A woman prays at a local shrine, a sight seen less and less as believers become fewer. Photo by Joey Rositano
Filmmaker and eight-year Jeju resident Joey Rositano has continued his mission to spread awareness of local shamanic heritage in self-published 'Spirits: Jeju Island’s Shamanic Shrines,' a 220-page photo-book of his own photography and stills from his as-yet-unreleased documentary 'Spirits.'
Rositano’s crowd-funded film, excerpts of which debuted at the Jeju Women’s Film Festival last September, arose from the American's curiosity about local ghost stories which turned into a four-year long project into Jeju shamanism. The book thus allowed the Nashville native to explore the subject further through a new medium: photography.
Rositano has researched Jeju's shamanic traditions over four years. Photo by Joey Rositano
Whereas the documentary only permitted him to cover a handful of villages, this photo-book encompasses more than 20, each village highlighting a different aspect of shrine shamanic practice. “The book is definitely closer to my personal experiences. I saw so much more than I could include in a documentary,” Rositano reflects.
Readers are treated to an intimate portrait of colorful practitioners and reverent believers seen amid Jeju’s mystical scenery. Highlights of the book include paper-burning ceremonies, women divers offering rice to the sea god and shamans being overtaken by the divine. Accompanying each photo is Rositano’s commentary on the fading tradition in both English and Korean.
Local women gather for a shamanic rite. Such events are central to community spirit among Jeju elders. Photo by Joey Rositano
A stoic tradition
Fortitude has become an integral part of Jeju identity. Its culture has been under attack for epochs with incursions by Joseon-era mainland exiles (1392-1910), suppression under Japanese colonization (1910-1945), massacre during the April 3 period (1947-1954), and then the anti-shamanic prejudice of Korea’s New Village Movement in the 1970s.
While stating that the island’s geographic seclusion played an important role in the tradition's survival, shamanism's primary role in helping communities grieve for loved ones lost during the April 3 massacre — an estimated 10 to 30 percent of the island were killed — was also vital, believes Rositano.
Believers face prejudice from many in Jeju society. Photo by Joey Rositano
Jeju people use shrine worship as a connection to their past, a past that was virtually erased, yet the last half century of rapid development has created such a generational gulf that many young Koreans are not even aware that their very own grandparents practice a polytheistic religion.
Widening the crevice between generations, Jejueo, the island’s language in which shamanic rituals are conducted, is itself endangered; UNESCO added Jeju-eo to its Atlas of World’s Languages in Danger in 2011.
The little mainstream knowledge about shamanism left sadly consists of gross misconceptions, ideas which evoke images of sinister occultism and not the wholesome, earnest community gatherings these practices actually are.
Jeju's shrines are still active places of worship which are central to Jeju's rural communities. Photo by Joey Rositano
Such a prejudiced popular view of shamanism has contributed to an environment in which shrines are even vandalized, with Rositano himself spearheading the campaign to restore the Seolsaemitdang shrine in Jeju City after its desecration in 2014.
“Shamanism has been presented in a sensational way to its detriment, a way that detracts from an accurate view of the essential role it plays in the community. Aspects of shamanism such as fortune-telling and animal sacrifice are often misunderstood when presented out of context,” Rositano states.
His book is in part an effort to elucidate the religion’s central significance to Jeju elders and correct the misinformation that has probably helped “justify” the vandalism of shrines over the years.
Unfortunately, it appears this problem is only going to get worse, especially as more and more land is bought up by outsiders and tourist crowds increasingly eclipse the local population.
Rositano was able to get intimate shots rarely before seen during his time documenting Jeju's shamanic traditions. Photo by Joey Rositano
In 2014, the number of tourists that visited the island was almost 20 times the island’s population, which while bringing an economic boost, has raised questions around the erosion of local culture and autonomy. And if shamanism is at the heart of Jeju culture, as Rositano argues, the fight over the protection of the shrines is crucial.
At the moment there are some 400 shrines around the island, some of the oldest structures on the island, and only a handful are legally protected. Fortunately, most of the unprotected shrines are still on public land, but those that are on private land are at risk of bulldozing and vandalism, as the desecration of Sulsaemitdang shows.
Exacerbating the situation, shrine worshippers are aging and their voices are not often heard. Activist group the Senjari Rangers (set up by Rositano along with other enthusiasts) helped clean up Seolsaemitdang shrine, only for it to be desecrated again. Local caretakers now feel the maintenance of the shrine is futile unless legal protection is granted, a long and seemingly insurmountable bureaucratic process for which they say they need considerable help.
Despite believers remaining, Rositano fears that Jeju's shrines will eventually be forgotten. Photo by Joey Rositano
Such a situation reflects badly on Jeju Island, particularly as the province is seeking the designation of Jeju haenyeo culture as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. If achieved, aspects of Jeju’s shamanic tradition will be included, yet current protection is weak and seemingly unimportant to provincial officials who seem more keen on marketing Jeju’s exoticism.
Rositano, however, is keen to go far beyond “taking photos of something exotic.” His work, he says, is part of a larger mission to increase attention on Jeju’s threatened heritage at a pivotal moment in the island’s history.
“I fear when the few last traditional villagers pass away that those shrines will be forgotten. Right now is the right time to protect all of Jeju shrines and to inform the world about this incredible piece of human heritage,” said Rositano.
A release party for Spirits: Jeju Island’s Shamanic Shrines will be held on July 4 at Art Scenic in Jeju City’s Wondoshim area.
Ann Bush is currently helping Rositano in his final edit of the book.
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