Surfing isn’t a sport that many associate with South Korea, although there is a small but thriving community of wave-chasers who live here. One of these is New Zealander Shannon Aston, a photographer currently living in Seoul. Shannon has documented the beaches around the 38th Parallel, the line that divides North and South Korea, in a series of photos he dubs The 38th Parallel Project. This fascinating collection of images is shown in part here, along with an interview with Shannon himself. You can see the rest over on his website.
What is the main reason for this focus on the 38th parallel?
Historically, it’s a very significant place for all of Korea, North and South. The 38th Parallel is where the country was informally divided before the Korean War and more strictly after. The 38th Parallel Beach is located on the eastern most tip of this dividing line. I majored in History and Sociology at University, so the past and present connections of a community to a particular place is something I’m drawn to. At 38th Beach, I saw the local people, the ROK army and the surfers all on the site of this historical division of the two Koreas. My interest in the past, culture and surfing just clicked and developed into the project you see.
It seems like this area is a really unusual place to go for a surf.
It’s more of a unique surfing experience than unusual. For one, the waves are pretty good on their day and the water is crisp and clean. The east coast has a rare beauty and looks just like traditional Korean paintings of the past. What makes it so unique is that the coastline is lined with barbed wire, towers, soldiers and guard posts. The strong military presence is there to defend the border from the distant threat of a DPRK attack or rouge defectors. To ‘go for a surf’ and be from peaceful New Zealand and see such things was really interesting to me and I wanted to show others.
What drew you to wanting to create a project on surf culture in the first place?
I’ve lived near the ocean since I was young and surfed since 1990 so photographing surfing and the beach is a no-brainer for me. The beach was at the end of my street when I was a kid and I spent a lot of time there over the years, swimming, walking the dog and surfing. You see the different seasons, tides and changing colours, which bind you to the natural environment, and I have actively sought out these kinds of experiences since. This connection to the sea is reflected in my photos for their repetitive nature with often only the foreground and light changing. It’s a continuing expression of my changing relationship with 38th Beach. Surfing is done all over Korea I know, but my photographs are telling the story of a single beach through my eyes.
It doesn’t seem as if surf culture is prominent in South Korea compared to many other countries?
Koreans are very passionate about their surfing. Busan, Pohang, Gangneung and Jeju all have surfing traditions where pockets of underground surfers have done it for years. Koreans travel a lot to places like Bali and California, so the culture has come in that way, along with the English teachers, Korean-Americans and the Japanese. I think the aspirational nature of Korean’s puts leisure pursuits like surfing at the top of the list for the young and mobile. Not only is it thrilling, outdoorsy and healthy, surfing offers a kind of social currency and excitement that I think the Korean surfers enjoy. The fact that Korea is surrounded by water and has a strong maritime tradition, using the water for leisure was just a matter of time.
How often do you manage to shoot in this area? It’s a little far from Seoul!
I get over there whenever I can and when there are waves. I love it out there, away from Seoul and breathing clean air, feeling real sunshine and being near the water. I think the East Coast is one of Korea’s most beautiful natural attractions.
Are you planning to develop the project further?
I think it’s on-going as there’s always something new and interesting to see out there. I will always need to surf and when I’m not surfing, I’ll be taking pictures. To be able to surf in Korea and document it is something I really enjoy.