Word Count: 7,743
App. MS Word pages (single-spaced): 15 pages
Note: Red denotes changes or areas to recheck
Let's begin this book with perfect honesty – upon first glance, Seoul is not a pretty nor memorable city. When thinking about the great metropolises of the world – New York, Paris, London, or Rome – certain stock images spring instantly to mind, seemingly out of instinct: the Statue of Liberty, Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, or the Colisseum. Or even without structures that overshadow the very cities they hail from, there are entire cityscapes that are just as deeply burned in the world’s imagination, such as is found in the urban wonderland of neon signs and corporate logos that is downtown Tokyo, the stunning architectural wonders defining the skyline of Shanghai, or the quaint charm of the great seaport city of San Francisco.
But Seoul? Are international visitors charmed by the wonders of a building named after a once-impressive (to Koreans) claim to having 63 floors? Does Seoul possess a world-famous marvel of architecture, wonder of engineering, or even a recognizable skyline? In fact, the city seems to possess no particular sense of design at all, since strictly-enforced zoning laws and sensible urban planning are relatively new concepts, as is the practice of building streets in grid patterns, or the careful construction of new buildings. One look at the difference between Seoul north and south of the river is testament to this fact. Kangnam is a relatively ordered lattice of streets, while older, northern Seoul is positively labyrinthine.
Still, I do not mean to be too hard on the city, as I am more than able to acknowledge Seoul’s myriad hidden charms, as well as the fact that there are reasons to fall in love with this peculiar, quirky place. Of course, the taste for Seoul is somewhat acquired, requiring a bit of time to build, just as one might first taste a strange but pleasingly complex wine, or sip an extremely dark beer, or take the first bite of an exotic new food that has an unfamiliar initial punch, but follows up with a pleasant aftertaste that lingers and requires another bite to make sense of what was just tried. And it is in such ways that a new affinity for something is born, out of something that initially seemed strange – or to the eyes and palates of others, downright unpleasant.
So did my affinity for Seoul begin to grow. I, like most other people living in this imposing yet cramped city, did not come to live here completely voluntarily. Many Seoulites were simply born here, while another great many moved here from the countryside in the mass urbanization that happened as Korea modernized. As a foreigner, I originally came to Korea in 1994 on a Fulbright grant and worked in a middle school on Cheju Island for two years before going back to start my Ph.D. work. After receiving another Fulbright to conduct dissertation research in Korea in 2002, I was faced with the fact that I could no longer live in the island paradise that Chejudo bills itself as being, but rather the urban “hell” that is Korea’s capital city. So it was with a literal sense of dread and trepidation that I came to live in Seoul, a city to which I always came for weekends or short trips while I had lived in Chejudo, and so had always thought to myself was the epitome of the clichéd refrain “a nice place to visit, but not to live.”
It is also important to note that I'm from Ohio, in the American Midwest, where people eat only two types of fish – fried or broiled – the terrain is flat as a washboard, roads are wide, and people have lots of elbow room. A long line to me was one with 4 or 5 people, I always had central heating or air-conditioning, and folks never bump into each other unless it's by complete and regretful accident. I had never been in a traffic jam, there was no subway, and almost everyone had a car or access to driving one from the age of 16.
Yes, many places in America experience four seasons (I never understood why Korean middle school textbooks find that an especially interesting thing to point out), including Ohio. In fact, summers in Ohio make the Korean version of the season laughable by comparison, as there is always someone dying in the massive heatwaves that occasionally bake the Midwest, especially in major urban centers such as Chicago. The winters are equally harsh, with the "lake effect" from the large body of water to the north of my state (Lake Erie) bringing down even further the already blood-chilling temperatures that come from Canada and places above.
Until a Seoulite has experienced the hairs inside his or her nose freezing inside, or hear stories of missing persons discovered dead inside their cars in the spring, after a 2-meter high snowdrift has finally melted away – Korean folks don't know cold. To me, Korean winters are hardly frightening.
So life in Chejudo, where I spent my first major stretch of time in Korea, was quite familiar and actually quite mild. The winters were laughable by comparison with even Seoul, and the sea air and open terrain made it an easy place to live. The terrain did feel like an alien landscape to me, with the 오름 (oreum) and other mounds created by bubbling gas inside the great lava mass that is Cheju Island itself combining to remind me of another planet. I had never seen a landscape so hilly and weird, but it was pleasantly different.
It was pleasant because so much was already familiar to me. The streets in Chejudo are naturally wide, since there is more space to go around and, like everything in Korea, Chejudo gets everything last, including massive urban development. So everything was new (especially in 신제주, the then-new and developing suburb) and shiny, with the future looking bright in the mid-1990's. Population density was low, giving people room to maneuver, lines were short, and people were generally quite open and friendly, just like back home.
So when I visited Seoul, I absolutely hated it. But my experience isn't a fair example, since I'm a Midwestern boy at heart; I'm aware of the fact that a New Yorker might find Seoul quite appealing from their perspective. But there are certain aspects of Seoul that can raise one's blood pressure to explosive levels: people cutting the interminably long lines that seem to be the norm, other drivers not following traffic rules, lack of named and organized streets, being rushed to finish your meal in crowded restaurants, and other annoyances ad infinitum.
But it that it? Are the crowds, lines, and noise all that define this place complex city? Is "hell" even an appropriate term? What do I mean by describing this city as such a place? And how does one grow used to – and then even start to enjoy – living in "Hell?" As this book progresses, you will surely get a better sense of what I mean.
Seoul is a city of hustle and bustle, dust and smoke, insanely crowded streets, and is an incessant visual and aural assault on the senses.
The haphazard clustering of neon signs is as visually noisy as the painfully loud techno music shrieking out of newly-opened bakeries and clothing stores at near-unbelievable decibel levels, as pairs of scantily-clad girls feign pleasure while wildly dancing and sweating to win the attention of passersby.
The dizzyingly dense concentration of people in areas such as Myeongdong was positively frightening to me the first time I went, as it was when I found myself in the Samseong subway stop on Christmas Eve, when I had to suppress the urge to panic because I feared there might no be enough room on the platform for all the people.
"A Coex Christmas"
Nearly getting run over by motorcycle delivery men upon getting off of fast-moving buses that open the doors well before stopping, or being pushed brusquely aside by an ajumma who will stop at nothing to get that taxi before you do – these are the things that might make Seoul hard to swallow to the newcomer, but to the true Seoulite who can appreciate the city in a comparative perspective, actually defines the dynamic and lively character of this place. Like that quirky aunt who irritates but one can't help but love for all her idiosyncrasies, Seoul can – with a little mental effort – become quite endearing.
There are a million reasons to hate this place, and I see many Seoulites scowl their ways to work, curse each other through clenched teeth in rush hour traffic, or shoot irritated looks to one another while being bumped and jostled in the tight confines of subway cars in the morning. To the person who is too busy, stressed, or just plain angry to notice the forest for the trees, life is Seoul is not much more than a rat race. As a foriegn researcher and photographer who can benefit from being able to earn my way through life more easily while living here, it is a bit easier to see the city for what it is; not only do I have the time to do so, but this is my very project while being here. So, dear reader, you might be skeptical of my view of Seoul as an interesting kind of hell, as anything above being purely hell itself.
This is the perspective that is afforded me by being a foreigner; I have the time, relative financial privelege, and inherent perspective to see things a little differently from the average native Seoulite. And as a photographer, I am already a close observer of my surroundings, a fact that further predisposes me to look at city life with a more positive eye. For now, my work is somewhere between art and reportage. Photo-reportage? In any case, it is what defines my choice to express what I have seen in terms of equal amounts text and images. It is said that "a picture is worth 1,000 words," most often to express the idea that a picture can replace the need for lenghty description, that the need for prose is obviated by the obviousness of the picture.
However, prose has the ability to express thoughts more exactly, since what I am doing is not pure "art," and not something I want to leave to interpretation or semantic ambiguity. In this way, the images presented here are made all the more meaningful by the text that accompanies them. The need to describe does not disappear with my photographs – for me, images and text exist together in a mutually meaningful relationship.
So how should I begin explaining my long and complex interaction with Seoul, both in terms of my intellectual and photographic thinking on the subject? I could do it chronologically, or according to area – but this didn't strike me as too interesting. In the end, I felt it appropriate to write in accordance with the way I came to get to become more intimately attached to a place that many both affectionately and derisively call "Hell." Much like the first detailed (albeit fictional) account of just such a journey – namely, the classic written by Dante at the end of the Middle Ages – I will characterize my experience as a descent. I don't mean descent in terms of a decreasing level or morality, or into rising levels of gloom and despair.
What I mean to do by using the metaphor of "the descent" is take a look at the city with increasing levels of depth. I liken this to peeling back layers of an onion to look increasingly deeper; this is something that a lot of Korean people have not done in their own society, so this process should be quite informative. What makes it all the more interesting is the fact that my eye is more foreign, something that makes this exploration of Seoul a bit more interesting than if it were being undertaken by a Korean. I see things in a new light, approach subjects from different angles, and even choose to look at things that Koreans might otherwise ignore. In a way, being an informed foreigner and taking a look in is a lot easier than being a Korean insider and striving to keep always keep his or her eyes fresh and approach things anew.
Take, for example, the picture that I always use when talking about the "newness" that my insider/outsider eye brings. This is a shot that both Koreans and non-Koreans seem to equally like. It's one of my earliest "successful" shots taken while living here in Seoul, shot when I still felt like very much of an outsider and was still fascinated by actually living in Seoul, the largest city in which I'd ever lived. The subway dominated my life, so it inevitably dominated my photography. This is one of hundreds of shots I took on the subway, most of them being concentrated during my first year here.
The so-called "couple" here is obviously a creation of circumstance, not choice. To anyone who rides the subway in Seoul, such a scene is so everyday – that of people sleeping on the protracted rides to destinations all over the city: work, home, meeting friends. What makes the photo so universal is that any commuter from any similar city in the world would be familiar with such a scene of accidental intimacy; both this older man and young woman were asleep long enough to not notice that everyone to the left of them had left. Surely had they been awake, the man would have moved over in order to provide a polite amount of space. Their closeness, when forced by large numbers of people, is simply uncomfortable but necessary. When by choice, it becomes simply strange and awkward. Anyone can understand this – it's a mostly irritating, sometimes amusing fact of life in Seoul. But it is also strangely universal. Note the following images, in which accidental circumstance (as well as the framing choice of the photographer) now offers a chance to make an interesting photographic commentary out of an ordinary moment.
Here, riders of the #3 subway line are all so entranced with the video monitors that they never even notice me busily shooting them with my large black camera. Well, actually most people don't notice me shooting them, 90 percent of the time; people, as a rule, are far too engrossed with what they're doing – talking on the cellphone, looking at a store display, hugging their girlfriend – that I can freely shoot even a complete stranger with almost complete freedom.
"Line 3 TV"
Or if it's seven in the morning, I might just catch someone sleeping, albeit in all kinds of interesting configurations.
Sometimes people ask me how I get shots such as this, and a lot of Korean amateur photographers complain to me don't ever seem to be able to capture such shots, or even see the moments in quite the same way I do. I always simply respond to all such questions, "It's because you don't have your eyes open and your camera ready." This is where my outsider status is helpful, because – especially when I first arrived in Seoul – I was always watching, observing. Even if everything wasn't brand new to me – I had lived in Korea for two years before – many aspects of Seoul life were, namely living in a big city, being socially alone, getting to know specific aspects of Seoul culture. I say to people who say they have difficulty seeing Seoul in the same way as me because they're too close, too far inside to see things with the distance and increased sense of removal that my eye brings.
This is why anthropology fieldwork is almost never done within one's "own" culture, and is the same reason I find it so hard to take pictures when I am at home in the United States. Everything, no matter how hard I try, is harder to see with an outsider's eye. When I go to the shopping mall, I am not fascinated by what might seem unusual or particularly American to a foreigner; in fact, it requires so much mental energy to even try to imagine what that would be, the endeavor itself seems forced and superficial. When I walk through a shopping mall in the States, my attention is instantly drawn to the familiar – I enter as a consumer, as a mall-goer, as a shopper. It is hard to step outside of these shoes and see Americans as a non-American, even after having spent year living outside my home country.
The same can easily be said for Koreans, who seem to have even more difficulty stepping outside the boundaries of the communal Korean self. Especially since overt nationalism and a constant sense of constantly comparing Korea to other countries seems to be much stronger than in the typically self-centered U.S., I think this is simply harder to do. What I – as well as many other foreigners – find interesting is that even when Koreans try to do this – to imagine what Korea might look like to foreigners, or when the Korean government and other international-minded groups try to purposely create an image of Korean that they think foreigners want to see – this image is so often wildly wrong or patently ridiculous that I am often embarrassed for Korea's sake.
There are government organizations responsible for trying to put out a good impression of Korea, and they make nice, slick tourism videos and other advertisements, but they are very "Korean" – to the eyes of many foreigners – in that they don't actually show what a lot of foreigners want to see and know about this place. Korea still feels like a closed society to foriegners who are not here as guests, in that all the tourist and government organizations want to show to the outside world are the superficial and colorful aspects of "Korean culture" that are actually the least relevant to real, everyday life here.
One way to tell how the "inside" is defined is by analyzing how many Koreans view those it sees as being on the "outside." Nowadays, Korea gets its occasional western tourists, and there are surely some more than there were before the 1988 Olympics and the World Cup. And there are more foreigners here in raw numbers than there ever were in Korea, if only because there is more money to be made here than ever before in the ever-growing English education industry. But no matter how many come, no matter how much many of us learn about the language and the culture, many Koreans continue to underestimate the ability of foreigners to understand even the simplest things about Korea, and sometimes even get uncomfortable when foreigners break these expectations. Typical questions are:
"Can you eat kimchi?"
"Can you use chopsticks?"
"Isn't that too spicy?"
"(All) Koreans eat..."
"(All) Americans don't like..."
"You can take a taxi by yourself?" Are you sure?
I am asked these questions even when the other person knows I have lived here extensively, and can speak Korean quite competently. The concept of "foreigner" seems to define a specific set of things I can and cannot do, or can and cannot understand.The same expectations are held up for me when I say I am a photographer.
"Why don't you go to Insadong?" people ask me. Variations are: Kyungbokkung, Changdukkung, Toksukung, World Cup Stadium, Sejong Performing Arts Center, City Hall, Yongin Folk Village, the Independence Museum, etc. I hardly ever take these kinds of pictures, since almost all of the photo books you'll find in any bookstore have exhausted these subjects to death. There is a narrow, set vision of what Koreans generally want foreigners to see; but if one thinks about it, who would want a country filled with only hanboks, fan dances, and palaces? It feels stale, impersonal, and fake – like a play or show that's gone on too long.
"The Tourist Shot: Kyeongbokkyung"
A lot of foreigners want to see and experience a "real Korea" that I think most Koreans would feel a bit uncomfortable showing. I feel as if many Koreans want foreigners to see the same things that Koreans want to see on a trip to the States: the Grand Canyon, Statue of Liberty, Golden Gate Bridge, Las Vegas, and the Empire State Building. Foriegners would do the equivalent of eating steak in a famous American restaurant described on the Internet and go to major museums and places of international touristy interest (such as Disneyland or Universal Studios), all while staying in the best hotel one can afford, or provided by the organizer of the tour package. Most Koreans either bring kimchee with them or eventually find a Korean restaurant in the target city. Many Koreans hear hyperbolic stories of the "danger" of going out at night and are even told to be sure not to leave the hotel after a certain time. In this way, many Koreans' taste of overseas life is actually quite delimited and colored by Korean preconceptions. Generally, you always find what you're looking for, anywhere that you go.
For many Americans, this is the opposite of what we seem to want. I can't speak for all foreigners, but I have seen that as much as anyone would feel the need to see the standard palaces, museums, tall buildings, and other major attractions in Korea, a trip filled with only these things would be a boring one indeed. The one thing foreign visitors always seem to enjoy is being taken to places "where real Koreans go" or to a truly representative "normal" Korean place. Americans, it seems, tend to feel their international plane fare is well spent if given the chance to taste "real" Korean food that isn't watered down for them, or go to a neighborhood where tourists almost never go, and even see aspects of Korea that are maybe a bit gritty – something that they absolutely know foreigners are never taken.
Americans, I know, would never entertain the thought of bringing along supplies of American food, let alone ask to be taken to the nearest American restaurant in Seoul. Places that obviously cater to a foreign clientele are called "tourist traps," and being constantly treated to the saccharine-sweet service that is constantly offered to the transient visitor starts to wear pretty thin after a week or two.
So it is with my photography. I don't want to be part of the herd of foreigners toting cameras around Namdaemun, Insadong, and the backstreets of Chongno, taking the same pictures from the same angles that thousands before me have. Where you are in your experience here, how you look at the country and culture, as well as how familiar you are with it – these are all revealed in the types of photographs the foreigner takes. Those who are on a one-week trip tend to take the same pictures of the Kyeongbukkung palace roof, old ajummas cooking food in a 포장마차 (street food stand) along Chongno, and pictures of Korean drummers dancing with the three funny-colored balls on their heads.
"The Tourist Shot: Myeongdong"
People who have been here for a few months start taking pictures of things that go a bit deeper, such as kindergartners in their cute little uniforms, crowds in the subway, farmers working along the roadside, and other everyday people they have started to notice who mark their new Korean everyday lives. Such are the pictures that occupy the photo blogs of many English teachers and other people living and working in Korea.
Such was a stage that my own photography passed though. But then there's another level – that of starting to combine one's knowledge of the culture and what people are talking about in society with the unusual things that now stand out above what has become now mostly mundane. In my case, I started losing interest in taking pictures of Koreans' seeming obsession with cellphone cameras (especially after Americans started getting them), fascination with sticker pictures, or the many people who eat in and create the culture of street stands (퍼장마차).
I had started looking for more. How do I reflect what I know about the hardships faced by foreign workers on film? How can I document the changes posed by the new, stricter-than-normal Anti-Prostitution Law (성매매특별법) in late 2004? What about the problematic way I saw the images of the two middle school girls being used by politically-minded NGO's in late 2002? How should I photographically approach the problem of the growing corporatization of Korean society? The annoying aspects of "conspicuous consumption?" Or just about anything seriously worth thinking about as an informed and educated member of Korean society? The time of street stand pictures had passed. This is a point that most foreign photographers living in Korea never get to, simply by virtue of the fact that most do not spend significant amounts of time here, nor do they learn the language. So my photography inevitable takes a turn for the more serious, for subjects of greater depth.
But I find that many, if not most, Koreans do not like foreigners exploring such "unsafe" or "embarrassing" subjects. For example, people point at my images of prostitution in Seoul's red light districts as "hurting" Korea's image and even "misrepresenting" Korea in some way. But according to most Koreans' own opinions on the subject, sex work in this country is a recognized "social problem." It's something that has recently occupied much of the stage of public debate. By the government's own late 2002 statistics, sex work constitutes 4.1% of Korea's GDP, with an estimated one million women presently working in this industry. Is this something that a photographer and researcher such as myself would or should ignore? Could I, in good conscience? And do Koreans really think foreigners don't immediately notice the reality of this very, very apparent social problem?
So it is here that I need to address the issue of Koreans' perceived need to worry about Korea's "reputation." In terms of some of the more sensitive "social issue" types of photographs, I don't think feel the need at all to worry about Korea's impression in the world. That matter is left up to the collective actions of the things the Korean governement decides to do in the world, as well as how everyday Korean people actually behave. And the so-called "negative" aspects about which many Koreans are "embarrassed" are noticed and talked about by foreigners, represented in the foreign press by people far, far less familiar with Korean culture than dedicated researcher/photographers such as myself.
Still, many Korean people I have come across get visibly uncomfortable - even angry - when I describe some of the kinds of pictures I take, or when they see them directly.
What is the "real" Seoul? How far should one look? What if one looks too far? Is the "Korea" presented at palaces and tourist shops more "real" than the part of Korea that is caught in a picture of one of Korea's oldest red light districts? What about the homeless you can see everyday near Seoul Station or the Ulchiro subway station – are they less a "real" aspect of Korea than a traditional Korean fan dancer or a pansori singer? For anyone – foreigner or Korean – aren't such images more representative of the "real" Korea and "real" Seoul than superficial tourist attractions and souvenir shops?
"Christmas in Myeongdong"
There is also the unmarried older couple entering a motel together, the defiant face of a young protestor in Kwanghwamun holding anti-American banners, or a man slapping his girlfriend across the face repeatedly during an argument. All of these are things that I have seen by simply walking the streets of Seoul. Are these things somehow not "real?"
But still, the majority of Koreans who have seen some of my more socially critical photography tend to bristle and even become upset, sometimes angry. I usually hear some variations of the following comments from such people:
"This will give the wrong impression of Korea."
"That doesn't really happen. It is not typical. You're misrepresenting Korea."
"You're just presenting a 'bad' side of Korea. Why can't you focus on 'good' things?"
But in fact, what many Koreans fail to understand is that few of these statements have any truth value. Any foreigner who has lived here has seen these things - and other "bad" things like them. How can anyone live in a place and not see things both good and bad? I regularly see middle-class salarymen fighting amongst each other after a long drinking session, and regularly avoid vomit on the sidewalk on weekend mornings. I have stood right in the middle of almost every single major candlelight vigil held in Kwangwhamun from late 2002 to early 2003, photographing and listening to the speeches. I have seen and heard nearly everything that a Korean person can see in public. What makes it any less "real" for me, as a foreigner, to photograph, think about, and try to understand such things?
There are no secret facts that "Korea" can hide. Even if I wanted to, I would be dishonest if I did edit out the "bad" I see, if I am truly trying to present a "true" face of the Korea everyday I have come to know. If I did that, I would fall into the category of the hackneyed tourism photographer, and my photographs would actually be largely ignored by many foreigners. I do not do what cheery tourist books do, which try to present the perfect-society, tourist-brochure face of Korea to the world. But on the other hand, I also do not simply present Korea as a dirty, corrupted, evil place – since I don't believe it to be so. It is just a place, a society, a country like any other – with things both good and bad, clean and dirty, laudable and outright embarrassing. I think that foreigners understand this and respect representations that are honest; I truly believe that foriegners – especially those who have put time, effort, and energy into actually learning something about this place – feel disrespected or even insulted when presented with the same, obviously one-sided view of a perfect , dreamlike society – when obviously they have seen that this is not the case with their own eyes.
Koreans needs to understand that foreigners are much smarter than we are made out to be and most people who come here from the outside want to see the "inside" Korea, because we are only presented with the "outside" that Koreans want us to see. We want to see past the veil of hanboks, hanok houses, and recently-renovated palaces.
We want the “real” or the “authentic” – because we see it all around us – and generally chafe at constantly being led to Insadong for the 14th time, Yongin Folk Village for another trip to a "true" Korea played by bored agassis trying not to look bored while checking their cellphones for text messages, or to watching another changing of the Kyeongbokkung Palace guards, whose cheap beards and irritated facial expressions are almost too comical to take seriously.
"The Tourist Shot: Traditional Dress"
Is this the "real" Korea? Modern Koreans dressed up in cheap costumes while half-heartedly reenacting outdated traditions and ceremonial practices? Is this false and superficial construction, similar to a children's puppet show, really everything that Koreans want outsiders to see? And do Korean people realistically think that this is all that we do see? Foreigners, who live in complex societies with our own social issues and problems, are not as naïve as Koreans would like us to be.
For most Americans, who might appreciate the chance to try out sleeping on an ondol floor, drinking in an everyday bar where they can see what Koreans really do after work, eating the same lunch in the same restaurants frequented by everyday office workers, or even try to take the bus and not a taxi, try striking up a conversation with street food vendors – the language barrier or an unfamiliarity with the culture prevents this kind of truly exciting tourism. Unfortunately, most of the the time, we are inevitably stuck being led around austere palaces and museums by overeager college students who want to practice their English, or professional tourist industry workers whose job it is to treat foreigners like guests. Koreans tend to think of foreigners – no matter how long you live here – as guests, and are treated as such.
Yet sometimes, even foreigners get invited to the "inside" to see events, celebrations, and other aspects of Korean culture that indeed are meaningful, are pleasantly traditional, and do seem to hold more emotional "truth" than other, more constructed "traditional" culture. These are truly rare moments for many of us.
These are the moments that many foreigners wait for and cherish – when we are invited and brought to the inside, to be where Koreans really go after hours or with their families, to celebrate what they do, to share the meaningful moments they do. This is why Chuseok is such an interesting time for us foreigners; many of us don't feel "left out" or "lonely" on these days because we want to be with our families, as this is a Korean tradition and doesn't have the same meaning for us. Foreigners all have their own days of giving thanks and remembering, so we are far more likely to feel melancholy on those days than on Chuseok, for obvious reasons. It is somewhat of a Korean conceit – although well-intentioned – to think that we feel "left out."
I think that many foreigners would like to be invited to the inside once or twice to see something like Chuseok from the inside; but like many Koreans, once that holiday has lost its luster after our initial curiosity is sated, it begins to be as annoying as Chuseok is for many Koreans, what with the traffic congestion, long times spent with irritating children, long lines, and additional chores. In the end, many foreigners who are no longer simply curious about Chuseok and understand it for what it is simply enjoy the additional days off spent resting. We are simply annoyed, I think, by the fact that so much is closed on Chuseok day itself. However, we do very much appreciate the courtesy of being initially invited. This is because such an invitation is a rare opportunity to see inside for a change.
And as someone living here in Seoul, or anywhere else in Korea, we also see some of the "bad" and start to wonder about it, start talking about it, asking Koreans about it, and perhaps even start reading about it, learning a bit more deeply. For many foreigners who come to live in a foreign culture, living inside it and coming to understand it in a complex way, taking both the good and the bad, is a goal to be achieved.
So when we go to the bookstore to bring something memorable back home to read, now you might understand how frustrating it is to see only photo and other books that simply deal with World Cup celebrations, brag about Korea's "Han River Miracle," or show endless pictures of hanboks and palaces. These things don't answer the really interesting questions foreigners often tend to have even when seeing Seoul for the first time. And for those who have lived here longer, the questions are even more burning:
"Is that really a red-light district right next to Cheongnyangni/Yongsan train station? Does that mean that prostitution is legal in Korea?"
"Where do all the homeless around Seoul Station and Ulchiro come from? Are there any social services here that offer help?
"Are Koreans really anti-American?"
"What is this society doing to fix the education system?"
These are real questions that I have heard discussed and debated by many non-Koreans I have known here. Tourist books and colorful calendar books are unable to answer such questions.
One reason that many foreigners say they appreciate my photography is that it is done from the point-of-view of someone who is an outsider, who is obviously looking upon things with a foreign eye, but is somehow engaged with this place. I take a critical look, a real look – and not the anthropological look, or the colonialist’s look, or even the tourist’s look at Korean culture. Anyone familiar with Korean photographic history must know the ways that photography during the first part of the 20th century – especially that done by the Japanese – tended to portray Korea as a poor, hapless, dependent country. American GI’s and other foreign journalists made reams of pictures during and after the Korean War, and the images of Korean being destitute and desperate abound. After the 1980’s, when Korea started getting a lot of attention after the Asian and Olympic Games and foreigners started to see Korea as a place to visit, consume, and tour, many Korean photographers and interested organizations began recording another face of Korea, one informed by the notions of economic achievement and national pride. However, the one thing that many Koreans find difficult to see, but the one thing that informed foreigners see almost instantly, is how transparent, thin, and often unconvincing are such attempts to obscure obvious realities about Korea. Many of these realities are apparent even to the casual tourist. This is all the more acute for the foreigners who live here for any period of time.
Most of the contemporary photo books about Korea in English, as far as I have seen, suffer from this fundamental problem. One "documentary" work on Korean life I have seen actually expects the reader to believe - photographically - that a picture of a perfect nuclear family picknicking on a blanket in the middle of an idyllic park while simultaneously throwing their heads back in laughter is actually an unposed, candid shot. At least, this was the implication made with similar pictures shown throughout the book. The scent of propaganda is all over the work, and any western reader knows this instantly. As a general reader, the work can seem a bit ridiculous or even funny. As a photographer and American who has lived in Korea for a long time, it is almost insulting to me, both on the levels of my instict as a photographer as well as my general level of intelligence as an adult. In terms of honest documentary photgraphy aimed at potentially a non-Korean audience, there is little work in existence at all. Of the little I have seen, it has all been along these lines of propganda. In my own work, it would sicken me to reproduce this kind of representation - it would be like telling a lie.
But I also I know there is beauty in Korea, and my pictures show that. The young couple holding each other on a crowded subway, two friends simply enjoying each others' company on a Sunday in Yeouido Park, and the kids jumping to the rhythm of the metal band playing in the middle of City Hall plaza are all pictures that made me smile.
So did the shots of a group of giggly girls on a tourist boat in Cheju, or the high school kid down in Pohang who somehow got his hands on an Afro and posed for me.
No, Korea is not "beautiful" or "dynamic" or "the hub of Asia" simply because Koreans want it to be. It never can be, never will be something that comes true just because the government thinks up a new slogan or catch-phrase. Things in Korea are also not "beautiful" simply because they are Korean. They happen to be beautiful things that take place in Korea, in a Korean way. The photos I take are mostly universal. They have cultural contexts, but in the end, they say something essential about the human condition. I leave the lauding of the beauty of the hanbok, celebrating celadon pottery, and extolling the virtues of traditional architecture to the people who think these things may attract tourists. Much more than most Koreans think, most foreigners who are here for any significant length of time are not interested in being tourists – indeed, it is quite difficult to be a perpetual tourist. But this is the state in which most Koreans assume foreigners to be – and in a way – is the most comfortable way to think of us. However, foreigners are as perceptive and pick up on the same social cues and signals that Koreans do; it’s just a matter of getting used to the language and the rhythms of everyday life here, instead of there.
What is even more interesting is how the lived experience of the everyday is becoming more and more the same all over the world, making it easier to comprehend Korean culture and life in the city of Seoul. What is particularly Korean – or Seoulike – about waiting in traffic, falling asleep on the subway, waiting in long lines, or dozing off in front of the television? In a way, the similarities between large world cities such as Seoul, Paris, London, and New York homogenize lifestyles enough to make them superficially similar; what becomes actually somewhat more difficult is finding the culturally particular that says something about Korea, life in Seoul, or the feeling of this city’s fast-moving hustle and bustle, frustrating stoppages, and overall dynamicism.
It's the subtle differences between what is essentially similar that makes "Korea" or "Seoul" all the more comprehensible to us. When we look at Koreans sleeping on the subway, we are not engaging in the "colonial gaze" of the past, when Westerners were looking at Korean peasants in small huts breastfeeding their babies or carrying heavy loads to and fro on their A-frame. We are not gazing at the unfamiliar and alien; we are gazing at an experience with which we are familiar, so familiar that it is the subtle differences that leap out and make the picture interesting. Part of the pleasure of this kind of gaze is recognizing the "us" inside the "them." We smile with wonder as we notice that "they" are not too different from "us." Therein lies the pleasure of recognition in many of my pictures. It is also the reason why both Koreans and non-Koreans can find the common ground to enjoy the same shots.
But the shots you've seen thus far are, in a way, the easy ones to take, requiring not less technical skill, but rather less knowledge of how things work here, as well as less moxie – the feeling of having to push yourself to go past the boundaries of the polite – to go beneath the surface of what is readily apparent. Any technically skilled photographer with the right equipment and lenses could take some of the pictures in this section. Many Koreans have taken similar pictures as well; what I hope to show you is a Seoul somewhat different from that with which many Koreans are familiar, but recognizable enough to ring true with the Koreans who read this book.
My photography is for the people - Korean and non - who want to see something real and compelling about an incessantly interesting place, populated with incessantly interesting people. I could not care less about any of the things many Koreans think I should be interested in; no one can inspire me to take the kind of picture I do. I do so because, for whatever reason, I sense something worth photographing; it has to come from the gut, or it doesn't work for me. The question really becomes: What are the motivations that underlie the reasons I push a shutter button at a certain time, or in relation to certain themes that pop up in my photography.
For the most part, I am inspired by what I see as something universal in the moments I capture, something that makes the pictures appeal to audiences who know nothing of this place. Indeed, as a seasoned photographer with an outsider’s eye living and shooting in Korea, I always tend to find something particularly Korean in the photographs I see. Yet, the best photos I’ve taken balance elements of both, a dual energy that marks all of what I consider to be my best photographic work, in which I can see not only the hidden humanity of the often impersonal streets, but also the powerful beauty that can be contained in the mundane.