to shammy this mixture of desert sand and pine tree pollen off their cars before it had a chance to adhere to their shiny paint job.

When I arrived in Korean back in 2006, the government and citizens were just realizing the hassle of cleaning up after yellow dust was the least of their problems. “Asian Dust” was becoming a major heath threat. On its journey from the deserts of Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and northern China, the dust picks up numerous toxins as it blows across industrialized China. This mixture of poisons, carcinogens and heavy metals gets dropped off in Korea and even as far as the eastern USA. Being just 2.5 micrometers, thats 30 times thinner in diameter than a human hair, these ultra-fine particles can go deep into the lungs, seep into the blood stream, and even cross the blood brain barrier.

Over my 14 years spent in South Korea. I saw “Yellow Dust” evolve into “Micro Dust” the now ubiquitous term Koreans use to refer to the smog that is now every present and dangerously thick in the winter months – December thru March. Even my daughter who was only five at the time, would ask me “How much micro dust is there today Daddy?” We used to play a game where we would look out our our apartment window over Bukhansan Mountain and try to predict the Seoul Air Quality Index rating. Whoever was closer won. We became so experienced at that we were often only off by +/- 3.

Out of sight out of mind. That was mostly the case during my early years in Korea. As the problem worsened and we moved closer to Seoul for my work, it became increasingly harder not to SEE the toxins I was about to go out and breath. I had a strange relationship with the micro dust. As much as I hated the stuff and griped about it on facebook, I also was drawn to it like a moth to flame. On the worst days, where fine particulate levels were near 200 and citizens were sent phone alerts by the government urging them to say in doors, I would venture out with my dust mask, camera and drone to document the post apocalyptic look of Seoul.

Some days I would use the drone to capture wide arial shots of the city. Other times I focused on street photography capturing the day to day lives of Citizens dealing with the pollution. One time, I interviewed people in the streets for their views on the fine dust while making portraits.

Many of the citizen I interviewed were quick to blame China, Mongolia and other parts of Asia for the pollution. The Korean government has spread this message but the reality is at most 60% of the pollution can be blamed on China. Other sources put much more of the responsibility on Korea which is heavily reliant on coal powered plants in the winter months when the dust hits hardest.

This is a wide-ranging topic that can hardly be summarized in a single post. My research is by no means extensive, just a cumulation opinions I’ve heard and studies I’ve ready over my time in Korea. This is simply a first had account of someone who observed what was once a month of Yellow Dust turn into months of grey micro dust over his 14 years spend in South Korea.

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