The sinking of MV Sewol in April 2014 off the southwest coast of South Korea claimed 304 lives; 250 of them were high school students on a school field trip. Human errors and layers of corruption compounded to make what could have been a maritime accident into a full-scale disaster, one of the largest man-made disasters in South Korean history. The bereaved families have been demanding answers regarding the failed rescue efforts, but South Korea’s authoritarian government has largely ignored their demands, shunned accountability and turned a blind eye on their suffering.
Due to political interference, the independent investigative commission only had its first hearing in December 2015, one year and eight months after the sinking. Many bereaved parents question the government’s willingness to help the probe and own accountability, and quit their jobs to seek answers about the circumstances of their children’s deaths.
Once ordinary citizens and parents, their lives were turned completely upside-down, first by their children’s deaths and later by what they call the government’s neglect and foul-play. Their grieving and suffering has been prolonged by the lack of investigation and accountability. And the families have endured much vilification, guilt-tripping, and antagonism from the pro-government faction and media, and these groups succeeded in spreading cynicism and painting the families as seeking privileges and monetary compensation from their misfortune.
The scope of the disaster is so vast and the degree of injustice and indignity the families have been suffering is grave. I have been emotionally invested in this project and striving to tell their story to a larger audience. From the early stages of the sinking, I wanted to put a human face onto the tragedy. I took time to build trust with the bereaved families and was granted access to the protest tent when 15 bereaved parents started a hunger strike to generate support for the independent investigation. I also followed the last remaining hunger striker and father Mr. Kim Young-oh during and after his 46 day fast as part of a bigger project on the aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster.
Sewol means “passing of time” in Korean. The bereaved families are still seeking truth and justice from an indifferent state and enduring the passing of time, while the South Korean public become increasingly impatient and hostile towards them.