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Seoul eye: Holiday inequalities

Photographer Lee Sun-min captures traditional Korean holidays and the women within them

Lee Sun-min often explores the themes of patriarchy and family, and here she captures familiar snippets of traditional Korean holidays in her series “Women’s House II.” One common theme within the photographs is the composition of three different generations of one family all posed in the same room. For instance, women (grandmother, mother and daughter) are shown cooking in preparation for Chuseok or the Lunar New Year, while men are shown setting up the traditional ancestral memorial service known as charye.

For the series that took around two years to complete, the photographer visited different families across Korea. Living with them for short periods of time, the image she captures is natural and even rather dull, as opposed to the generic happy images we’re often confronted with on mass media.

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“Woman’s House II” was first released in 2004 and within that period of time, the cultural context behind the photos has changed. Take for instance the photograph of the ancestral memorial service where women at the forefront observe from a different room as the men perform the charye. Traditionally, women were not allowed into the same room for this ritual and today, fewer families continue to adhere so strictly to such rules. Mothers who had to cook all day do not want their daughters-in-laws to do the same and a lot of the younger generation travel abroad during the holiday.

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There is, however, still much room for change. Lee says that her goal is neither to point a finger at patriarchy nor to focus on the negatives of traditional society. Rather, she believes that with more emphasis on the topic of “caring,” society’s perception of the holidays can move. “For nearly 20 years, women and families were the motif for my work. I don’t want all the positive values of traditional holidays to vanish due to the excessive burden of house chores assigned to women [...] but, I believe a new kind of family bond needs to spread.” Where might we find ourselves ten years from now?

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