Until the novel coronavirus disrupted life in South Korea, artist-photographer Niall Ruddy’s days began with the same, meditative ritual in his hometown of Busan. He’d get on a random bus, ride for 30-40 minutes, and get off wherever that took him. It was how he fell for the charms of Nampo with its shopping alleys, capturing the markets and traditional neighbourhoods of the wider Jung-gu area, Busan port, and working-class neighbourhoods like Jaesongdong or Daeyeon.
COVID-19 cases overwhelmed the country in late February, and in early March Ruddy, 36, was cooped up at home for two weeks, racked with nervousness. But with rigorous testing and contact-tracing, South Korea averted the suffering that overwhelmed countries like China and Italy—without ever resorting to crippling lockdowns. And now, as India, U.S.A., and much of Europe continue to wrestle with the infection by hunkering down indoors, Busan and other South Korean cities are on the mend. The country reported nine cases yesterday (April 20), five of which were imported.
Ruddy, an English teacher and originally from Northern Ireland, is testing out this new, post-coronavirus world with a camera in hand. He gets out much lesser than before, armed with a mask and an instinct to maintain distance, but his vibrant, chaotic city is no less interesting a subject to his lens. A quietness has descended upon Busan, bottles of hand sanitisers are everywhere, festivals and sporting events are cancelled; but Ruddy feels a frisson of pride for his adopted home. To him these are signs that people have coped and continued lives amid a global disaster, however altered they might be. “I am not surprised either—South Korea has seen great tragedy and enormous social change, only to emerge stronger every time,” he notes.
For his MFA degree, Ruddy is currently working on a project that examines Busan’s old traditional neighbourhoods that are disappearing amid modernisation. Although his fiancée is a Busan native, it is Ruddy who has visited areas she’s never even set foot in.
“I’m from a small town of Newry in Northern Ireland, and perhaps it was growing up amid The Troubles that inspired me to look outwards,” he says. After he worked in corporate banking in Dublin for five years, Ruddy began looking for a way out—an escape that could weave in more art and travel into his life. A friend of his was teaching English in South Korea at that time, and he decided to follow. In 2011, at the age of 28, the photographer moved to the city of Changwon, in the south of the peninsula. Over the next five years, Ruddy moved across different cities and small towns in Gyeongsangnam-do province. “I was experiencing so many new and complicated feelings relating to identity, displacement, the concept of home, and I could only express them through photography and art.” He put down roots in Busan three years ago, and it does feel like home. “I love observing how cities operate, and for someone like that, Busan is a godsend.”
Busan Station is the gateway to the city, and commuters have fallen into the habit of social distancing on its platforms. Another significant presence are the cleaners, regularly scrubbing down the station’s seating areas. Some don safety gear to spray disinfectant in every nook. In South Korea, coronavirus cases peaked between late-February and early-March, over a month after its first case was reported in end-January.
Now, however, the pandemic is in control across the country, to the extent that people are leaving their homes on a regular basis. Dog walkers have returned to Gwangan beach, a reality that didn’t seem possible at a time Busan was one of worst-hit cities in South Korea after Daegu, the centre of the outbreak.
Three friends take a breather from shopping at the Lotte Department Store in Nampodong on a Saturday at lunchtime. Fear of infection looms large especially around what were once bustling malls and areas. The normally crowded store now sees a much conservative footfall compared to pre-pandemic times.
No matter where you work, face masks and gloves have seeped into daily life almost everywhere in Busan. Bottles of hand sanitiser too are strategically placed in many public places, including here at the Jagalchi Fish market, one of South Korea’s largest.
Cherry blossom season is one of South Korea’s most eagerly awaited events, and attracts large crowds. This year, cherry blossom festivals in the city were cancelled, and it was expected that people would forgo hanami. Busanites, however, flocked to sakura trees in the OncheonCheon area in considerable numbers.
Busan has an excellent subway system, and convenient bus and taxi services. COVID-19, however, has altered the way many people commute. It is now common to see locals cycling and walking to avoid packed trains and public transport.
In the past, you’d know you were in the grounds and outdoor theatre of the Busan International Film Festival building if you heard the laughter of children and the chatter of teens on the weekend. There was a noticeable absence of play during the worst of the pandemic, but now there are signs that life is returning to something approaching normalcy.