Eunmi, Korean Shaman
These photos are of Eunmi Pang, a Korean shaman based in Goyang which is a city just outside of Seoul. I shot these photos during a research trip last year.
I first found out about Eunmi when I was researching Korean shamanism for a project. She was one of two English-speaking shamans that came up on Google. She stood out to me because she used to be a fashion model before she was a shaman. I emailed her and got a response right away. Although her English was great, there was a digital communication barrier that my terrible Korean couldn’t overcome. The back and forth of emails fizzled out quickly and I completely forgot about her soon after. I guess that’s the magic of the internet: it can throw something into arms reach and then straight back into the void.
Korean shamanism involves ghosts, spirits, fate and magic. There are 300,000 practicing shamans in Korea today. It’s been around since forever and is still a huge part of Korean society and culture, it’s not a dead historical thing. It’s hard to believe shamanism can exist in a modern country known for its K-pop and plastic surgery but I think that’s because Koreans actively hide it from the outside world. There’s a weird stigma around shamans and people are generally quite secretive about their relationships with them. I once asked my mum if she’d ever met one and she denied it with a suspicious defensiveness only to admit later that she’d visited one when she was younger “but it was only one time!”. It’s kept well hidden but it’s one of those things: if you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to find. Or in my experience some kind of magic leads you straight to it.
After that failed email exchange with Eunmi I realised I needed to physically go to Korea to get any real research done. I committed myself to learning Korean properly and after a year I went to Seoul. I had no idea what I was going to do, my Korean was still pretty bad at that point (and still is now). Thinking about how I would manage anything with such poor language skills made me nervous so I procrastinated from preparing for the trip entirely. When I arrived I only had a vague plan to stay in a temple on a mountain because it seemed like an appropriate place to get rid of my anxiety.
Korea has a government-funded ‘temple stay’ program where a big bunch of temples are open to the public. You can stay at a temple for a few days, hang out in nature and do various Buddhist things. Most temples were closed or filled up by the time I was sitting in my Airbnb trying to book one on my laptop. With the power of internet magic I eventually found one that wasn’t too far away and two days later I was there. The temple was huge and empty. It probably housed many more monks in the past than it does now. Buddhism used to be the big thing in Korea but Christianity has taken over. There are churches absolutely everywhere in Seoul. There are also heaps of Buddhist temples but they’re hidden in the mountains and far fewer people go to them these days. Religions come and go but shamanism has always been there in the background.
When I arrived at the temple there was only one other person doing temple stay. She was a Korean-American woman and her Korean just as bad as mine. Talking to her filled me with more dread and anxiety because we were speaking in English and I felt like I should’ve been practicing Korean, let alone “researching”. I put my phone on airplane mode and spent the first day wandering aimlessly on the mountain by myself. On the second day I had lunch with the American lady. The temple dining hall had chairs and tables for a hundred people but we were the only ones there. It was eerily dark, quiet and empty.
I don’t remember how it came up in conversation but we started talking about Korean shamanism. I told her about my project and she said “Oh you should meet this shaman I know, she’s very interesting, she used to be a fashion model”. Naturally, the first person I met in Korea knew a shaman and would openly talk about this taboo topic with me. All of a sudden I remembered I’d emailed a shaman a year prior, ex-fashion model Eunmi, and that was exactly who the American lady was talking about. After lunch I turned airplane mode off, emailed Eunmi again and met with her two days later. It was like the magic of the internet, everything you need is right there if you just search for it.
It seemed so simple and obvious at the time but thinking about it now, it was actually an incredibly lucky chain of coincidences. Of all the places I could’ve been, of all the people I could’ve met, of the 30,000 shamans I could’ve encountered, I was led straight back to Eunmi. I later found out that the Korean-American woman had travelled to Korea to become a shaman herself under Eunmi’s teaching. It was as if I’d met her not by chance but by some force of fate. I was always at the right place at the right time and Eunmi later told me it wasn’t a coincidence. She said I had a sort of guardian angel: it was the spirit of my great grandmother who was a shaman herself and she was helping me with my research.
All images © Hyun Lee 2019.
Hyun Lee is a writer, director and photographer based in Sydney.
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