Korean Thanksgiving at Imjingak, South Korea | 임진각에 추석

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Chuseok at Imjingak, South Korea, By Laura Elizabeth Pohl
In Korean culture, the word “hometown” means more than just the place you grew up. It’s a word infused with sentimentality, longing, love and connection. And it’s something I think many Americans like me – transient as we are – probably don’t feel in the same way that Koreans do.

An example: During major holidays in South Korea, EVERYONE beelines for their hometown, resulting in traffic jams of eight hours and more out of Seoul (where 20% of the population lives) to the rest of the country. In normal traffic, the longest it takes to drive from one end of South Korea to the other is about five hours. To not be able to visit your hometown is one of the saddest situations for a Korean; one well-known Korean song begins, “I miss my hometown and I can’t even go.”

And so it was that I spent the recent Chuseok (Thanksgiving) holiday with hundreds of Koreans who can’t visit their hometowns because those places are in North Korea. Instead, all these people gathered at Imjingak, a park on the border with North Korea. This is as close as they’ll ever get to their hometowns. Here, on an outdoor stage-like area under a blazing sun, these yisan-kajok (separated families) performed all the Chuseok ancestral rituals – such as food and drink offerings and bowing to honor your deceased relatives – that you would normally carry out in your hometown. The South Korean government has organized this Chuseok gathering for the last 46 years.

Most yisan-kajok came south before and during the Korean War and ended up permanently separated from their families. More than 80% of them are 70 and older, according to the South Korean Red Cross. “I just want to see my hometown one more time before I die,” was something I heard over and over at Imjingak.

Chuseok at Imjingak, South Korea, By Laura Elizabeth PohlLooking at North Korea. Thousands of South Koreans have been separated from their hometowns and families in the north since the Korean War ended in 1953. They’ll likely never see either before they die.

Chuseok at Imjingak, South Korea, By Laura Elizabeth PohlLining up to perform ancestral rituals for Chuseok at Imjingak. Directly behind the offering area is the wooden Bridge of Freedom, built specifically to exchange Korean War POWs; a functioning railroad bridge (back left) that takes tourist from Imjingak and points south to the last stop in South Korea, Dorasan; and the old railroad bridge (back right).

Chuseok at Imjingak, South Korea, By Laura Elizabeth PohlTraditionally, Koreans bow all the way to the ground during these rituals, but Christians often don’t because it’s considered idol worship.

Chuseok at Imjingak, South Korea, By Laura Elizabeth PohlStanding during the national anthem as the official Chuseok program started at Imjingak. More than 80% of South Koreans separated from their families in the north are 70 and older.

20150927_KOR_ImjingakChuseok at Imjingak, South Korea, By Laura Elizabeth Pohl_0535F-940pxI love that this man broke out his harmonica to accompany the band’s playing of the national anthem.

Chuseok at Imjingak, South Korea, By Laura Elizabeth PohlSpeeches, speeches, speeches under the noon-day sun. I thought the event organizers could have thrown up some tents for all these mostly elderly people to sit under. At least the organizers provided these humongous blue-and-white striped paper hats.

Chuseok at Imjingak, South Korea, By Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Photographing when you’re not sure what you’re seeing

My husband and I recently went camping in the desert in Namibia. Every night we saw these two bright, beautiful stars near each other.

Me: I think it’s the International Space Station.
Husband: But it’s not moving.
Me: I think it’s moving.
Husband: It’s not.
Me: You’re right.
Husband: It kind of looks like the pole star, but we’re too far south. I don’t think it’s a planet. Planets should flash multicolors.
Me: The sky just looks so different in the Southern Hemisphere.
Husband: The only thing I know down here is the Southern Cross.

I often think my husband should know a lot about night skies because he served in the U.S. Navy. But he took only one class in celestial navigation, which apparently isn’t enough to learn everything about stars and planets.

Anyway, I shot several long-exposure photographs, including the one above. It was so gorgeous. I figured one day I would learn about those two bright objects.

Well, today was the day. While browsing through the news, I found out we were admiring Venus and Jupiter. Thank you, New York Times summer of science!

Rwandan entrepreneurs for Grow Movement

One of the things I love best about my job is collaborating with other talented storytellers. Late last year, my friend Crystal Randazzo and I worked on this video for Grow Movement, a nonprofit that gives free business consulting to entrepreneurs in Rwanda, Uganda and Malawi. Crystal filmed two cool entrepreneurs in Rwanda, and I directed and edited. Enjoy!

#GrowAfrica2015 from Laura Elizabeth Pohl on Vimeo.

My daily rituals as a freelancer

This is reposted from my new site The Freelance Life, where freelancers share stories about their daily rituals.

Working in Rwanda. Photo by Vibeke Quaade.

One of the things I like best about freelancing is being in control of my schedule: Accept an assignment or don’t. I can choose to edit pictures as the sun rises or take a random Tuesday off. But when business is a bit slow, as it has been since I moved to South Africa from Rwanda two months ago, then it becomes important for me to have a strict schedule. This prevents me from going crazy worrying about my business – though I do still worry. It also keeps me from wasting time and keeps me accountable, so when I get to the end of the day I know I’ve accomplished at least a couple work-related tasks.

When I’m not on a shoot, I wake up around 6:30, wash up, then stretch and do some yoga. Afterwards I check the news and my emails on my phone. Then I pour myself a glass of water and work for about an hour until my husband wakes up. We like eating breakfast together, whereafter he leaves to go to class and I go sit at my desk again.

As noon creeps closer, my focus drifts. This is when I’m most likely to hit Facebook or fall down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia. Who doesn’t end up reading about the Kardashians when they started out researching vaccination rates in Ethiopia, right?

I’m most alert in the morning, so I do most of my brain-intensive work before noon. I edit videos, caption photos, transcribe interviews, research story ideas, send out estimates, email clients and pitch stories. Lately I haven’t had much paid photography or video work, so a friend and I have been working on a couple projects we hope will bloom into small businesses. I’ve also been writing stories or blog posts for clients. For the most part, I’d rather be working with pictures or videos, but I’m a decent writer and I like writing; I’m grateful to have multiple skillsets. I definitely have no qualms taking on non-photo or video work to pay my bills. Some of the jobs I’ve done in the past include handing out diet supplements at a food and music festival, scheduling patients at an oral surgery clinic and substitute teaching in public schools.

As noon creeps closer, my focus drifts. This is when I’m most likely to hit Facebook or fall down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia. Who doesn’t end up reading about the Kardashians when they started out researching vaccination rates in Ethiopia, right? This is also when I’m most likely to worry about my business: Why aren’t editors answering my pitches? Will I make enough money this year? How can I run my business better? Something that helps is sharing my worries via email with fellow freelancing friends. I also remind myself that life is not work. I work until between noon and 1 p.m., when I break for lunch.

After eating, if I haven’t left the apartment by now, then I seriously need to get out. I go to the gym, run errands or just walk around the neighborhood. I enjoy the library down the street from my apartment. Being a South African library, there are a ton of books I’d never find in the United States, where I’m from. Even if I don’t check out a book, browsing around lets my mind wander into areas that have nothing to do with work or my business. It’s a nice break.

Of course, all breaks must eventually come to an end. When I don’t have evening plans, my second shift begins around 3 p.m. or 4 p.m., usually on the sofa with a bag of raisins or some cookies. I answer emails from the U.S., where people are just starting their work days while I’m downshifting into less brain-intensive work, like color correcting photos, organizing and archiving photos and videos, or listening to podcasts about things I want to learn. I’m a fan of “Coffee Break French” for learning French and “This American Life” for learning how to structure stories. (Of course I also just listen because their stories are amazing).

My husband and I usually eat dinner together between 6:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. We have a rule that when one of us cooks, the other one cleans. Oftentimes he’s nice enough to do both. If I’m really into my work, like when I’m editing a video, I’ll jump back on the computer after dinner. Otherwise nights are reserved for watching a movie, writing for myself or reading a book. I just finished “A Case of Exploding Mangoes.” I go to bed between 9:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. and read before sleeping.

When I started freelancing, I wondered if I’d have enough work and make enough money. Thankfully, I’ve been busy these past two years and I’ve earned a solid (though sometimes erratic) income. My husband worked the last two years before going back to school. But even if he hadn’t, I would have been able to support our little family and save for retirement. I know that sounds boring. But I feel it’s a huge accomplishment given how uncertain the freelance life can be. I’m grateful I’ve had some amazing clients and been able to make this life work so far.

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