Korea in Full Spectrum: The Shadows of the Sewol Tragedy

664373_10152876236646996_8772368298362928181_oBy: Brent Sheffield
Beautiful HDR Photography provided by Levi Basist of LeviBasist.com




Life might be best described as an algorithm of chaos. We try hard to love and attribute meaning to events in our lives, but, without reason, the physical reality we live in mercilessly tears away the people we love and the meaning in life we work so hard to obtain.  Life rains on the just and the unjust.  That’s the reality we live in, even though our minds constantly reach for refuge, escape, or even acceptance of the rain.        

Korea is suffering.  Over 300 people, mostly students from Danwon High School in Ansan, lost their lives when their ferry, The Sewol, capsized on April 16th.    Like most tragedies in life, an unseemly amalgamation of ineptitude and bad timing created a perfect storm of loss and unimaginable anguish.

To think that a harmless ferry ride to Jeju Island, a near tropical paradise and point of pride for many Koreans, resulted in such a loss of life is heartrending.  A romanticized trip, that is as inherently Korean as ‘kimchi’, has been transformed into an unsightly blemish that will haunt the Korean conscience for the foreseeable future.

As a teacher in Korea, I can’t imagine the pain or loss suffered by the families and faculty of the students who lost their lives.  I’ve taught in Korea for three years.  One consistent experience students shared with me regardless of grade level or school is the pride and excitement regarding their trips to Jeju Island.  If we play the dreaded English game of “What are you doing this weekend?” even the quiet students will unapologetically burst at the seams and announce their plans to visit Jeju in front of the class.  Upon their return, I’m often honored with either chocolate or oranges that the students boastfully remind me are from Jeju.

A trip to Jeju is somewhat a rite of passage in Korea.  But for around 300 high school students from Ansan, what should have been a memorable experience with friends and classmates before junior exams became a nightmare.  Instead of basking on subtropical beaches, exploring lava tunnels, or eating 흑돼지, students met a hellish end. 

As the ship listed quickly, the ferry’s crew told students to put on life jackets and wait until further instructions or help arrived.  Students only realized they needed to escape after it was too late.  Where they could, they gathered into groups to avoid being alone.  A boy and a girl even tied their life jackets together to avoid drifting apart.  Students and their teachers watched in horror as their cabins filled with frigid water from the East China Sea.  Many students broke their fingers struggling to climb away from the water or by desperately attempting to claw through the barriers in front of them.  The students waited until they suffocated together in a cold, claustrophobic, and dark end.

I avoided reading about the accident when news broke.  I couldn’t deal with the thought of students dying during what should have been a highlight of their high school years.  I couldn’t deal with the thoughts of students being trapped in the bottom of a ship awaiting their demise.  I didn’t want to think about how parents might imagine what the last moments of their children were like before their lives were cut short.

During this time, I stumbled across some stunning HDR photos of South Korea.  High Dynamic Range photos capture a fuller range of light by combining multiple exposures of the same scene into a single image.  A fuller range of detail becomes visible in the highlights, midtones, and shadows of the photograph.  The end result is a photograph with a truer representation of reality.

The photos brought a semblance of peace to my heart – enough to give me the strength to read and emotionally connect myself to the Sewol incident.  The photos reminded me that life in full spectrum, while it can be beautiful, is never void of darker places – even the most beautiful photographs have shadows.

The darker details in life may be ugly, they may hurt us, and they can leave us feeling empty, alone, or emotionally overwhelmed.  Nevertheless, they are part of life.  If we want to see or experience the full spectrum, we must accept that shadows will always play a part in our lives.     

The Sewol disaster is not the first tragedy Korea endured, and it won’t be the last.  Korea is different from the West and individual Koreans not directly connected to the Sewol incident feel an intense amount of shame and responsibility.  I hope Koreans understand that the rest of the world does not view them any differently or less respectably after the incident.    

Events like the Sewol disaster happen to all people, of all belief systems, of all nations, in all parts in the world.  No matter what precautions people take, the shadows in life always find ways to manifest in our world without discrimination.  No people or nations are immune.  The best we can do is embrace life, comfort one another, and try our best to learn from our mistakes.    

I’m heartbroken over the recent losses.  My thoughts and prayers go out to all of the families, loved ones, friends, and victims of this horrible tragedy.  I wish I could come up with some reason to make sense of so much suffering, but I can’t. My only hope is that the shadows illuminate the brighter parts of our lives.  None of us are promised tomorrow, so we must do our best to appreciate what we have. 

All I can do is leave you with these pictures in hopes that they also bring you peace.  Korea is still beautiful and Korea will continue to display its beauty in full spectrum – even during the times when the shadows appear more prominent.


I would like to thank Levi Basist for his inspiring photography (to see more of his work please visit his site here and let him know he’s awesome!).  I hope it reminds Korea that the world does not see it any differently than it did before.  This is Korea and it can be quite spectacular, even in the midst of darker times.  

















9 thoughts on “Korea in Full Spectrum: The Shadows of the Sewol Tragedy

  1. A really, thoughtful, well written article. Thanks for sharing it and expressing all of our feelings so well.

    I am coming to Korea the end of May to visit after having been stationed in Korea many years ago. My first stop will be Ansan to pay my respects.


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