This documentary work represents an inquiry into the religious, cultural and financial dynamics of non-traditional churches located in the periphery of Seoul.
At the same time, it explores the diversity of architectural designs that range from the traditional hanok style house-churches to the so-called mega churches that accommodate thousands of parishioners. In the process, the work questions the functions that churches perform in contemporary South Korean society.
Having grown up outside the German city of Düsseldorf, I was accustomed to churches built mainly in a traditional cathedral style. Every neighboring village and city typically featured at least one Catholic and one Protestant church and these were often located in the center of the urban landscape
In South Korea, on the other hand, I encountered churches everywhere my eyes drifted. Some churches were discreet structures barely noticeable when passing by, whereas others were towering buildings vying for the attention of pedestrians scurrying amidst the urban landscape. As dusk falls, most church crosses are lit up by dark red neon lights and the skyline is eerily littered with symbols of Christ’s crucifixion. This sight invariably reminds me of the dazzling signboards used by fast food restaurant chains to lure consumers off the streets. Of course I am not the first photographer compelled to take images of churches in South Korea.
Protestant and Catholic missionaries working in Korea took the earliest photographs of Christian activity in the late 19th century. Their images depicted a variety of scenes related to missionary work and signs of modernity manifesting itself in Korea. The missionary photographs are a testament to the profound changes witnessed in Korean society at a time when some institutions and values were forged through Koreans encountering foreign missionaries.
Today, South Korea has the highest percentage of Christians of any Asian country. Churches nevertheless remain a metaphor for the continual modernization of South Korea, which has transformed itself into an economic powerhouse. Similarly, non-traditional churches attempt to mimic an economic growth model by starting out as humble houses of worship and often transforming themselves into imposing mega churches if they have the financial means.
It is precisely this metamorphosis that I find intriguing, as I wonder what aspect of the religious, cultural and financial triangle prevails during the various stages of growth.