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Capturing Beauty and Tragedy on Jeju Island

A summer SOURCE grant allows art photography major Charlotte Howard to explore the secrets of a South Korean paradise.

Charlotte Howard stands in front of tall waterfall holding camera
Art photography major Charlotte Howard ’20 visits a waterfall on Jeju Island, South Korea.

Charlotte Howard ’20 dreamed of visiting South Korea for years before she actually traveled there last summer. The art photography major in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) secured an internship in Seoul and spent almost a year planning her trip. “I made a connection with Izzy Schreiber, a fashion photographer working in Seoul, and he took me on as an intern for the summer,” Howard says. “South Korea is rich in popular culture, and I am fascinated by Korean aesthetics and how they emerge in U.S. visual culture.”

Howard had an idea for a separate creative project she wanted to complete while she was in South Korea, and VPA associate professor Laura Heyman encouraged her to look into funding from The SOURCE (Syracuse University Office for Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement) . The SOURCE awards grants to Syracuse University undergraduates who engage in faculty-guided research or creative projects. Students across all disciplines are eligible for academic year or summer grants up to $5,000, so Howard applied for a summer grant.

“The SOURCE application was straightforward, but writing a grant proposal can be daunting,” she recalls. “The SOURCE offers workshops to help students navigate the process and provided feedback on my monthly status reports. Their regular communications helped me stay on track.”

Natural Wonders and Dark Truths

Jeju Island in the evening across the water
Howard’s photo of the southern coast in a rainstorm captures the eerie essence of Jeju Island.

Howard was awarded a SOURCE summer grant for $2,800, which she used to complete an art photography project she called “Edenic Island.” It focused on Jeju Island, a popular tourist destination in South Korea considered a vacation paradise by South Korean, Chinese and Japanese visitors. She outlined the origins of her project in an Artist Statement. “Jeju Island was formed from volcanic eruptions during the Cenozoic era and contains many natural wonders,” Howard wrote. “In many ways it’s a true paradise, but the island holds a dark secret that casts a shadow over the contemporary inhabitants.”

Japan took control of Korea in the early 1900s and ruled it until the end of World War II. After that, Jeju islanders thought to be communist sympathizers protested South Korea’s new government. In 1948, Seoul declared military rule and launched a violent suppression of the protests. Many islanders were executed without due process and many more were forced into hiding. Over a six-year period, more than 30,000 islanders—including women and children—were killed by the Korean government. In 2000, a truth commission created to investigate the atrocities found that the government had been responsible, and honor was restored to the victims.

Merging Research and Creativity

“Jeju has a seemingly endless amount of natural beauty, but often the most striking places would be where the most tragic events occurred,” Howard observes. “I conducted research in advance of my departure for Jeju Island to make the most of my time there and plan the images I wanted to capture. On my first trip there, I scouted locations and began shooting. At the end of my stay in Korea, I traveled again to Jeju to reshoot and create new images.”

Howard’s photographic work focuses on the juxtaposition of Jeju’s natural beauty with its dark past. “The intent was to bring an awareness of the island’s tragic history and see beyond the tourist attractions that conveniently hide these truths, perhaps to cope with them,” Howard explains.

Long-Distance Feedback

Trees in the forest with white eye symbols painted on their trunks
An environmentalist group spray painted eyes on the trees in Saryeoni Forest on Jeju Island to let people know that deforestation is not going unnoticed.

Howard’s faculty mentor for her SOURCE project was Associate Professor Doug Dubois, chair of VPA’s Department of Transmedia , which includes film, art photography, art video and computer art and animation. He provided valuable feedback from across the globe. “I sent him my photos and we discussed the project over Skype,” she says. “In the process, I learned to be flexible and consider approaching a project from several angles to see how it unfolds.”

When she returned to the U.S., Howard prepared her photographs for a November exhibition at the Biblio Gallery in Bird Library . She also plans to submit her photos to artist publications. “My project really helped me develop my artistic voice,” Howard says. “I went to Italy through Syracuse Abroad in the summer of 2018, but South Korea was my first experience traveling alone for an extended period. It made me realize the value of living outside of my native country and the importance of a long-term cultural immersion experience to my personal academic and professional development.”

As Howard approaches her graduation in May 2020, she reflects on the choice she made as a high school senior to attend Syracuse University. She was familiar with the University through her sister, Sydney Howard ’18, who also earned a degree in art photography at VPA. “Coming from a small town in rural New York, I wanted a larger school with a diverse student body so I might gain different perspectives,” she says. “I’ve had a great experience here. There are so many opportunities for students, and I’ve found the faculty to be very supportive. They really want to see you succeed.”

Mary Beth Horsington

This story was published on .

Also of Interest

  • College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA)

    Home to the visual and performing arts at Syracuse, VPA supports the creative process and professional development. The College is divided into six areas: the School of Art; the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies; the School of Design; the Department of Drama; the Rose, Jules R. and Stanford S. Setnor School of Music; and the Department of Transmedia.

  • The SOURCE

    The mission of The SOURCE is to foster and support diverse undergraduate participation in faculty-guided scholarly research and creative inquiry. Student participants will progress through initial training in research or other creative skills, to designing and revising the structure of their projects, and culminating in research, creative, and professional contributions that are original and timely.