Silver 2017 / Editorial / Photo Essay

School Memories: The Loss In Danwon High

  • Prizes
    Silver in Editorial/Photo Essay, Gold in Editorial/Political
  • Photographer
    Argus Paul Estabrook

Ten classrooms at Danwon High School were spontaneously transformed into memorial sites during the Sewol Ferry Tragedy on April 16, 2014, when the lives of 250 students and 12 teachers (nearly its entire second year class) were lost off the coast of Donggeochado, South Korea. Overnight these classrooms were covered in their own sea of photographs and personal letters addressed to the departed. Blackboards became overwritten with confessionals while items such as calendars and class schedules remained untouched on the walls. From this origin of loss, these classrooms emerged as sacred spaces, repositories of memory.Amidst debate of what should be done to preserve the memorials, a controversial attempt to forcibly clear out and remodel the classrooms was made almost immediately after the 2nd year anniversary of the tragedy. For several days family members occupied the school grounds until an extension was granted to access the classrooms for a few more weekends.In August of 2016, the school resumed renovations and removal of all memorial items. While both government and school officials have said they will oversee storage and the construction of a new memorial off site in two year’s time, specific details have been scarce, leaving families of the victims distrustful. Some say they will continue to protest so the lessons of Sewol will never be forgotten. Others believe proper preservation can’t be achieved once the classrooms are stripped away anew.Powerless against the forces that be, these families say they’re losing their children and loved ones for a second time.

I’m an emerging photographer currently based in Seoul, South Korea. As a Korean-American who grew up in a rural area of Virginia, I have a unique perspective of Korean identity and its relationship to both global and regional communities. I studied photography as an undergraduate, but set it aside during my MFA program at James Madison University to concentrate on intermedia. After moving to South Korea I rediscovered photography, using it as a means to document and share my experiences.