Korea’s mildly-spicy fermented pepper paste gochujang has enjoyed a rise in popularity in the past few years. So much so, in fact, that Smile Magazine ran an entire article on visiting the home of some of Korea’s best traditionally made gochujang, Sunchang. I had the pleasure of heading down to photograph the village and some of the ladies famous for Korea’s most flavourful gochujang.
This was to be a feature in the magazine, so we’d need to collect a good amount of variety with the images to fill the pages of the story. While certain things would be impossible due to the season (mixing the ingredients, harvesting peppers, etc.), I still had good access to the different houses that make the paste, the streets of the village, and a couple of famous paste makers. This, coupled with some photos of the surrounds and the local Ongi (fermentation pot) museum, would give us some good options for the story.
Excited to taste their pastes first-hand, I made the necessary calls, packed my bags, and drove down to Sunchang. The nearly four-hour drive took me far from the bright lights of Seoul and deep into the beautiful countryside of Jeolla-do. The cool mountain air and low-population density were a welcome relief from city life and I couldn’t wait to get started. I arrived mid-afternoon and took a quick stroll around the village to familiarise myself before stopping by the home of Park Hyun-soon, who was one of the ladies I would be photographing for the article. When I arrived, she greeted me with a smile and asked for a few moments to change into her hanbok as that’s how she’d like to be photographed. We discussed potential shots and what she would be able to show me before she changed. While I waited, I set up my equipment and visualised the few shots I’d like to get for the article.
Gochujang techniques are passed down between women in this village and I had heard that Park’s mother-in-law had taught her the ropes. Once we were done with our shoot, I expressed my desire to make a quick photograph of her with her mother-in-law and was invited back later in the day for that purpose. Having an hour or so to kill, I made my way around the village to make filler images for the story. There were plenty of uniquely Korean scenes to be found, so I was able to create a good selection for my editor. Ideally, I would have loved to have Park working with her monther-in-law, but this was not possible on the day, so we settled for a quick portrait in the yard of their home.
This portrait was made just as the sun was going behind the mountains and the valley plunged into shade just moments after. I headed into the town for a quick meal before checking into my hotel for the night ready for the next day’s adventures. I got up early to express the idea of the “road to Sunchang” that my editor had requested. I knew that there was a high chance of fog in the valleys at this time of year, so I headed up a hill overlooking the village just before sunrise to catch the fog being illuminated in the morning light. Having got this, I headed down the hill to make a few images in Park Hyun-soo’s yard.
Once I’d finished up there, it was time to meet my next subject, the extremely busy Kang Sun-ok. I’d been warned that she could be a little gruff and not to take her the wrong way. Maybe it was just the foreigner speaking with her in her own language or a good cup of coffee that morning, but we had a great 20-minute session together before she started her gochujang making lesson. We got some portraits of her and she even prepared several different ages of gochujang for me to photograph.
To round out the assignment, I braved the crowds the local national park as autumn was at its peak during my visit. The tranquil drive down an avenue of metasequoia trees was quite deceiving. It took my 45 minutes just to wait for a parking space, but it was well worth it. The trees at Gangcheonsan National Part were just spectacular. This was the perfect way to round out my trip before driving back to Seoul for a session the following morning.
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