In 2013, then 77-year-old Marie Ann Han Yoo was moving out of her home in Memphis when she and her family came across a strange-looking suitcase gathering dust in a closet. Old and gray, it looked as though it hadn’t been touched in years.
“The suitcase was from Korea,” recalled Yoo’s daughter, Stephanie Han. “And it was filled with slides.”
The slides revealed rare color photographs of life in South Korea as it began to rebuild after the Korean War, a brutal three-year conflict that killed some five million people, more than half of them civilians. The subjects of the photographer’s gaze were ordinary people, for the most part: a woman wearing a bright pink hanbok outside a city bus station; a young man with an oversized bale of hay on his back stopping to gaze at the camera. Mixed in with the images of everyday life are also up-close glimpses of the political demonstrations, military activities, and powerful figures that marked this period of drastic change. (See what daily life looks like in North Korea.)
Yoo, now 85, had taken the photographs during a 1956-57 sojourn in Seoul when she was just 20 years old. Her mother, who was close with then-president Syngman Rhee, had accepted an offer to work as the public relations director for a high-profile hotel frequented by political and social elites in South Korea’s capital.
The young and curious Yoo had never traveled abroad before—she was born in Hawaii to plantation workers who were among the first Korean immigrants to the United States—and eagerly accompanied her mother across the Pacific, finding work on an American military base in Seoul where she eventually purchased a camera to document her travels.
“I wanted to capture that particular moment in time,” Yoo said in a phone interview. “Everything was totally strange to me.”
Yoo’s unique position as a young, well-connected foreigner gave her license to roam freely and photograph a wide assortment of scenes—without perhaps the more watchful, restrictive gaze that might have followed a local photographer, especially a female one, she said. Wandering through Seoul’s chaotic Namdaemun market, Yoo found vendors selling fabrics, produce, and dry noodles. She captured images of life along the Han River—such as laundry day, a communal event marked by brightly colored articles of clothing splayed on the rocks to dry while families socialized around them. (See an explosion of color in photos from the National Geographic archives.)
During weekend trips to the countryside, Yoo photographed farmers working in green, verdant rice fields, and masons cutting square blocks of stone. Because of her family’s proximity to the government, she often had unparalleled access to elite events and locations, allowing her to make military portraits and take pictures of the president.
When Yoo returned to the United States, she pursued a degree in East Asian history, her interest piqued by the many ordinary Koreans she met. They were “hardworking and resilient people,” she said, still very much recovering from years of war.
Yoo later married and spent much of her life as a homemaker. As time passed, she forgot about the slides, which were not intended to serve as anything more than travel photographs.
Now, rediscovered after some 65 years, the images are being praised as historically significant renderings of the postwar period on the Korean peninsula.
“It’s rare to find color photographs from this era of Korean history,” says Jae Won Chung, an assistant professor of Korean studies at Rutgers University who focuses on modern Korean literature and visual media. “The sharpness of the color and lines and the vividness of the facial expressions on the page certainly bring the lives of the subjects closer to us.”
Yoo’s own identity only adds to the significance of the images, says Chung. “Women photographers have been historically neglected in photography, in and outside of Korea, and certainly when it comes to photographs of Korea.” And as a child of the Korean diaspora in Hawaii, photographing a divided land facing family separation and many other wounds of war, Yoo may have felt more of an unspoken connection to some of her subjects than even she realized herself. “Like Yoo, many may have felt just as displaced and dislocated, though in a different sense,” he says.
Yoo herself emphasizes that her perspective as a photographer was simply a curious and youthful one. Still, with help from her daughters, she has arranged several digital and physical exhibitions of her photographs with organizations such as the Korea Society and various veterans’ associations.
“There are a lot of strong reactions when people show these images to their families,” says Stephanie Han, Yoo’s daughter. “But it allows people to heal.”