Word Count: 21,643
App. MS Word pages (single-spaced): 44 pages
Note: Red denotes changes or areas to recheck
Much of my photography, especially in the earlier part of my stay here in Korea, can be understood from the perspective of desire. As a man, a foreigner, and as a new person in a big city, much of my desire was a function of envy. However, this was a not a crude and common envy expressed in terms of me wanting a particular object, such as a designer brand items that I cannot afford; mine was a desire for normalcy, for a sense of belonging – the unattainable goal of being on the inside of something.
As a newcomer to Seoul, as a Fulbright grant recipient with free housing and a monthly stipend, as a person without any rigid, daily connections to any Koreans – whether in a school, office, or other social group – I was quite alone. Of course, there were literally millions of people teeming about me wherever I went, but I was not in any way connected to them. I spoke their language, I was familiar with daily life here, and nothing was shockingly unusual to me, if only because of my previous experience living a somewhat difficult life in Korea already. But something was missing, as I felt cut-off from the people all around me. I didn't consciously realize it at the time, but the desire to not be disconnected marks a lot of my photography at the time.
I felt desire for meeting old friends and laughing all night long; I wanted to be a regular at a bar or a cafe where people knew my name and my regular order; I wanted to be one of the myriad couples I see who go out to dinner, hold hands in the movie theater, and even furtively slip away together into private places that Koreans don't like to talk about. My desire can be simply described as a desire to be normal, non-descript, a face in the crowd. It was an impossible dream, as I come from a different culture, race, and nationality than the Koreans around me, but it was a real desire nonetheless.
I took more portraits at the time, as one of my ideas was one of making a picture series of "Everyday Koreans" of all backgrounds, occupations, and styles. The idea was to capture the diversity of people whom I see here, opposing the dominant idea that Korean people are "homogenous" or "monocultural." Of course, there is a background of common culture and even conformity here, but I wanted to concentrate on the diversity I saw here.
Thinking about it after the fact, I believe that there was also a great desire on my part to connect with people, because in order to make a portrait, as opposed to a candid shot, one has to talk to people, make them comfortable, form a relationship with them.
But I started abandoning this project slowly, as I became more concerned with pure street photography and as I realized just how logistically difficult it was to plan and arrange. I was also realizing that the portrait was not an exciting place for me to try and express the "reality" of the Korea that I had seen in my previous stay here, and wanted to somehow capture and convey to others. I wanted Koreans to see the unique Korea that I saw, which many foreigners often describe as "eclectic" or "surreal." I wanted non-Koreans to be able to feel the deep idiosyncrasies of this place, above and outside of superficial tourist brochures and guided bus tours. It just didn't seem to be possible to convey such things through mere portraits.
Portraits did capture something, but it wasn't enough. And on the person side of things, I was beginning to find my own social networks and ways of being less of a stranger here; I was finding a place for myself, and even as I was doing so, my street photography skills were getting sharper. Now, I had traveled from the level of superficial Seoul towards capturing things in a little more depth. After several months in Korea, I finally felt like I was decending deeper into a place that many foreign – and Korean – photographers seldom end up going. My journey had really started to get underway as I started to abandon the artificial way I had been trying to use my camera to create an artifical sense of intimacy; now, I was becoming more comfortable in my personal life here and was ready to use the camera to do the difficult job of capturing the moments when the "everyday" and the "peculiar." This was where the "real" Korea lay for me.
So I had developed a taste for the pure challenge of taking a true street photograph; I also had developed a craving for the buildup of tension that comes with waiting for and stalking desirable photographic "prey," taking the shot, and feeling the rare but overwhelming rush of satisfaction that comes with having successfully captured a decisive and fleeting image that can tell an entire story without words. I had developed a taste for – and become addicted to – the thrill of the "hunt."
One can easily liken street photography to hunting, with heads on the walls and stuffed animals as the morbid trophies that are the pictures we street shooters take. This is what street photography is about, the raw pleasure it provides – because the moments I want to capture can never be duplicated or faked, and once they have passed, they are gone. There is only one chance to capture them, one chance to preserve the moment forever. This is what drives me to push the shutter button.
A devoted and determined street photographer will be able to capture some startling images. In order to capture these moments, though, what I quickly learned is that you have to know people, the environment, and how the two interact. It also helps to know the language and understand the "culture" – which is another way of saying that you should know the patterns of thought, motion, and movement. To me, knowing how to name the parts of the hanbok means nothing – that's doesn't reflect a knowledge of the people around you. Real knowledge of the people and surroundings allows you to predict pictures and stick around past a woman's fighting off her man's attempts to get her into a love motel, who thereafter storms off in a huff, hails a taxi, proceeds to sit in said taxi for two or three minutes, then return to the her waiting man with her arms crossed, whereupon they both enter the hotel, presumably to wait until the "morning calm" comes – or at least for a few hours, whichever comes first.
It allows you to see, from a woman's arm going into her purse, from her increasingly halting gait, as well as from the kind of clothes she wears, that she is going to pull out her makeup kit to fix herself right in the middle of the street. The list of examples is endless, as is the number of times I've been wrong, and have internally proven my assumptions and stereotypes about the people I see completely wrong. My timing has also been off, and I have usually miss more moments than I have successfully captured. Most of my pictures are complete failures, and a look at any of my rolls shows slight variations on the same subject, most of which go right into my mental "reject" pile.
But perseverance defines the nature of the true street photographer. Out of a roll of 36 frames of film, a single image in which the elements come together into to define a "decisive moment" sends a chill down the spine of a true blue street shooter – who often sits hunched over long strips of film, squinting through a loupe when he realizes that he got that perfect shot he had hoped for – such are the moments worth living for. If you don't get that feeling, you just aren't made to shoot in the street. If you don't live for those shots, it's not in your blood.
The photographer who defines "street" for me is undoubtedly Garry Winogrand. In my eyes, he is the kingpin-mack-daddy-grandmaster-pimp of street photography; what's more, his photographic eye is the same as mine. Or, maybe I should more respectfully say – my eye resembles his. But thankfully, I did not even know of his existence until well after I became a street photographer myself, and developed my own particular style. I consider myself lucky to have been blissfully ignorant to the legacy of the great street photographers whose strong styles would certainly have influenced mine had I known about them as perhaps a visual arts or photography major. In a way, I started discovering street photographer quite late, which allowed me to develop without thinking, "Am I copying a Winogrand shot?" or "How can I take this in a non-Winogrand way?" I am so happy that I didn't have to worry about such things.
So when I came across Winogrand in an amazing book entitled – appropriately enough – Bystander : A History of Street Photography, and came across just a few of Winogrand's shots, I got that tingle. I felt like the pictures were mine. But the weird and amazing thing was that they weren't – they were his. Still, I felt like I had taken them. That's when I knew I had found my mentor, albeit posthumously and well after the fact of my nascent development as a street photographer. But I wouldn't have it any other way, as I was lucky to be able to appreciate and connect with Winogrand across the long stretches of time as well as my previous complete ignorance of his existence.
No longer did I have to feel guilty about my photographic impulses; I now believed what I had always suspected: that I shouldn't second-guess the purity of the impulse to shoot. That instinct is so strong and direct, not much else in life approaches that level of pure will and a feeling of possessing absolute purpose. To allow the standard socialized fear of breaking propriety, appearing "strange" in the eyes of others, receiving dirty looks, or even the fear of being physically challenged to mitigate and destroy this feeling was something I knew I should not do. Winogrand had, without his having ever known or imagined it, influenced me as much as any significant mentor in my life.
Many people reacted to Winogrand in his time in the same way many react to me – they either see what he's trying to do with his camera, and they label him a hack, pervert, technically incompetent, or all of the above. Who knows? His – and my – motivations might indeed be basely sexual. But I still think that both he and I used this energy constructively to yield some great and startling pictures. I strongly believe that the pictures I take are more than just the sum of peculiar, sexual pathologies.
Or maybe I'm AM just a pervert. I think the subway shot below says something, although what is being said is open to interpretation. To my great surprise, some people still smirk and ask me whether I was just trying to see up the skirt of the woman in the center of the frame. In my mind, taking Japanese-style "upskirt" shots was the last thing on my mind, as I found the woman's almost meditative calm – as she sits perfectly centered towards the camera in the midst of a group of people all individually engaged in doing something else – irresistible to shoot. Still, some people have laughed as they deride this picture as perversion. To those people, I always want to ask why this is the first conclusion that comes to mind. Of course, there may be some overlap between me and the "perverts" who upload pictures of women's panties to the Internet, but I know that most of my decisions to present a photograph are well above the belt. And that's enough for me.
As for the picture of the running couple below, it represents the kind of "decisive moment" that Cartier-Bresson talked about, but was taken in the particularly Winograndish mode in which I always shoot. But still, even seen within this style, my own characteristics are readily apparent. One major difference between me and Winogrand, for example, is the fact that I often shoot without looking through the viewfinder. I am sure this would make Winogrand roll over in his grave, as would Cartier-Bresson, for they both stressed exact control over composition. I've read that Winogrand's style was one of always looking through the lens, even if meant bringing up the camera to his eye in a quick motion to shoot, then bringing the camera down again.
"Ice Cream Thief"
But my kind of shooting brings about particular problems. Cartier-Bresson is reported to have shot with a "normal lens" of around 50mm, which for me is a zoom lens. In order to get two people in a frame, you have to stand back quite a bit. Since I like to get right up next to and amongst my subjects, a 50mm would yield me only head shots and body parts. So my longest lens is a 28mm, and my "normal" is a 24mm. 20mm is getting a little wide for me, but I do use it sometimes. The problem in the street is that since I am such tight quarters with people, most of the time, I'd compromise myself and the moment by bringing the camera up to my face. And since I have relatively ample room for error with a 24mm frame, even at close range, I would rather compromise a bit with composition and if necessary crop a bit later (although I try not to change the dimensions of a 35mm film frame). In fact, I tend to prefer the added element of surprise and chance in my shooting.
In the case of the ice cream couple, however, I can't actually remember for certain, but I am pretty sure I composed as I looked through the viewfinder. This couple had been too caught up in their own interaction to notice me, as he had just completed playfully "stealing" the ice cream cone he had just bought her, and was making a show of walking off and eating her prize, as she looks on in surprised amusement. In retrospect, I don't think there would have been a need for me to shoot from the hip, since they were completely ignoring me.
When I do shoot from the hip, I do sometimes regret the compromise of composition for capturing the moment, but I stand by the choice. The picture below demonstrates exactly what I am talking about, since although composition is clearly compromised, the moment was nearly lost; I maintained only a fragile spontaneity in the shot, which would have been completely lost by raising the camera to my eye. The two young couples are captured in the frame doing very distinct and different things, and there is a sort of interaction going on between both pairs of people – one active and oblivious of being shot, the other being relaxed and totally nonchalant even as they see me shooting them – but the head of the man to the far left is guillotined by my composition. I regret this framing to this day.
The perfect picture would have been possible had the camera been up a little higher – compromising a few inches of her thigh just below the skirtline and everything on that level of the frame would have constituted a painless cropping choice for the benefit of getting the tall man's expression in reaction to his female companion. Her pose is perfect, as she's caught right in the middle of the interaction, her arms perfectly placed – one wrapped around his, the other in a relaxed position of repose – and she's in a relaxed mid-stride that contrasts with his apparent non-chalant or even standoffish stance. To this day, I'll never know what his expression is, and it pains me every time I look at this image.
As for the couple that is the main element of the shot, their "whatever" and "just-don't-care" non-chalance is eminently cool and the fact that they're both catching me in the act is priceless. It defines an intimate moment in which the viewer is made to pay a price for the pleasure of their visual spectatorship. The girl has the appearance on being young, sassy, and sexy – perfectly matched with a cool-as-beans boyfriend who has casually thrown an arm around her, as she instinctively hooks her fingertips upon his.
The two stances and interactions are so great and strike such an interesting contrast to each other that thinking about the cut-off head is downright painful. But on the other hand, had I put the camera to my eye, I am nearly certain that the girl would have instantly moved to cover her face, move out of frame, or otherwise have self-consciously tried to prevent herself from appearing in a picture. The boy may have been more non-plussed about a random camera snapping his shot, but even that isn't certain. In any case, I am sure I would have lost that priceless look of theirs in the time it took me to make the swift motion of bringing the camera up. And making sudden movements with large black objects in close range to complete strangers is not something that is always a good idea to do. Again, in the Korean context, on the Korean street, the rationale behind my techniques seems quite justified.
Here are some of my favorite street shots, which I think capture both something peculiarly Korean yet also something inherently universal. These are the shots I live for, have displayed in exhibitions and on the Internet, and which have also all received strong positive reactions from both Koreans and non-Koreans. Surely, the pictures can speak for themselves, but since this is a book, they also deserve a bit deeper explanation.
"Ajummas at Rest"
Nothing punctuates life on the Korean street more than the all-powerful, ever-present ajumma. What I found most interesting about these three middle-aged women was the visual rhyme that included all the elements of what I consider to define the true ajumma: the perfectly-rounded, tightly curled perm, the designer-label clothing, as well as the brand-name handbags. The fact that they were all accidentally sitting in the same pose, and moreover, the tallest woman is sitting right in the middle so as to allow a perfect symmetry to take shape, was simply priceless. It was, in its own calm way, one of the most decisive photographic moments I had ever come across.
"Rice Cake Girls"
These middle school girls, the likes of whom I passed by all the time at subway stops such as these, were simply too good to pass up. I actually did, but after hearing their plaintive cries to buy these rice cakes, their fast-and-furious sales pitch, and seeing the perfect symmetry of where they were standing, came back down the stairs to ask them for permission to shoot them. I stepped back and hugged the wall and got as much of them as I could with my 28mm lens – I still had not bought the 24mm that would have given me more room to work with – I was able to get all the important elements into the picture, from the bottom of their homemade cardboard sign to just the tops of their heads. I could have composed the shot vertically, but such a composition would have killed the feeling of the picture; it would have given a lot of meaningless floor and wall space to the girls, but would have totally cut out the feeling of where they were, right in the middle of people ascending and descending to their destinations. With the additional, accidental element added by the girl on the right swinging her rice cakes bag into a slight blur, the entire picture became less static. In terms of certain people who define everyday life here in Seoul, these girls, as well as countless girls like them, are simply it. These are the parts of Seoul that make life here uniquely Seoulful.
Here is a different aspect of the hustle-bustle, frenzied feeling I get in Seoul, whether I am aurally assaulted by the sounds of traffic or that of doumi (narrator-models) trying to force me into a new Paris Baguette through the pure power of their speakers, or am frustrated by being caught in heavily-congested traffic. These stickers are the visual echo of this kind of frenzied confusion, which is why the stickers struck my eye. However, you might notice that the stickers, despite being so numerous, were actually stuck up in a somewhat orderly fashion. Conveying a feeling of frenzy happened through the composition as well, by shooting from below and at an angle. Had I taken a straight shot of a wall of stickers, it would have been boring.
This shot is a good example of the meaning that a photographer adds to even the "raw" reality; Of course, I photographed the wall as-is. But the reality is still filtered through my eye, personal agenda, and sense of aesthetics. This picture is a great example of the relationship between "fact" and interpretation; the reality isn't any less "true" or "real" here because I chose a particular way to frame it, because I don't alter picture elements or in any way set up my shots. Everything in the picture is as I found it; I simply felt what I thought was a reasonable feeling as to what the stickers truly might be argued to represent. In short, I frame reality in a certain way, but don't alter it. I simply try to get across what are, to me, obvious messages about certain scenes. My photography helps me convey those messages more clearly. This is a way of thinking that I hope readers of this book might think about when looking at many of my pictures.
One of the most playful of this set is the picture of the busy deliveryman catching a not-so-subtle glance at the woman standing waiting for a friend in Namdaemun. The sideways glance is best seen and completely obvious when this picture is printed large, or viewed up close. As you will see later in this chapter, the idea of glances and constant gazing will come up again as an important part of how I argue Seoul's public spaces are defined. Space and how it is defined, is important, as we shall see.
One of the shots that I had initially skipped over as it had not initially made a strong impression on me, it soon became apparent to me that this was one of the favorites of more Koreans, who take note of just how much this soldier seems to resemble a statue. He sits alone, likely quite drunk and sleepy, in the harsh light of the subway station light as a bus passes by in a blur anticipated by the photographer and enabled by a slower shutter speed. The bus obviously denotes where the man is, while it also connotes the passage of time and the fact that he seems to missing, if not that bus, something similar that could get him home, assuming that is where he wants to go. It helps that my daylight-balanced film caught this shot, since it accentuated the intensity of the green color, which added quite a bit to the effect.
One of my favorite shots and the main image used for my fashion show this woman exemplifies motion itself, which was actually the theme of one of my exhibits, and a minor theme that runs throughout all of my photo work. The composition is what strikes me the most about the image, as well as the very lucky way I caught her in midstride, which the slight motion blur that connotes that she is actually in motion. One doesn't have the time to think much when rushing to capture such a moment, so luck often plays as much role in getting certain images as other factors.
Another favorite, this picture foreshadows another aspect of the public spaces in Seoul, especially in terms of how the knowledge of others' gaze, the pressure to put oneself on display, as well as how these considerations define a certain kind of consumption, are all discussed in detail later in this chapter. For now, take most note of the girl's sassy swagger, her clothes, her being caught up in herself in this public place, as well as the subtle natural commentary that is made by the ad with an image of Disney's classic princess in the background, right in front of her. This picture conveys a lot of things, such as the feeling and texture of the drab grays of the street, how these contrast with the affected beauty of the girl in pink and black, which all seem to suggest the incongruity of her vain act of grooming in the space she finds herself in.
In this final picture, we see a typical salaryman who we assume is on his way back home from a long day. This picture conveys a lot, in terms of the path he still has left to go, the emptiness of the street, as well as the way the street lamps light his way home even as they seem to loom over and constrict the space around him. They are also a shrill reminder of the fact that it is nighttime, it is extremely late, and he is ridiculously alone, as the lights are seemingly working only for his sake. Overall, I got a sense of gloom and despair in this picture, and felt for this guy who was living such a tough life. Perhaps this man actually was just arriving home after an occasional office party; but in terms of his place as a mere picture element, as a part of a moment snapped and made into an artistic statement, the picture is more important than the reality of who the man is and what he is doing. The reality of the entire picture-as-a-statement is also just as real, as the elements convey a message more meaningful and bigger than just that of "a man standing at a crosswalk." This picture is nothing else than a statement about an entire way of life.
DESCENDING FURTHER, LOOKING CLOSER: THE KOREAN STREET
For a lot of reasons, Seoul is actually a photographic heaven, even if we have labeled it a metaphorical "Hell" of a place to live. Like many of the cities that inspired some of the great photographers of both yesterday and today – Paris, New York, Chicago – Seoul is a "perfect storm" of all the right factors combining in just the right way to make for a special, volatile mix. This city has one of the highest population densities in the world (take a look at Myeongdong on a weekend afternoon), and its landscape is so diverse, considered in terms of the dense, old streets of everyday neighborhoods, which stand in sharp contrast to the stark braggadocio with which the Tower Palace apartments seem to jut into the sky in the neighborhood of Dogok. The difference between Seoul both north and south of the Han River is almost great enough to define two separate cities, both in appearance and atmosphere; the people who live and work in these two areas tend towards difference as well.
In Seoul, there are the well-coifed and meticulously kept housewives who keep the high-class Shinsaegae Department Store in business, as well as similar-aged women who hawk their various wares and trinkets on vinyl mats on the sidewalks outside of subway stations. In addition to the rich and poor, you can see the generation gap between young and old, with old women stooped over from lack of calcium and hard labor, being passed on the streets by pretty young girls with long legs and backs made straight by the good nutrition and leisurely lifestyle enjoyed by any developed nation. This is a country in which many people still spit on the sidewalks (something against which there were national campaigns to stop in the first years of the 1900's), yet one can also expect to find a wireless internet connection almost anywhere where there is a crowd.
The collision of old and new, traditional and modern – these themes have been talked about in regard to Seoul and Korea to such an extent that I don't really need to dwell upon it in depth here. But one thing that needs to be pointed out is that photographically, the contrasts and contradictions, the crowds and constant congestion, combined with the everyday clamor of rush hour, people bumping into other, the frustration caused by long lines, or waiting for a late friend – these are what makes Seoul a heaven to a photographer. The landscape captures something essentially Korean in this mish-mash of everything from pre- to post-modern. The developed landscapes of Paris or New York, no matter how old and charming those two urban areas (as modern cities, they are far older than Seoul, actually, especially considering the physical destruction of the Korean War, as well as the fact that much of modern Seoul didn't exist before the 1970's), cannot compare to Seoul. The essence of Korea's story, in terms of its compressed development and being the most quickly modernized and developed nation in the world, can be told by watching its people, knowing its streets.
I could stand at a single pedestrian intersection in the middle of Myeongdong for an hour and burn through 50 rolls of film if I really wanted to. In fact, as a street photographer who needs to predict somewhat in advance where good pictures might happen, places where people literally come together and bump into one another are extremely attractive. Also, since Korea, for intents and purposes, doesn't have named and numbered streets, people tend to meet in front of known landmarks when making appointments with friends, e.g. "Meet me in front of the Avatar Building in Myeongdong at 7." One of my favorite spots, which is both a place of congestion as well as a meeting point, is the rear entrance to the Hyundai Department Store in Sinchon, next to the Synnara Record Store. There is a place where you can see frustrated men and women waiting on significant others to show up, but it is also one of the most confusing and busy intersections in the city. People are busy crossing, holding hands with partners, running to greet friends, and sometimes even jumping up and down with glee upon seeing an old acquaintance after a long time. Sometimes, random elements – people and styles – seem to just cross in interesting ways.
Let me offer an example of how this works when I'm out shooting. In the following picture, I was standing outside of the Hyundai Department Store rear entrance, where a lot of people go in and out, back and forth, cross paths, and bump into one another while trying to meet a friend or get to where they're going. When I saw the woman with the puppy slowly heading out with a bright red umbrella in hand, I got into ready mode just in case she became an interesting picture element, which she looked like she had the potential to be. With the puppy in one arm and the blood-red umbrella in the other, I was hopeful.
Here is the heart of street photography – the pleasure in the hunt – which is found in anticipating picture elements in advance and capturing the exact instant when that element just happens to line up with another one to make for an interesting picture.
When I saw her open her umbrella and slowly edge out to look for the party she was obviously supposed to be meeting, I started edging around her to get in a position to line her up with perhaps an interesting passersby with whom she could contrast, or perhaps another bright color that could go along her the strong red element. Of course, this thought process is not as precise and calculating as it sounds when I write about it now – this all takes place in the realm of instinct, while waiting for that fleeting instant. When the two uniformed officers walked by, I took the shot, when I saw these elements all add up to something interesting, even though the dog just happened to get lost a little with a similarly-colored background element, which detracts from its power as a picture element. But I love the woman's searching expression, being caught absent-mindedly adjusting her purse, the strength of the color of her bright red umbrella, as well as the sharp contrast between two, totally unrelated picture elements (the uniformed officers and a woman waiting for a friend) that are individually somewhat interesting, but become something altogether new when put together.
This is the pleasure of the everyday moment that is so difficult to catch. How do you make the mundane interesting photographically? How do you straddle the line between a picture with a universally appealing meaning and what is particularly interesting only to Koreans? These are the most difficult questions to intellectually answer, but are sometimes so easy to see in the instant of a "decisive moment" when the elements of the universal and particular converge, something that usually happens when all the right elements of a scene converge to urge the photographer to push the shutter button at that particular instant. To put it simply, when you are a photographer, you simply "know it when you see it." Often, it's difficult to define, but easy to see.
But even as I was already shooting in late 2002 and 2003, I found myself lacking in knowledge of Korean photographic history, so I first toured the shelves of major bookstores to see what was being published. I needed to get a feel for what had been done and what had not, as well as sense of how Korean photographers felt the rhythms of their own streets. To be honest, much of the “documentary” work I found was mediocre. Much of it resembled promotional brochures, largely sponsored either for the Korean Tourism Commission, rather than attempts to honestly document a certain slice of reality.
Without an active culture of candid street photography, there is a potentially lost heritage here in Seoul, if only simply because this city and its culture is so complex, rich, and fascinating as a place to be, as well as to photograph. On top of the fact that street photography is such a sorely neglected, yet honestly beautiful mode of expression and art, one that can record and tell so much about a place and a people, Seoul's status as a heavenly place to photograph is a difficult one to challenge.
<CHANGED PARAGRAPH ORDER>
But I did run across gems from time to time, and they seemed to be the ongoing works of just a few people. One of the most striking was that of Kim Ki Chan's, with whose work I became familiar after arriving in Korea, looking around the Internet, and exploring many bookstores. And after a year of having shot and published here in Korea, I felt my experience had prepared me to handle meeting a figure like Kim Gi Chan, arguably one of Korea's most important photographers, in an interview for an English-language magazine based here in Seoul.
Not only did I find his work compelling, but his focus on the one subject of the golmok - the street, the back alleys of Seoul – was fascinating to me in terms of his tenacity about the subject. He didn't shoot anything else. In the forward to Mr. Kim’s sixth photo book, critic Lee Young Joon identified the importance of the golmok to understanding something essential about Korea: it is in the cramped spaces of the tiny houses, as well as in the small alleyways and streets that separate them, that Koreans grew accustomed to greeting, talking, and arguing with one another.
Like the rural areas and small towns that still exist outside of Seoul, the golmok provided a communal and close atmosphere. But in old Seoul, in the cramped urban landscape of thousands of golmoks all pushed together -- with voices, bodies, and personal possessions all crunched into one another -- was the vitality and character of urban Korean existence located. This is an aspect of Seoul that has almost been completely erased today, in a city lined with übermodern high-rise apartment complexes, “mansions,” and “villas”. Importantly, these "modern" places are denoted by terms borrowed from English, which carry with them connotations of "Western." Such places are ostensibly cleaner, having all the modern bells and whistles, but they are relatively lonely and soulless. In this way, the golmok initially struck and captured Kim Ki Chan’s eye and has held it ever since.
But when I interviewed him, Mr. Kim explained that he never had the intention of becoming the documentor of an entire way of life; in fact, he never intended to become a photographer, since he was not one, by trade, to begin with. In fact, he added that he did not consider himself a “professional” even in the present day.
Mr. Kim originally started working as a cameraman for KBS back in 1966, shooting documentaries for that station. In talking with Mr. Kim, he was not really able to identify a particular reason why he decided to start still photography as a hobby, nor why his interest in the golmok started to focus down so tightly. Interestingly, Mr. Kim says that it actually took him a few years to find a theme, which he stumbled upon after taking pictures in various markets around Seoul. But he realized that these pictures were all the same, much as I myself have the same trouble finding unique shots in the places most foreigners (or Korean amateur photographers, for that matter) initially find interesting here: Namdaemun, Insadong, Myungdong, Itaewon. I found it necessary to take a different angle, to find my own way of putting down on film something that I think says something significant about Korea, or typifies a Korean way of life. This is exactly what Kim Ki Chan says he found in the golmok way back in the mid-1960s, and he has not been able to stop taking pictures since.
<INSERT KIM KI CHAN SHOT OF BASEBALL KIDS>
But thirty years taking pictures in the same places, along the same theme? When I asked Mr. Kim whether there must have been some unique psychological connection he was making with the people he found in the poor neighborhoods of Korea, and whether it maybe it had something to do with having grown up poor as well, his answer was simple: the golmok had a certain kind of warmth and “humanity” that could not be duplicated anywhere else, something with which he simply connected as a person, “on a human level.” As soon as I heard these words, I instantly knew what he was saying, and I replied that a similar kind of atmosphere existed in many African American communities, with I remember from my own youth, which was filled with more aunties, uncles, and cousins than I could shake a stick at.
But how could someone as accomplished as Kim Ki Chan still think of himself as an “amateur?” Kim defined the difference between an amateur and professional as being able to make money and live off your work. I like to define it the way my former instructor, the noted photo documentarian Ken Light, does: a photographer “is always shooting.” It’s a simple, but elegant distinction between the so-called “amateur” and “professional.” You see in the negatives evidence of commitment to a subject. An “amateur” has negatives with many different frames: the family dog, shots of yesterday’s office party, or pictures of mom standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. A real photographer’s negatives look almost alike, like a strip taken from a movie reel, as the camera searches for what Henri Cartier-Bresson calls “the decisive moment.”
"Made to Wait"
A professional takes the same or similar shots again, again, and again, or will wait nearly 45 minutes for the elements to come together, as I did in the picture of the girl above, who only looked at her watch twice during the whole time I waited for the right moment when she looked at the watch while she was not blocked by the many passersby. More than anything else, that kind of perseverance is what defines the true photographer, not how you make your money, whether you have a degree in the field, or whether you have even ever published any of your work.
If you have spent entire rolls of precious and expensive film trying to get just the right expression from a couple having a conversation at the next table, or schoolkids running after a bus, you can call yourself a photographer. And when I look at Kim Ki Chan’s work, it goes without saying that he is, simply by virtue of wanting to be, an eminent professional. If you spend three entire decades tenaciously shooting the same subject, you are probably a master of your particular craft. It is just a question of whether one is recognized for his or her work that separates those who get gallery exhibits from those whose negatives simply collect dust in a drawer. In the end, it is simply a matter of commitment – not equipment, lenses, or megapixels of resolution – that separates weekend photographers from true professionals.
Indeed, the problem of earning a living dogs all photographers, but in Korea, for the documentary photographer, the difficulty of living off of one's own work is much more pronounced. Art and commercial photography simply dominate the photographic scene here. There simply aren’t that many photographers who do solely documentary work, because it’s hard to pay the bills. Even Mr. Kim chuckled as he addressed a group of visitors to his exhibit in 2004, asking “who can live on such work?” But there is something else going on here. In Korea, there was actually a large body of work, especially from the post-war period through the 1960s, documenting the hard times that had befallen this country. A trip to the Korean National Museum of Art, a perusal of a good book on the history of photography in Korea, or a look through much of the anthropological photography done by Westerners at the time should make this clear. But why is there such a glaring absence of a genre of documentary photography in Korea? A quick look at recent Korean history offers one possible answer.
In 1953, Korea was literally the poorest country in the world, stricken by war, and for that reason was also the most photographed place in the world as well, much like present-day Afghanistan or Iraq. From many present-day Koreans, there is a sense of wanting to get out from under the shadow of the dreary, less prosperous Korea, a time and place that was documented all too well. It is for this reason that I think I have not been able to find a single documentary photo book on the IMF period, although it was clearly one of the most significant moments in Korean modern history, something that left no Korean unaffected. But photo books about the World Cup abound. The range of possibilities for documentary photography is largely limited by how Korea likes to imagine itself, and the IMF period reeks too much of the time when Korea was a poor, dependent nation. It struck a nerve that most people had simply decided to forget was there – and if you’re a photographer doing such work, you likely won’t get much work. This popular context affected how Kim’s work would be received as well.
Kim shot in the golmok for more than a decade before even putting on an exhibit. His motivations were pure, as he had picked up the camera because he had found an almost inexplicable desire to document a particular lifestyle with which he felt a strangely intense connection. When he started to become well-known in the 1980s and through the 1990s, this overlapped with the time that Korea’s growth, development, and construction were at a peak. Suddenly, Korea seemed to be concerned with what it had “lost,” as exemplified in the popular concern about recovering “traditional” things. College kids started playing traditional drums in large numbers, shamans of the kut were back in style, and in 1992 Seopyeonje became the most popular movie in Korean cinematic history, much to the surprise of its director. It is around this time that Kim realized, in his own sphere, that the neighborhoods he was documenting were truly going to vanish altogether, so he began what I think is the most interesting part of his golmok photography – taking new pictures of former subjects, mostly children, whom he had photographed years earlier. It is not only a document of the growth of individual people, but of the country itself, as many of the pictures of former children posing on the stoop of a small, dilapidated house are now coupled with a shot of the same person as an adult, but now standing in the parking lot of an ultra-modern apartment complex, sometimes in the very same neighborhood.
I presently live in Gongdeok, next to a train track that runs adjacent to a quaint little strip of old-fashioned Seoul, something that always struck my fancy when I came to live here last year. It was only after going through Kim Ki Chan’s work that I realized my neighborhood hides one of the last remnants of the golmok neighborhood that used to define this area. People remark that this picture reminds them of an older, poorer Korea. Some Koreans even say that they dislike this picture because it casts a negative, non-representative light on a "real" Korea that's no longer like that. I simply assert that these are the kids I see all the time on my way home, that this is still "real" as anyplace else. Are those children not real? Their reactions to me? Yes, Korea is now a land of high-rise apartments made of concrete and glass, but these people are not any less "real." They are simply the people that many Koreans would like to forget exist. One might even argue that some Koreans want to forget that they ever existed at all.
"Fascination, Fear, and Indifference"
Even now, a new apartment complex has just been completed in front of my similarly new officetel, and several more are under construction in every direction around me; I get the distinct feeling that it hasn’t been too long since the old neighborhoods that were once the heart of this place have been erased and built over. According to Mr. Kim, Korea’s first major apartment complex, built by Samsung, started right behind the Holiday Inn (formerly the Garden Hotel) in Mapo, where there had been nothing but squat little houses of the golmok as far as the eye could see. Having come to Korea for the first time in 1994, I still remember how the sea of developed, modern buildings were punctuated by islands of so-called “squatter’s villages”, as they were described to me. I only remember this now since it has been pointed out to me; like many Koreans, I too found it all too easy to forget that Seoul once looked very different than it does now.
There is certainly an air of inevitability in Korea around so-called “progress” and the notion of becoming a sungjinguk, a “developed country.” Even Mr. Kim shared it. When I asked him what he thought about the state of Korea’s “national character”, now that what Lee Young Joon had named as its source – the old neighborhood – had all but disappeared in Seoul. Mr. Kim simply chuckled and shrugged as he answered, saying that the problem was not that of Korea’s national character becoming diluted or disappearing, despite what the art critic in his book might have said. He countered with a follow-up question: “Would America’s national character fade away if Harlem were to disappear?” Of course not, was the unstated answer. But Mr. Kim made clear that he certainly acknowledged that part of the warmth and “humanity” that defines an older way of life in Korea is disappearing, along with urban development’s erasure of old ways of living. It has now, according to him, been replaced by a culture of “individualism.” He lamented that while this was frustrating for him on a personal level, how can one stop development? So the Korean national character is not disappearing – Mr. Kim would say that it is merely changing, evolving. He adds that the golmok is a munhwa yusan – a “cultural treasure” - and in that way, its disappearance is inevitable.
I saw in this moment the answer to the question of why I think Kim Ki Chan does this kind of photography in the first place – the golmok itself is a symbol of Korea’s past – even though it hadn’t quite disappeared yet – and the act of photographing it, for Kim, must have always been an act of preservation. Like many Koreans, there is lamenting over the perceived losses of old ways of living and thinking, but there is scarcely any question that those old ways must inevitably give way to the new. In this way, looking at Mr. Kim’s photography, one can easily discern the way his style was very much a simple and conscious record of the people and spaces of the golmok; there are all kinds of different documentary approaches that a photographer could have taken in those spaces, perhaps closely focusing on the lifestyles of a few representative types of people there, or emphasizing the residents’ relative poverty, or perhaps their contentment in living a simple life. But more than anything, Kim Ki Chan’s style is that of recorder – it is defined by his effort to make extensively document a lifestyle that most Koreans consider to be a mere turnstile along the long road of becoming “developed.” Mr. Kim’s efforts to go back, accelerate his work, and revisit his subjects came at the same time Korea’s efforts to eliminate the neighborhoods similarly picked up in pace. Mr. Kim’s assumptions about the need to move forward are little different from many of his countrymates. These assumptions define his style clearly, even as it makes the work all the more valuable as a cultural record of a nation that has become increasingly eager to forget its colonized, dependent, and impoverished past as it move into a bright and ostentatiously-developed future.
To boil down Mr. Kim’s response to my final question, in which I wondered what representative things, from a Westerner’s perspective, one might photograph in Korea now that the golmok in Seoul are largely gone, he answered by saying, “There’s nothing ‘representative’ to take pictures of in Korea, and my pictures are also not ‘representative’ of anything. There is only the everyday.” This was one of the most important and affirming phrases I had ever heard in regard to my work, and it gave me a lot of confidence to look even deeper into the street, as well as feel more confident about my authority as a photographer in Korea. Looking at Kim's work and choice of subjects, then at my own, I can’t help but agree, and also see resonances that transcend both time and international boundaries, that straddle both the particular and the universal.
Kim Ki Chan, 1975.
Garry Winogrand, 1961.
Michael Hurt, 2003.
But there is still a major problem that I work against all the time; as a photographer in Korea, I had started to realize that Koreans are often very sensitive to photographs and photographers. As I started thinking more closely about Korean recent history, as well as the way photography and Westerners came into contact in Korea, the fact that there isn't much of a tradition of street photography as a genre unto itself started to make a lot more sense.
Indeed, photographs of the everyday – street photography – is a tradition that many in the West might be familiar with, whereas in Korea, this photographic genre is far less familiar. One might imagine a gruff, wiry man standing on a street corner in Paris, alternatively looking through and adjusting a boxy, black-silver Leica. Robert Doisneau's classic shot of a couple stealing a kiss in the middle of a busy plaza (a staged shot, by the way), which graces the walls of many freshman dorm rooms in the United States, might come to mind as we watch our imaginary French photographer take pictures of passersby.
"Kiss By the Hotel de Ville"
Robert Doisneau, 1950
But in Korea, even as a foreigner who appears to be a tourist, there is a great suspicion of people with cameras taking pictures of people unknown to them. Even before the unfortunate advent of the camera phone, I found that, after the occasional times I was caught taking pictures of people on the street, that there was true hostility and suspicion of photographic activities that were not deemed "artistic" or journalistic in nature.
The flip side of Korean people's general suspicion of random people with cameras is that with a company or call sign on your person or behind your name, photographers are granted incredible, incredible authority. If you have ever seen Korean photojournalists, wedding photographers, or broadcast news camera operators at work, you would know that they are far more aggressive than their foreign counterparts, even to the point of interfering with or actually restaging key photographic moments, something that tends to go way past the understood line of photo ethics in the West.
I tend to think that part of this is due to the fact that there is very little room for and hence common knowledge of entire genres of photography within Korea, these being documentary and street photography. Even to the present day, with some notable exceptions, there are very few photographers in Korea who could be identified primarily as documentary or street photographers; many commercial and art photographers profess to "dabble" in it from time to time, a fact that actually demonstrates how unseriously this genre is taken, even by photographers. Street photography is generally not considered difficult to do, and hence not worth doing exclusively. Or perhaps that rationale actually works in the reverse – it doesn't really matter, actually. With the exception of Kim Ki Chan, I can't name many examples of documentary/street photographers in Korea who are not just moonlighting newspaper photojournalists, or commercial/art photographers. But in the West, I could make a list as long as my arm. Sebastio Selgado, Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, and Garry Winogrand are just a few contemporary names that come into my head without even thinking hard; where are Korea's photo documentarians today?
Of course this imbalance of awareness of the documentary street photography genre is surely related to the history of imperialism, racism, and the roots of Western anthropologists' desires to record, categorize, and intellectually subjugate their non-Western subjects. And surely, much of Koreans' distrust of outsiders with cameras goes back to both Western, as well as Japanese, efforts to symbologically, and thereby photographically, subjugate Korean subjects. This is another lingering, communal bad memory – such as of bare-chested Korean women in hanboks giving toothy smiles while breastfeeding plump, naked babies – that probably laid the foundation, especially among older people, for most Koreans' distrust of unofficial photographers who don't seem to have a clear and obvious reason for taking their picture.
Korea: Between War and Freedom, 1954
This is Okinawa, 1954
The gaze of the West is apparent here, whether dealing with Japan or Korea. It really doesn't matter – both sources of photographic subjects are the same from the point of view of German, American, or any other many photographers who came from comfortable European countries. These people look pitiable, strange, and very, very foreign. The objects of these photographers' gaze come across as alien as could be. So the legacy of this colonial/anthropological/western gaze, in addition to many other factors too numerous to list here, go into explaining why there isn't a big market for photo books of everyday Koreans on the streets; it has left a bad taste in the collective mouth of the Korean people.
In almost any American bookstore, one might be able to easily find large, beautifully-designed, hardback photo books on a variety of serious subjects that cost upwards of $60 to $100. They aren't necessarily bestsellers, but such "coffee table" books are often bought, collected, and proudly displayed by lots of people with disposable income. Although it's a hard to make it to the top, one can make a living by doing reality-as-art or pictures-as-social-documentary kind of photography. In America, the "photo essay" as a respected genre or form has a history that goes back to Life, Look, and many other photo magazines from the 1940's and 1950's; many Americans learned about the rest of the world through the photographs of periodicals such as National Geographic during this time as well.
On the other hand, Koreans at that time were experiencing the aftermath of the colonial period and the Korean War; unfortunately, most of the pictures from this time, taken by some great Korean street/documentary photographers from that time, are now pictures that many South Koreans, who would like their country to be known for semi-conductor microprocessors, cool cellphones, Internet connectivity, and formerly, being on the cutting edge of stem-cell research – would like to forget.
"Looking for Work," Myeongdong, 1953.
Lim Eung Sik
What this picture is a stark reminder of, even more than it was around the time it was taken, is the extreme poverty that defined the Korean past, even as it suggests that there was something more there, as exemplified by the seemingly financially comfortable and successful men in suits meeting and shaking hands in the background. It accentuates the dire straits of the main who is the obvious subject of the photograph, and provide a little bit of needed context. For the present-day viewer, one might take the figures in the back to be the brighter future of Korea, while the fate of the man in the front, at least from a historical viewpoint, is no longer important. The "we" of now are represented in the two men shaking hands, while the poor fellow in the front becomes the "we" of the past whom we would like to forget ever existed.
But there is something essentially different about the picture of the unemployed man, which was taken by a Korean photographer who was simply trying to document the reality of his era, than those taken by the westerners described above. The images taken by Koreans don't connote a feeling of an outsider looking down, as was all-too-often, inevitably so in the case of those Westerners, nor were these images being used for nefarious ideological purposes, as was the case for many of the Japanese who came to Korea and used the images of poverty, undeveloped cities, and destitution to help justify the eventual colonization of Korea. No, the Korean photographers' gaze was quite different, although the subject matter may have been similarly depressing: post-war poverty, complete with images of the jobless, the rural countryside, smiling peasant women with their children.
No, these pictures were taken out of love, not derision or a sense of condescension. Against the backdrop of poverty, or bombed out buildings, or sun-burnt farmers' faces, the pictures seemed to celebrate the streets, everyday people, Korean life. This was the essential difference between the colonial gaze of the Japanese and the familial gaze of Korean photographers who shot during Korea's post-war development.
Aeogae, Seoul, 1960.
Son Gyu Mun
"Street Show Market"
Namdaemun, Seoul, 1967.
Lee Hyeong Rok
Many of the pictures that would define a strong tradition of documentary/street photography in Korea come from a time that seems alien to many modern Koreans, the younger of whom can't imagine a Korea without computers and cellphones. In fact, pictures from the rubble of the 1950's, the developing 1960's, and the ramshackle 1970's in Korea now constitute an affront to newer notions of "Korean pride" itself.
Shin Su-dong, Seoul, 1957.
Jeong Beom Tae
Such thinking was echoed in one of the very few photo books that deals with street photography, called Seoul: 1996-1999, written by Jeon Mong Gak. I first picked it up almost as soon as I arrived, back in 2002, but it unfortunately exemplifies all the factors I have talked about thus far in regards to why street photography continues to be one of the most neglected and maligned genre of photography in Korea. I don't intend to be mean with this critique of this work, but as a serious and dedicated street photographer who laments the fact that so much of this great city's character and history remain largely unrecorded, I strongly feel that it would be helpful to point some things out.
In terms of getting street photography published, there aren't many venues in which to do it. However, upon seeing this photo book, published on magazine paper, with pictures crammed together with little thought to design, over around 250 pages, I was actually quite shocked at how cavalierly such a book could be published. But what really surprised me was when I bought the book – and I encourage you to do so, if only to better understand this critique and support the artistic efforts of a fellow photographer with whom I have no quarrel personally – I was even more deeply surprised after looking through the content. The book was an exercise in what I think street and documentary photography should not be, as well as demonstrating exactly the reasons why people continue to not take this valuable genre seriously.
First of all, the time period in which Jeon took his pictures were a crucial moment in Korea's history. He himself describes this fact in the foreword to his book, which was, interestingly enough, written in both Korean and English:
"Unfortunately, at the end of the 20th century, Seoul is still in the throes of the so-called IMF crisis, reputed to be the worst national crisis since after the Korean War. Not to mention the statistical numbers, the rising jobless loiter on the streets, in the parks and subway stations. Roadside stalls and movable pubs blossomed along the back alley to tell us how many those there are."
I instantly thought to myself, upon reading those words, "How could you not document that?" The jobless and the homeless, the rise of people trying to make a living selling food in street stands, as well as the people drowning out their sorrows in the outdoor drinking tents that lined the streets at that time. But even beyond those obvious stories and pictures, which were well covered by print and photo journalists at the time, what about the myriad other stories that could have been told through the camera? Beyond the obvious low morale that people must have been feeling at the time, real photographers with time on their hands – Jeon was a retiree who decided to take up his "hobby" after a long career in the university, something I will make note about later – could have better served their country's history by recording the struggles and hardships of the people at the time.
Some of the most defining photographs of America's history come from photographs taken during the Great Depression era. Dorothea Lange's unforgettable image of her "Migrant Mother" is not only a defining part of American identity, but in itself a universal symbol of perseverance in the face of almost unsurmountable hardship. It speaks to both the specific need America had at that time for signs of hope, while also possessing a universal aesthetic and emotional appeal. It is one of the most powerful images ever put onto film:
Nipoma, CA, 1936.
Importantly, this image and thousands like it were commissioned by the Farm Security Administration as part of President Roosevelt's "New Deal" reform and redress package, and are now part of the government's permanent collection – the period was recognized as one of the most important in our country's – American – history; yes, it was a difficult time, but outside of the difficulty of the immediate moment, it was a time worth recording for posterity. These images and the faces within them speak out across the decades. Long after any of the individuals alive in that time have passed away, we have a part of them with us.
Alive and photographing at a similar moment in Korean history, and with ample time on his hands, Jeon purposely took not a single picture of anything related to the IMF. He writes in the same foreword I quoted above:
"...I have no intention whatsoever to close up [focus on] the most deprived group or class and campaign for them. In that sense I refused to mimick either our realist photographers after the War, or F.S.A. photographers of America during the Great Depression of the 1920's, but tried to capture the universal turn-of-the-century Seoul. Political or social turmoils or incidents were not of my concern and turned over to mass media's share [left for the mass media to cover.]"
While I respect his choice, to speak quite frankly, I think this attitude is at the same time historically, photographically, and ethically irresponsible. Of course, the mass media is taking certain shots that fit the stories of the day, but are there many dedicated photographers doing deep and humane coverage of the problem? Especially a retiree, who obviously thought photography a pursuit worthy of seriously undertaking as a retirement hobby activity, but who had all the time in the world on his hands – one would hope that such a person could have been one of these photographers. Everyone has a right to his or her choices, of course, but I simply using this example of a huge missed opportunity to illustrate that there is an unfortunate pattern here.
It is not only his decision to avoid the most important historical and photographic topic in half a century that I have issues with; it is also the fact that the pictures he did take were so utterly unable to capture anything of real importance about this city, Seoul. His book – which, again, I do recommend you buy and look at yourself – was fascinating to me because it was a clear case in which an insider, a Korean man who had lived in this society for decades, seemed to have absolutely no clear sense of what he was trying to capture about his home city. The work is a hodge-podge of seemingly random images that are, tellingly, organized according to neighborhoods and even streets in sequential order.
I used his text as a teaching tool when I taught photo classes in the Seoul alternative schools, and I think Jeon's text is of great use here as well. I sympathize with Jeon quite a bit, actually, because I find myself so unable to take good pictures when I am in my home country. I go to the shopping mall, cafes, and other places that I know well and am so uninterested in my environment that it becomes a chore to try and take good pictures. Even some of the best work done on documenting the culture of the United States – Robert Frank's The Americans is the perfect example – was done by Frank, an immigrant who still felt the need to travel across America, which he did on his Guggenheim grant.
In the end, in order to document one's own society meaningfully, from the photo works I have seen from or about any country, the best have always been created by people who were outsiders-as-immigrants or foreigners, or native photographers who made themselves outsiders by taking trips outside of their familiar surroundings, or also native photographers who were possessed of a particular and peculiar vision of the kinds of images they wanted to make about their own society.
The native photographers in this latter category were all people with something particular to say. Jeon's work is completely devoid of such a vision or message, and this is why it utterly fails to say anything meaningful at all about Seoul, its people, or the character of his city. It reads as a personal photo album, like the work of a visitor. This is the most surprising thing: that almost all of Jeon's work looks like the pictures foreign tourists might take; it is only in this sense, and this sense alone, that Jeon meets his own goal of taking pictures that are "universal." Herein lies the irony – that many of his shots resemble those of non-Korean and other people who were never able to "enter" Korea beyond the superficial level at which we began our descent at the beginning of this book. In the end, they are, with the exception of the nearly racist gaze that he exhibits in his endless pictures of "strange" foreigners in Itaewon, truly universal in their utter meaninglessness. In this way, his pictures share the limited interest and lack of vision that World Cup photo books have. After the fact, and outside of the moment, who cares?
But beyond my criticisms of Jeon, and even the individual shots of my own of which I am most proud, to this point I haven't explicitly talked about the patterns I do see in Korea, the rhythms of the street that that define Korea's reality today, in terms of some overarching, greater patterns of Korean life. Kim Ki Chan – he saw "Korea" in the golmok, a place that he tracked and documented in Seoul, even as it was disappearing. For him, life in this place defined a whole part of the Korean character itself, created by the harsher conditions and inevitable intimacy of living in such close quarters with one's friends, family, and neighbors.
But what defines Seoul in the present day? Is it a place? Is there anything especially Korean about downtown Seoul that is fundamentally different from Paris or New York? Nowadays, given the lack of a singular experience that defines life for a lot of people, and also given the fact that Korea has inevitably become much more similar than it had been to international metropolises around the world – what can we say truly defines this place? Here is where the foreign eye can be especially helpful, as it can break through the haze of daily, mundane details that natives often find it difficult to see through in their own cultures.
So what do I see? Where do I see difference and something that one could define as peculiar to Korea? In the public space of the street, I see people engaged in various kinds of socializing in a way that one doesn't see in the boring suburbs of America, nor even in the streets on New York City. The Korean street is veritably alive with activity in a way I could only define as a "playground" (놀이터) for adults. And in these streets, I mostly see couples, women, and men engaged in various kinds of socialization-through-consumption that is often loud and even raucous. In the play space that are the bars, family restaurants, room salons, hofs, game and PC rooms, love motels, saunas, fast food restaurants, and even the red light districts, the Korean "outside" defines a place where people here can behave quite differently than when they are on the "inside," at their office desks, service counters, information booths, auto garages, taxis and buses, and other places where people do work.
"Office Party" (translate simply as "회식")
And the other place in between the outside "playground" and the inside social network of coworkers, colleagues, and peers is that of lonliness. In this way, often point out how unusual Koreans think it to be if one eats by himself, goes to a movie by oneself, or gets a drink alone before going home from work. Much less than I feel in America, in order to feel comfortable in the public "playground," one should not be alone. I have almost never seen a single female eating alone in an Outback, nor do I see people socializing in that space at all, without someone else to join them.The irony of the moment was something that could not ignore when deciding to take this picture.
In a city the size of Seoul, loneliness is a not an emotion felt only by the dispossessed or socially misfit, but is more of a mode in life. It's simply one of the inevitable rhythms of a place constantly in flux and motion, where we sometimes get caught on our own, between the inside and out. On this particular evening, when I was walking from Myungdong to Chungmuro during an in-between moment of my own, I caught this young woman sitting motionless on a bench, oblivious to the business going on inside the "family restaurant" in front of which she was sitting, as well as to any passersby.
What she is thinking or even the state she is in is something about which I can offer little more than conjecture. I never saw her face and she never moved a muscle while I shot off several frames of her. She may have been catching a snooze before a whole slew of friends arrived, she may have just received a call from her boyfriend informing her that he had found a new love, or she may have just been feeling a bit sick. In the end, who know? What is more important is the impression this particular moment had on me, as well as the emotional color that this particular moment had when I pressed the shutter button.
For me, this picture capture a particular kind of feeling that I get as person who generally walks around this large city alone; in this moment, I felt an instant of connection with another lone soul who seemed to be sharing the lonely mode with me.
"Eating Alone in Itaewon"
What make the picture of the girl on the bench work all the more is the obvious contrast between the apparent loneliness of the main subject and the advertisement behind the bench upon which she is sitting. Roughly translated, the message reads "A restaurant for getting together," and it is interesting to think about the way "family restaurant" has become a concept unto itself. The Korean pronunciation of the English word for restaurant is "res-to-rang" (레스토랑), often understood as a place that serves Western food. This is cognitively different from the Korean word for restaurant, which is shik-dang () and generally refers to a restaurant selling Western food. The concept of "family restaurant" has more to do with large food chains such as TGI Friday's, Outback Steakhouse, or Sizzler, which in Korea have largely become spaces where females go to socialize; in the US, the country of these restuarants' origins, these restaurants are really not very much more than a place to eat.
In this and many other ways, the urban and industrialized Korea has come a long way from the times defined by the intimate and personal spaces of the golmok, to the much more impersonal and commodified space of "socialized consumption." In this way, I think that not knowing most of the people you see every day, not even your own neighbors, as is often the case in this country of massive high-rise apartment complexes, fundamentally changes the way Koreans interact with one another. Moreover, in order to socialize, one usually needs money, because in this hyper-capitalist consumer culture, money buys access to the playground. Of course, most people these days can afford this and it has come to seem almost natural, but the facts that this is also a significant change in lifestyle as well as a completely different use of public space, are things worth thinking about.
This is especially true in regards to the way Kim Ki Chan wistfully looked at the disappearance of the golmok and the end of one aspect of the Korean "national character" itself. The question I am asking here is, "With the death of the golmok, exactly how has "public space" changed the ways Korean see each other and themselves? How has it changed the way people behave? And how has it helped define Korean "national character" itself in the modern age?" The next section is an attempt to answer that question, and I hope it will be one that might have satisfied Kim Ki Chan had I another chance to speak with him. He recently passed away, along with, one might think, the last recorder of a world that has almost disappeared. But I argue that the communal memory of golmok life is not something that fades away so easily, and its traces are still evident in the ways people now occupy and define the spaces of Seoul in a new, modern way that yet still rings with the echoes of an older way of life.
THE PLAYGROUND OF LOVE, DISPLAY, AND CONSUMPTION
Seoul certainly doesn't have the romantic reputation of Paris in the springtime, but Seoul is definitely the city for lovers. Everywhere you go, couples abound, and in certain places, touchy-feely pairs are the majority – Shinchon on the weekends springs instantly to mind when thinking of a sea of couples desperately clutching one another while walking around in complete oblivion to everyone else around. On a Sunday afternoon near the new Artreon movie complex, it is difficult to go about one's business alone without being acutely reminded of the fact that one is not part of a heteronormative social coupling.
<ELIMINATED THE TWO PARAGRAPHS IN BETWEEN THESE 2 SENTENCES, AS WELL AS PART OF THE NEXT PARAGRAPH>
For those of you who might not take too much stock in this form of dominance by a majority, let me just suggest that the hegemony of heterosexuality is so complete that even pointing this out smacks of ridiculousness. In any case, what I find interesting in Korea is not the fact of heteronormativity, since this norm and associate behaviors exist everywhere, but rather two particular aspects of it that are particular to the Korean case and to how this is expressed on the streets:
First to consider is the just how much of the public space couples seem to occupy, how much dating, dating, dating is on the minds of the unmarried, and how much social energy seems to be expended towards getting a girl or boyfriend if you don't have one. People always seem to ask each other, quite early in initial social conversations, "Do you have a boy/girlfriend?" as a part of those key questions that people tend to ask each other in Korea in order to know how to talk and deal with one another. Given the hierarchical nature of the language, as well as the class and status-oriented thinking of many people, the fact that one's age, hometown, and where you went to school are first out of the gate is not surprising. But included in the litany of questions asked in order to help guide one's social positioning is that of determining whether or not one is single or not. Older people tend to be obssessively concerned with when single people are going to stop being single, while younger people seem to be curious as to a) whether you should be treated as an oppa or an option (or both) in the case of men, for instance, or b) whether you seem to have be conforming to the social norm of having a significant other and why or why not. Perhaps I'm overintellectualizing, but it's something worth thinking about, perhaps by someone with real anthropological training; but I strongly believe there's something to these observations about the degree of heteronormativity here – watching the throngs of couples wildly clutching each other in seeming herds makes thinking about the subject inevitable.
The second thing that is interesting about the use of social space for socializing and love here in Korea is the sheer level of its brazenness. And so much has changed over a relatively short period of time. What is also most interesting about this recent surge in expression of heteronormativity, a.k.a "public displays of affection" (PDA), is the fact that it is so intense in a society that only ten years ago (my favorite, single frame of reference) discouraged young people from even holding hands in public places, let alone hug each other, or even sensitive parts of each others' bodies. Ten years ago, uniformed middle and high school students holding hands was enough to cause a social ruckus, and was tempting a public scolding by someone older; nowadays, it's easy to see such students walking about arm-in-arm or hugging one another, completely absorbed in themselves and the moment. That's not something I necessarily disapprove of, nor is this at all the point of me writing this.
What is most interesting is the way people seemed to view PDA as an "American" thing, something you would see in Hollywood movies. Ten years ago, people would always ask me whether people in America really kiss in the street like in the movies, or whether they really all sleep together on the first date. To the people who sometimes still insist that "Koreans do no do such things," I like to point out that I think young folks in Seoul are just as, if not more than, touchy and grabby in public. Sometimes I like to push the line that people here are more prone to PDA than back in the States, but no one seems to believe me, and I always get the "you're absolutely crazy" look. So I tend to keep that to myself. I also tend to keep to myself stories I hear from friends more frank and fun than me, ones having to do with people meeting on sogaetings (blind dates), deciding that neither one is really interested in the other, but that they're hot enough for one good roll in the hay – and off they go to a love hotel. But if I brought that up, I just might find myself committed to an asylum, so I just keep mum about what I see and hear going on amongst Korean folks who are not the professed paragons of virtue I tend to meet in the educational/academic circles I run in.
For those of you who are asking, I guess I'd say that I find these expressions of affection and love refreshing in what is a publicly conservative culture (although in describing the Korea that exists behind closed doors, I'd never come within 9 feet of this word). That's as far as I'll go in offering my personal opinion on the matter. In the end, that's not the important thing. I just find the extreme heteronormativity of Seoul fascinating, and it's something I tend to think about in terms of many recent changes in public culture, a large part of which is influenced by the fact that participation in public life primarily takes place as a part of consumption. When we get to the subject of dating, it is an activity that takes places almost solely as a consumptive act. Importantly, dating is a very outside activity, in a country in which having your boyfriend or girlfriend enter the private space of one's home is difficult to do, given the fact that most people can't afford to, nor is it often socio-logistically possible to move out and live alone before marriage without a darn good excuse to do so.
But people find ways to take care of the necessary business created by the universal feelings of sexual and romantic attraction, and surely this must have always been the case, even in a much more publically conservative Korea of past decades. I mean, hell – even in the movie Scandal, people acknowledged that folks were getting it on even in Joseon dynasty days, so why not the 1960's? And in the year 2005? Yes, there are still some people who try to deny that Koreans do anything risque that others do "in foreign countries" (외국에서), which is by definition what Koreans do not do.
In any case, this is all a roundabout and long-winded way of getting to talking about the picture below. What surprises me is that certain people insist that "Koreans would never do anything like that in public" and the fact that the girl is wearing brightly colored socks must mean that she's actually a Japanese tourist. In the face of the most obvious evidence that they are not Japanese tourists – I've rarely seen Japanese tourists so comfortable in public, taking the subway, and bereft of large amounts of luggage or shopping bags – and without any real convincing evidence that they are, certain people insist that this couple "could not be Korean."
The first reason given is that Koreans, allegedly, don't wear such wild and colorful socks. Well, anyone who has been on the lower half of the peninsula in the fall and winter for the last two years must either be blind or completely oblivious to what youth are (or aren't!) wearing today. Behind my building in Myeongdong is a cart that only sells crazy colored stockings and knee socks, and they seem to clean up pretty well.
Next, doubters move to my foreignness as a weakness in my argument. Well, "foreigners can't tell the difference between Koreans and other Asians," I was once chided in response to this picture. Well, I answered, "I heard them speaking in Korean," something I specifically listened for when I was taking these shots, since I had thought in advance that people would doubt the Koreanness of the subjects. Every time something out of the perceived norm gets recorded in a photograph, many Korean people tend to think that surely I must have confused the person in the picture with some other Asians. But this against the fact that behaviors such as those depicted in the picture below are not actually outside of what I have seen to be the norm in Korea, no matter how many Korean people try to convince me otherwise.
I think this is because of the fact that people in their own countries are actually really poor observers; they tend to follow the same path to and from work, school, and even the places they go to socialize. Natives in one's own culture also tend to have clear, pre-conceived notions about who they are, what their people do, and what is and is not social reality. An outsider, who has the advantage of not being trapped by years of social training, formal education, and media exposue, can often see things quite differently. To me, there is absolutely nothing unusual about the scene below.
I have, with mine own eyes, seen Korean couples caressing each others' faces in public, sitting in each others' laps, rubbing thighs, pecking on cheeks, and yes, even tongue kissing. I've seen couples steaming up the windows in the back of buses, rubbing each other down in movie theaters, even making funny faces at each other in totally public places. Now, the more extreme cases are not the norm, but I have seen that sometimes Korean couples do things that I would find it hard to imagine American couples doing: a woman popping her man's pimple, pulling out the white hairs from the side of his head, scratching each other's backs under their clothes, picking noses, giving massages, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
Now, I'm not putting such behavior down – I'm just saying that love seems to go a long way here and will be inevitably expressed a little bit differently from culture to culture – so if you feel comfortable popping your man's pimples in public, good for you; but surely you have crossed that magical line before which many Americans probably might think it OK to give a quick kiss on the cheek. Frankly, as an American, I think I'd rather see the kiss on the cheek. Perhaps Korean folks should be more aware of the fact that although standards of PDA differ from country to country, Koreans might arguably be more affectionate in public than many Americans consider Europeans to be.
In the spirit of fun, let me present a couple that was so self-absorbed in each other that they never noticed me snapping nearly a whole roll of 35mm film of them with a large, black, manual focus camera with one of the loudest motor drives ever produced by Mankind. The money shot on this roll was a technical failure because the train moved suddenly, but captured the emotion of their relationship perfectly.
Here is another tender moment, shared between a young woman and man apparently about to return to the army.
Here is a couple I came across outside the subway stop in the way home. They were so effused with affection that I asked them if I could snap them. They happily obliged.
An older man who had all but forced me to have a beer (on me) with him looks on wistfully at one of those "new generation" (신세대) couples, which is about what I could conjecture from his slurred speech. He did seem quite envious of them; perhaps that was because he truly did come from a far more conservative public culture.
One thing I don't have on film is the Halloween party I attended last year, where no cameras were allowed, because an informal strip show was planned, in which only Koreans participated. Many foreigners were in attendance, but just looked amused and somewhat puzzled at the Koreans cheering on several Korean men and a few girls who had stripped down to their underwear, and one who stripped to her panties and was dancing on the bar. Yes, it was a Hongdae club, and Hongdae is notorious for that media-produced "scandal" in which some Korean girls had had their pictures taken in wet T-shirts with white men. Still, the wildest behavior I've seen in Korea was not undertaken by foreigners; I have seen that, even in extreme cases, Koreans can be as "wild" as any of the foriegners are imagined to be.
What I find interesting is that while Koreans tend to think Hongdae to be a place for foriegners to get wild, did anyone stop to think that perhaps because Hongdae already has an open and unique culture created by young Koreans, this might be why certain foreigners are attracted to this place? In other words, perhaps foreigners are attracted to Hongdae because it it already a wild Korean public space, and "wild" in a particularly Korean way; perhaps it is too quick an assumption to make that Hongdae is wild because foreigners like to go there.
The final picture in this section is one of my favorites. When I was stuck in an overnight stop in Narita, I took a trip to the local department store to see if I might be able to gain any pictures. I was walking around the store when I spotted a very fashionable student couple and asked in my halting Japanese, "Shashin," as I pointed to my camera, "daizhobu?" After a beat, they awkwardly obliged, and as I took the picture, the girl suddenly threw up her hand to her mouth in an instant of coy affectation. The boy was just standing by, looking eminently cool with his loosened tie and relaxed, confident stance.
On my first trip to Japan, I got the most "Japanesy" picture I could have ever wanted. Yet, I am also struck by just how many universal elements Japanese spaces seem to share with Korean ones, in terms of how people socialize, consume, and utilize the space outside of their homes, which – in both Korea and Japan – are much more private, closed off, and very much not a place people allow outsiders into without some reason, such as a specific event such as a baby's 100-day ceremony (돌찬치) or a housewarming party.
In this way, through the lens of my foreigner's eye, I find a lot of commonalities between the Japanese and Korean street, in terms of the way public space is defined. Of course there are differences between the two places, of which one could talk endlessly about; but through my photographs, and through my foreignness from both cultures, perhaps one can find a commonality between the two places that insiders in either culture might find more difficult to imagine.
The other thing I notice about the Korean street and the way the public space is filled – and this is especially true in the metropolitan center of fashion and flair that is Seoul – is the way the pantamount importance of appearance, a competitive sense of fashion, and the particular way the female body is sexually commodified and fetishized in Korea, all combine in a specific and peculiar way that is photographically fascinating.
As a heterosexual, foreign man in Korea who has heard the conversations of other heterosexual foreign men in Korea, I know I am not certain in thinking about this subject. For example, when the Krispy Kreme chain came to Korea last year, I had the pleasure of meeting some of the American staff who had come to Korea to orient and train the Korean employees. One evening, when I was having a conversation with a few of the male staff about life in Korea and was busy trying to answer many of their curious questions about all sorts of aspects of Korean society, one of the guys, in a kind of embarrassed voice, asked me, "Umm, do Korean girls all dress...so...so..," at which point, the other men joined in the chorus, as if they had all thought of the question but were just too embarrassed to ask it.
I knew what they were thinking. I finished his sentence: "So risqué? Like fetish wear?" They all nodded and vigorously agreed, "Yeah, like the schoolgirl thing? And the short skirts. And the knee socks. And the skirts are so short!" They went on a bit, and asked the kind of questions that men tend to ask each other when alone and speaking frankly with other men. I will say that most of these guys were typical American men, lived in medium-sized towns from all over America, and none of them had never been to Asia. As much as Koreans tend to think Americans dress wildly – mostly from Hollywood movies and impressions of seasonally warm and socially liberal Southern California, where a lot of Koreans' images and stories about the US seem to disproportionally come from – like me and many other foreign men, are alternatively fascinated yet somewhat surprised by the relative risquéness of Korean women's fashion.
"Don't Fantasize about Me!"
I know that a lot of Koreans will be surprised to hear this, but I thought that same thing even when I was first sent to Chejudo in 1994. I had heard that Korea was a "conservative Confucian culture" in the few books about Korea that had existed at the time, and Koreans were always telling me how "wild" and "liberal" Americans were, and "don't we all sleep with each other on the first date," like in the movies, and of course, "Americans like to kiss in the street." In my experience, of course you saw such things sometimes, but personally, even after life in the Midwest, then the East Coast, and after having occasionally visited large metropolises such as New York City, Boston, and several other cities, I never thought American life as especially wild.
And we Americans tend to think of Europeans as the "wild" ones, in the same way that many Koreans tend to have the same impression of Americans. And with my impression of Korea as the "conservative" culture described my mom, relatives, and seemingly every Korean person I had ever met before going to Korea, I was very surprised myself actually quite shocked by the seemingly inexplicable fact of an element of the risqué in Korean life. To an American, it might be quite surprising to find professional and other work uniforms relatively tightly fitted to the female body, as well as the hemline ending well above the knee. I had never seen so many super-minis (똥코침마) in life, and I found myself, while of course tempted to look, quite embarrassed at the same time. Wasn't I the "wild and liberal" American?
Perhaps I'm a bit of a bumpkin (촌놈), but I continually find that my reaction is very much the same one that most Americans – both men and women – seem to talk about. One American female friend of mine remarked, "I never felt like such a tomboy before," meaning that the sheer level of "girliness" and extreme femininity here create a kind of social pressure that many American girls find quite frustrating. In many ways, I find Korea very much like America in the 1950's, when women in America too wore high heels to go anywhere outside the home, rarely wore pants, were never seen without makeup, and were constantly perming their hair, worried about their waistlines, and obsessed with being married before 25.
Of course, Korea is changing, and is a mixture of traditional old gender roles and newer assertions of female social and sexual freedom; this is what actually makes the Korean street – for a photographer, male or female – so unique and fascinating. I started out photographing many aspects of Seoul, looking for all kinds of situations that defined fascinating aspects of the everyday; but slowly, as I grew tired of taking pictures of people in subways or of charming street vendors (포장마차 아줌마), I started thinking in terms of the undeniable patterns that I had begun to notice in the public spaces of Korea. For a while, it was couples; but after I had shot a lot along that theme, my mind – and camera – started moving in the direction of trying to answer the question of just what it is that surprises me and many other foreign men about public spaces and the place of the woman in it. But it was quite a while before I even knew that I had started seriously grappling with this question. I first began to realize what I had already subconsciously started thinking about only after others started pointing this out to me. In the next section, what I am talking about, while difficult to define, can be best conveyed in terms of the concept of "fetish."
After I had started showing my photographs in public, I noticed that certain questions seemed to start cropping up more and more as my street shooting had entered its 2nd and 3rd year. I seemed to be searching for something, but was unawares as to what it was. People started to ask me more and more often about the fact that a lot of my street photography seemed to include a lot of women. People sometimes asked, even quite suspiciously, "why?" or "Isn't that problematic?" Wasn't I doing something wrong? Or perhaps this was a sign of my perversity? And after I realized that the pattern they were seeing actually seemed to be there, and after a long time spent consciously watching Korean women through the viewfinder of my camera, on top of the all but unconscious "watching" I automatically do as a function of male desire - my male "gaze" - it struck me that many Korean women remind me of "drag queens."
This picture struck me because of the way the accidental blur gives the image an abstract, dreamlike quality, like a watercolor painting. What inspired me to take the risk of taking this picture was was the extreme femininity of the woman, along with the fetishist aspect that draws the eye; her high hemline, high heel lazily dangling off the foot, accented by gold anklet, girlish posture and pose, and the glint of her matching, gold hoop earrings that is magnified by the camera shake all mark her as very feminine, especially in contrast to the somewhat stocky and "unfeminine" woman standing before her, about to get off the bus.
The picture above, along with the observations that go with it, go right to the heart of my thoughts about what I describe as the "fetishized femininity" that defines female identity here. The "drag queen" is, traditionally, a gay man who dressed as a "woman," usually for the purposes of a show or some other performance. The performer is not transgendered, i.e. a person who was born as a man but wants to live as a woman, but a man who temporarily crossdresses for a specific purpose. Anyone who lives in San Francisco and gets to know a lot of people eventually comes to know the difference. The thing that marks the "drag" performance as so fun and interesting is how much the performer exaggerates all of the accouterments and behavior of "Woman."
The drag woman is more feminine than any female, more girly than any girl, and pushes femininity to the point of parody, all in a fun and fabulous way. What strikes me about Korean women – not all, but the many who define a pattern to me – is the fact that they are the most hyper-feminine women I have ever seen. I've traveled through most of Europe and even lived in Germany for some time in high school, and have seen Japan and China, as well as come into contact with many people in a pretty multicultural America.
The thing that makes Korean women and men particularly interesting is the extremity of gender roles: if one looks at men instead of women for a moment, you can see that men carry themselves in equally "manly" ways; from the heavy physicality of how boys socialize, the experience of going to the army, and as a rule tending to smoke and drink heavily and regularly in social situations (compared to Americans), I could never be as "manly" as a Korean ajussi, for example. By looking at either men or women here in Korea, one is looking at one side of a single coin; to the extent that woman are hyper-feminine, men are hyper-masculine in a way that I find difficult to adjust to, and is one reason that many American men find it a little uncomfortable and difficult to form friendships with many Korean men, even of the same age.
If we look at the way women in general carry themselves here - or the way female identity itself is constructed - there are myriad ways to notice a particularly Korean aspects of the gendered mode of appearance, behavior, speech, and overall comportment. But one also needs to know what is going on in the background, some real facts that can shed light on the superficial things the camera or the eye can see. When you look at the social realities surrounding women in Korea - a country sporting one of the highest rates of sex work in the industrialized world, where there are more sex workers than school teachers, where women in skimpy attire promote everything from cars to toothbrushes, and for which the Gender Empowerment Measure therefore puts Korea near the bottom of the scale of 70 measured developed and undeveloped countries alike, right next to countries in which polygamy, "honor killings," and domestic violence is de facto, if not de jure legal - surely this must affect the expectations men have for women, how women see themselves in terms of these expectations, and the creation of general codes of interaction between the two genders.
Surely the expectations placed upon men, the acceptance of aggressive behavior with a "boys will be boys" attitude, solidified with the two years and two months spent in the hazing society of compulsory military service, reinforced in the workplace by a rigid, miliatarized heirarchy, and bolstered by the constant and open access to women's bodies as objects of visual and sexual consumption - must have some affect on the way men see themselves as men. Gender role differences are apparent to the observant eye and to anyone who has a feel for real life in Korea.
"Boy and Girl"
But I know that many people aren't going to simply take my words – or even my pictures – on their own merit. Let me defer to authority and quote the scholar John Berger, from his text Ways of Seeing:
"Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves."
So I am not arguing that the very character of feminity is fundamentally different in Korea. It's not so a question of being different as it is simply a matter of a difference of sheer effort. Korean men often boastingly ask me "Aren't Korean women more beautiful than American women?" I usually begin my reply with a "They sure are!" but before I let them enjoy that assuring feeling, I continue with my reply, which is that if most college-age American girls dressed in skirts, high heels and makeup to walk out of the door – as they did in the American 1950's – working women were required to wear uniforms like schoolgirls, with skirtlines well above the knee, and plastic surgery was so ubiquitous that it had been offered as the first prize in fast food chain contests for high school girls (as Lotteria did two years ago) - I would have to describe American women as the most beautiful in the world.
The state of Korean women's "beauty" does not seem natural, effortless, or easy. It seems the result of a constant self-surveillance, strict regime of dietary control, a constant pressure to wear what others do and follow fashion trends. All of this effort is marked by the ubiquitousness of mirrors everywhere – in elevators, staircases, and especially on the desks of nearly all working workers. Just whom are Korean women preening for?
And it's not that only foreign men notice this and find it a little strange - most Western women I have talked to do as well. In fact, I would think that women would notice even more than men would. An American friend of mine put it succinctly when she said "I never felt like such a tomboy before coming to Korea." On the level of femininity that defines the norm of gendered life here, most Western women I know have given up trying to compete. Just looking at the face-centric emphasis on "cute" - before even getting to the nearly requisite eye and nose jobs, the black contact lenses that make the irises look bigger, the straight "magic perm" and color, the all-too frequent use of false eyelashes - the daily commitment of applying makeup alone requires getting up from 15 minutes to an hour early, depending on your particular level of fastidiousness. Add on the fact many Western women can't even buy brassieres, shoes, or depending on who you are - any clothes at all - in Korea, a lot of women end up feeling like the Sasquatch, hurrying to lumber away from the eyes of the frightened city-dwelling humans who want to capture you for scientific study.
In this sense, I definitely see something in the Korean streets about the way femininity itself is represented, and it is quite striking to me as an outsider, a Westerner, as well as a man. To a large extent, I see the working of fetish, in a way that I never saw before in my home country, or in many other places to which I had traveled in the world.
Freud says that objects of fetish are simply things charged with the sexualized memories of early childhood. For example, he argued, when little tots lock their little Freudian libidos onto Mom, her feet are the parts of her body often in closest proximity. Post-Freudian arguments would more broadly point to fetishized objects parts metonymically representative of the whole – the high-heeled female foot, in this interpretation, is an object given sexualized power by society as the embodiment of something essentially feminine and sexual. The high heel is a both a symbol of the entire sexually desirable female figure herself, even as the object/part itself takes on its own sexualized meaning. Put even more simply, it is a part that represents the whole (e.g. high heel=woman), but has special meaning as an object with meaning unto itself. The high heel is woman or femininity itself, a fact that helps charge the object with its special meaning.
I tend to favor this argument the most, because if we assume that Korean society in general 1) values women more for their appearance and sexual attractiveness than any other attribute, and 2) their bodies are constantly presented in a quantitatively and qualitatively more sexually commodified way, then we can come to the tentative conclusion that women in Korea might tend to be fetishized as sexual objects. By this I mean to suggest that they value, utilize, wear, and purposefully display more totem objects of sexualized femininity than in any other place I have seen, with the exception of perhaps Italy or Russia. And is it a coincidence that these are also cultures well known for a strict tradition of male chauvinism, what some may call machismo?
Indeed, as we look at the heavy accessorizing that is positively a pastime here on the streets of almost any neighborhood where large numbers of people go, the adornment and high value placed on the female body is obvious, and not even in need of the long, theoretical argument that I just presented. But we know darn well that if I didn't give such a detailed argument, people would just say that I was talking out the side of my neck. At least you know now exactly upon what bases I am resting my assumptions.
Since images of women's fetishization is part of what I'm trying to capture on film, being apologetic for my male gaze – the "fetishistic scopophilia" that I was told during my first undergraduate film class that all heterosexual men possessed – would be counterproductive and downright futile. Of course, sometimes I feel like a big, fat pervert trying to capture the pull of the fetish with my camera, especially since disconnecting my pleasure in the process is impossible; but not taking a picture and regretting it later is a far worse feeling than that caused by people falsely thinking me to be some kind of sexual deviant with a camera. And to a certain extent, they're right anyway. As more than just a passive watcher, when I am enabled by my camera, my fetishistic scopophilia is in full effect.
So let me drop the academic façade that most people entering into controversial waters tend to hide behind, and let my male gaze guide this part of the book, just as it has my camera. Let me break down for you how I see the image of Woman in this culture as nothing more than the sum of her fetishized parts. Of course, this is merely my feeling and interpretation, but I did not enter this culture with these ideas or assumptions. There was something about observing the way men and women carried themselves here, interacted with each other, that brought me to have the thoughts I have now. I spent countless hours just watching people through my lens, trying to predict what they would do, which direction they would walk in, whether a person was going to sit or stand; I simply observed and became good at not only feeling the rhythms of the street, but also at starting to decode the subtle signals that are passed along through clothes, facial expressions, small gestures, and even posture itself.
So just what are these small signs and symbols that I notice? Why do I think them to be important? Let us leave Freud for a moment and think about the words of a more contemporary, albeit fictional, psychoanalyst –Hannibal Lecter – who so aptly observed – in the Academy Award-winning film The Silence of the Lambs – that "We covet what we see every day." One of the things that made the film so chilling and powerful on a lot of levels – besides the element of stepping into the mind of a serial killer – is how it took a critical look at how gender, sexuality, and the power of the male gaze operates everywhere in society. This was evident in the sexual tension seen in the relationship between Starling (Jodie Foster's character) and her older male mentor in the FBI, between Starling and the murderous Hannibal Lecter, between Starling and the distrustful policemen in the autopsy scene, between Starling and the two nerdy paleontologists who helped her identify her first clue in the case, and of course, between Starling and the killer, who is a man whose desire for the accouterments of the female drives him to commit horrific acts in order to become one.
In that film, the killer is a man who is driven to kill by the power of his murderous male gaze; Hannibal Lecter is the only character who understands its power intellectually; and Starling, as the main female character, understands it at its basest levels, spends the entire film being subject to it, navigating it, and actively trying to thwart its power. The point here is not to tell you that the male gaze is murderous; indeed, it is so common and ubiquitous in society – on the street, in the media, in the office, in the classroom, in the bedroom – that it would be meaningless to characterize it in such a way. As a film, Silence of the Lambs showed us the male gaze in its extreme and most horrible forms. But in order to understand how the male gaze works in everyday life, one must understand just how pervasive and mundane it really is. To undertake such fascinating exercise, one has to look closer, think deeper, and paradoxically – try to think outside of the bounds of the everyday in order to do see something that perhaps you may not have seen before.
Let's think about what those things are on the level of fetishistic, photographic detail – from coiffed head to pedicured toe – and see what we come up with:
- the sheen of shiny, straight black hair, like in the Prell™ commercials
- the confident "hair flip," or twirl, or continued absent-minded stroking
- big, black false eyelashes, flitting up and down, up and down
- big, round, black contacts to make doe-eyes with
- shiny peach lip gloss, constantly reapplied
- the ever-present Korean female "pout"
- the paleness of the classical Korean face, as maintained by whitening powders, creams, and base/foundation Twincake™
- big eyes and noses with European bridges
- French-manicured, slender fingers formed in poses of feminine delicacy
- upper arms that are similar in thickness to the forearms
- stockinged thighs peeking out from under checkered, pleated skirts
- thin legs in jeans made to look longer in heels reaching out under an overly long pantleg
- the rounded legs of "office girls" in stocking and slippers
- thigh-hi tights like in the old Britney Spears schoolgirl video nobody ever admits to having made any effort to watch
- knee-high tights
- pedicured feet and toes in the barest sandal heels possible, coupled with a high skirt, to create a "near-naked" effect
- heels dangling from suspended feet, twirling in the air
- the "skinny fat" legs that are thin, yet jiggle with each step because of the lack of exercise and likely past of overzealous dieting
- pigeon-toed walking
- overly effeminate hip-swaying and sashaying, a la Ru Paul
Now, I'm not saying that all Korean young women display these totems, or engage in the specific behavior described above. And the fetish elements listed above is not exhaustive. The point is that all of the little fetishes are fairly universal, and are practiced by women in my own culture, as well as other places I have been that have thriving consumer cultures that fetishize women. They are all elements that do not exist outside of the male gaze. But what is different is that when I am in America, these fetishes and totems don't occur with nearly the same frequency as they do here. In fact, they occur with a low enough frequency as to mark someone who engages in a large number of these fetishes at the same time as unusual. Here, it's more common, I would humbly argue, than not.
My male gaze is always engaged here, whereas in the States, even on the Berkeley campus, which is supposed to be home to America's weirdest and wild, I can turn it off. Or my gaze isn't activated enough for it to be constantly noticeable. If the fetish signals given off by women were detectable as a tick on a mechanical detector, in America, I would get occasional clicks as I pass by the occasional outright fetishistic display, with rapid buzzes caused by a relative few number of women who've really laid it on thick and heavy. In Korea, the sound emanating from my detector would be more of a constant dull roar, increasing and decreasing in volume and density, depending on where you went. This is how I see Korea as different from America, or most other places in the West I have ever been to – well, as I mentioned, besides Italy.
So, I said above that the very character of feminity is not different here, that it's not a fundamental difference in form as much as it is simply a matter of sheer effort.
"Sum of Her Parts"
What is more interesting to me is the fundamental way men and women tend to interact in general here, how Korean "men" and "women" signify themselves as gendered and sexualized beings in this culture. I would argue then, that even a foreigner isn't necessarily just looking at Korean women as exotic, racialized objects in a way that is very different from how many Korean men look at Korean women. I believe that a particular foreign guy is simply picking up on the way gendered sexuality and relations happen in general, as well as how they happen in Korea, especially since the signals themselves - the glint of thigh peeking out of a short skirt, the extra curve of the calves created by high heels, meticulously-applied makeup, the ubiquitous straight perm falling around the sides of the face, an affected and knowingly cutesy pout, specks of light caught on gold anklets and hoop earrings, accentuated by the nowadays de rigeur pedicure, along wth myriad other accountrements ad nauseum - are not so culturally specific. In fact, they are comfortably familiar – with the only difference being that the air seems to far more full of these signs and symbols than is true back home.
After all, we are certainly not talking about the far more culturally specific charm of a coy, half-hidden smile peeking out from behind a veil in an Islamic nation, nor is it the Chosun-era sexy curve of the upturned big toe in a white, traditional shoe sneaking up from beneath the skirtline of a pink hanbok. The fetish signs given nowadays are, for all intents and purposes, universal in their meaning. A Korean woman could easily walk down the streets of Paris or Cairo and turn heads, were she appropriately armed with all the necessary fetishistic ammunition she seems to be here: short skirts, strappy summer heels, long, flowing hair, makeup, and a confident strut. It is important to illustrate that if a western woman wore what Korean women wear back in her home country, the signals would be clear, even if the background contexts are different in terms of relative levels of accepted fetish (e.g. a woman wearing knee socks, high heels and a Britney Spears skirt in the middle of winter in Ohio might stop cars, whereas in New York City, people might just give a stare; yet in Seoul at the moment, this particular fashion trend is merely normal for young women.)
"Dressed to Sell"
I realize that this might be a bit difficult to accept – the universal nature of the fetish and my observations about their meaning – especially if you had never thought about it before. Often in order to understand assertions about things that are not initially obvious, one conducts what Einstein called a "thought experiment" that allows you to come to conclusions one might not have seen before by simply changing a condition within a certain situation. So let's change one element of the way I have been arguing gender is displayed on the streets of Seoul – let's change the nationality of the male.
What is funny is that Korean society tends to scandalize Korean women for dating or even for being seen with a foriegn man – look at the so-called "scandal" and Internet harassment of a few Korean girls who did a little wild dancing with some white men in a Hongdae party last year – yet society accepts probably far worse behavior from Korean men in any neighborhood "room salon" or "business club."
It is interesting that the public's reaction rise to the level of scandal when images confronted with images such as this:
We all know that most Korean men simply don't like any suggestion of foreign men engaging in interracial romance or sex with Korean women; but the fact is that, in this highly sexist culture that primarily sees women as sex objects first and everything else as secondary, is anyone really surprised at advertisements such as this? Should anyone really expect foreign men to behave any differently than Korean men would in the same situation, especially if the Korean man had the chance to be armed with the power of white skin and American cultural power? Should we really be surprised that yes, the lure of male the male gaze and sexual desire is understood as one of the perks of teaching English in Korea or Japan, in addition to the relatively easy work and easy money?
Those words should ring in our heads as we think about what foreigners see, how they see things differently as foreigners, how what they see is reported back to friends back home through the rumor mills and private conversations, and what brings certain kinds of men to places like Japan and Korea, where public spaces are very much places of socializing and consumption, on a level many Westerners (especially Americans) have never experienced in their own countries. The words really ring true for many foreigners – male and female – and are alternatively sources of desire and guilt for many foreign men, envy and loathing for many foreign women: "We covet what we see every day." And to many foreigners, whose interactions with most Koreans disproportionately takes place in public spaces, simply by virtue of the fact that we don't have families, old school friends, and many foreigners don't speak the language fluently and are still unfamiliar with the culture. Our main encounters with Korea tend to be in the public spaces, in the metaphorical "street." Perhaps this is why certain patterns are easier for us to see, or at least appear very differently to us than they would to Koreans.
By looking at women in Korea through my viewfinder, I slowly came to a theory that describes the social position of women in general as aesthetic objects and that helps explain many aspects of gender interaction and signs of remaining gender inequality here. Of course, lest this become a sociology thesis, I need to present my argument photographically; this is appropriate, because it was street photography allowed me to connect with what film scholar Laura Mulvey calls the "frenzy of the visible" in general. It is through photography that I came to a deeper understanding of one aspect of this society, this aspect being a major way to understand how public space has come to be utilized in a largely social way, how prominently women both fit into and define this space, as well as how large a role consumption play within it.
"Consumption of Consumption"
Another major way that social space is used in Korea, is one of the most common ways of participating in the cultural economy, and one of the biggest venues for human interaction in a largely developed Korea – is in terms of consumption. Economists tend to think of this social activity in a purely functional sense, but alternatively, anthropologists and sociologists understand consumption to be a major mode of social interaction in itself. Since humans have decided to live in close quarters with one another (urbanization) and define ourselves mainly in the capitalist terms of financial earning power, the economy itself has become a major conduit of social interaction and has come to partially define aspects of our individual identities.
Marx might argue that the commodification of the body as consumed object in itself is logical in a market society in which everything is commodified. And this commodification is importantly not just limited to objects, but abstract things that include our actions, abilities, and even ways of thinking. One might also make the link between the way in which the Korean female body is actually bought and sold for direct sexual consumption – the Korean government places the sex industry at 4.1% of the GDP and the YMCA at upwards of 5-6%, a high number for such a highly-developed economy – to the ways in which everyday women adorn and define themselves as sexualized and fetishized objects.
Beyond talking about how labor, now we are talking about items becoming monetarily valuable as they become cultural valuable as objects with which to adorn and mark ourselves in purely aesthetic ways. These objects – be they clothes to accentuate our bodies, makeup to accentuate the features of our face, or the gestures one may use to appear "coy" or "feminine" – or all become a part of our social, sexual, and even political identities. They become a part of how we define ourselves in the world, which also helps determine the ways others regard us. In this way, they become, by definition, materially important.
"Sum of Her Parts II"
I wanted to present these shots as ample food for discussion about the ways in which women's bodies are both objects and conduits of consumption.
When I talk about the 도우미 (doumi - "model assistants" who can be found in everything from grocery stores to ones singing rooms), people often ask me why their existence seems to bother me so much. What I tell people is that it is not their mere existence that bothers me, but rather it is the sheer oversaturation of the doumi into the realm of the everyday that I find the most problematic and even degrading – both to the customers and the workers themselves.
Of course, I am making a value judgement and perhaps it might seem as though I am engaging in a condescending discourse about these women. But I am not irritated because I "feel sorry" for them or I am fighting for some notion of their human rights; I simply think that the simple equation of baring flesh for the sake of selling toothpaste and razor blades cheapens the entire endeavor for everyone involved. When I say this, I acknowledge that "sex sells" and that hot models are the standard eye candy of choice for trade, car, and electronics shows the world over. Still, hiring a model who is a larger-than-life figure showcasing a larger-than-life product or a new, prototype somehow seems appropriate, whereas watching dozens of women who look like my cousin or niece hawking the most everyday and mundane of objects just seems demeaning, not to mention ineffective. Who really makes a decision to buy razor blades because a girl in a short skirt is holding them? Or register for telephone service? And don't the doumi lose their effectiveness once they become ubiquitous?
In the picture above, what strikes me is the constant hawking, the fetish wear, and the women, women, women. Maybe it's my foriegner's eye, but I also have a little history on the situation. Around 10 years ago, when I was first in Korea, these "models" were around, but they were there to introduce a major new type of beer, or were providing the aesthetic support for the launch of a new product. But they certainly weren't standing in every aisle of the grocery store, handing out chunks of cheese samples, or passing out coupons.
The other thing I notice is that most of the women doing this job don't seem to be very happy doing it. One telltale sign that this isn't considered "good work" even by the people doing it is that fact that the models who work car shows or are helping to launch the latest and greatest MP3 player at an electronics show – these women are more than happy to pose for pictures. In fact, that's understood to be part of the job. They add flair to the whole affair, since they are larger-than-life people, they are people you don't see every day, they are unusually attractive – it is like meeting a movie star, for their appeal lies in their being very not everyday people; moreover, the events they are hired to promote, are also, by their very nature, unusual.
But selling cooking oil or Spam™ using similar techniques is inevitably demeaning. Perhaps not in an direct, humiliating way – but importantly, these models in the stores and streets are generally not happy about posing for the camera, as if this were a job that they would rather not be recorded on their resume.
It's just a feeling I get, but it's a pretty strong one. The job is unappreciated, their presence is anything but larger-than-life, and it's hard work, actually. I feel somewhat guilty about taking pictures, but I do it to make images to capture this feeling I get, that something is very wrong here. And also that this phenomenon of young girls in short skirts selling almost everything money can buy is new and unusual for even this society. Of course, it's subjective and informed by my identity as an American, but there's something very not right about this situation, and I think such observations are the sort of thing one might best notice if one is a member of the group.
So what am I saying here? In a nutshell, I am interested in how women are consumed, specifically as their bodies are objectified and commodified within the fiscal economy. My argument draws a link between the low overall status of women (as reified by the UN Gender Empowerment Measure), the relatively high degree of fetishized commodification in everyday life, and the surprisingly (for a country with Korea's level of economic and social development) large role that sex work still plays in the formal economy. I am not arguing that these things are somehow causal, but rather that they reflect different parts of the big picture regarding how women are valued and regarded in Korean society, as well as how they value and regard themelves. Is it just a coincidence that Korea is the place with some of the highest and most radical forms of plastic surgery, is the inventor of the "eol-jjang" art form, and women wear high heels to go hiking? Is this really so surprising in a culture in which women always seem to be somehow on display?
In my travels as an American photographer in Korea, my eye has been drawn to the many women – virtual and actual – on display, both behind glass and not. Of course, I can express this idea photographically far more easily I might be able to set up any actual link academically, which I do in terms of the reoccurring motif that I will call a "visual rhyme." The photographic argument I make here through my camera may raise a lot of hackles, but it's an important connection to describe, especially since it's so visually compelling. And although I don't want to get into a real argument as to how "true" such an argument might be, I do think it's something worth thinking about, in terms of how women are often the consumers of the very things that make them objects of visual and sexual consumption.
"Women in Windows"
In general, my decision to take these pictures was made mostly in response to the common emotion I felt when confronted with each window: a kind of creepy revulsion, a sort of palpable and extreme unease. I never liked mannequins – they've always made my skin crawl. But when fully posed, dressed, and placed on display, I've never liked looking at them much. I had the same feeling when faced with the humans in the 4th picture, since you have the mannequin creepiness despite the fact that you're staring at real people.
"Fetish for All Ages"
"My Very First"
"Women in Waiting"
"The Final Costume"
So what does this all mean? How does one make sense of all this? Instead of writing a long explanation, let me try to sum up my ideas with the help of a few, final pictures; the old saying goes that "a picture is worth a thousand words." These two should speak volumes:
In the old days, it was the golmok that defined the public space of Seoul the most, as Kim Ki Chan recognized and spent a good portion of his life recording, it is also something that has nearly disappeared from Korean life. It is part of an older Korea, one that was linked to a different economy, a different set of societal values, an altogether different way of life. The public spaces of Korea today is very much characterized by play; in a way that many Western countries find difficult to understand, Koreans meet, talk, love, fight, do business, and carry out all kinds of social activities in a very public way.
In the same way that in the confined spaces, small houses, and past the thin walls of the golmok, there was little room for privacy and almost no possibility for secrets, the public spaces of Seoul in the present day also offer everyday Koreans little quarter from the sight, sound, smell, and even touch from one another. Seoulites are crammed into subways in the morning, find irritation in the long lines at the cinema, silently curse the pushy ajumma who bowls them over while dashing for an empty subway seat. Seoulites long for green grass, fresh air, and freedom from crowds. They seem to long for the luxury of privacy and freedom from the interference and roving eyes of everyone around them.
Yet, it is in this very same public space that Koreans and especially Seoulites have grown accustomed to the glances, gazes, and judgements of others around them. In the golmok, the close proximity of everyone was certainly irritating; but it also provided a certain kind of warmth and familiarity, a feeling of closeness and connectedness. Perhaps in a similar way, although the lack of choice in having to function socially in the modern public spaces of Korea are certainly annoying, my perspective as an outsider tells me that there is an analogous kind of connectedness that defines these Korean spaces. In the crowded streets, sidewalks, buses, subways, bars, restaurants, and stores, there is a connectedness there that resembles that I hear described about the old golmoks: it's incessantly irritating to be stuck there, but there's something reassuring and familial about it. In a strange way, one might say that the very publicness of everything actually gives a certain sense of privacy.
This may seem a paradox, but this learned response to being in public all the time seems to allow many people to be able to ignore that at times and concentrate on what they are doing, who they are with. It allows this young couple to relax, play with their ice cream cones, and generally enjoy the opportunity to do nothing in particular. But the important thing is that they are doing it together. I used to be bewildered by watching couples sitting together in coffee shops, not talking, the man reading a newspaper, the woman flipping through a fashion magazine. And they would sometimes sit for hours, not doing anything at all. For many Americans, this might be time spent at one person's house or apartment, perhaps watching a movie, inviting a few friends over for a barbecue, or just cooking together and sitting around chatting. In Korea, even the act of doing absolutely nothing together must necessarily take place in public, which was a realization that took me some time to reach.
For me, that such a point of view explains a lot of things. In the picture above, thousands of people pack into a baseball stadium to enjoy one of the last few large-scale public activities in the modern age; the fruits of development after the 1980's was not only a higher standard of living, but the disposable income that became available to everyday people that began to drive a new kind of economy. The leisure time and discretionary income of millions is exemplified in this picture. And as two ajussis look on, completely oblivious to the agassi incongruously posing primping and posing behind them with her expensive mobile phone/digital camera/MP3 player, a young girl is distracted from the large public spectacle to watch what the older girl does. It should not be lost on anyone that the girl is taking a picture of herself with the crowd as a background – she is conscious of where she is and this public space is surely more interesting than taking the standard self-portrait (얼짱) shot by herself, or even in a small venue, or with a group of friends.
The multitude of gazes here – as well as the fact that such acts as taking such obvious self-portraits in public is so common as to be ignored – is what is quite important here. It should also be mentioned that taking such pictures in the US would be considered a bit "vain," and people tend to still feel self-conscious about using the camera phone to take self-portraits, especially when it comes to purposely posing while one does it.
In Korea, this is not the case; the presence of mirrors everywhere in Korea should be are testament to this fact: they are present in far, far more abundance than in America, for example, in elevators, in subways, as well as nearly every public space in Korea. Gazing at the self, at the crowd, and at others is something that seems to make a sort of sense in Korea, in the new, commodified public spaces that have replaced the old golmok. In the modern streets of Seoul that now defines a space of display and consumption, from Yeongdeungpo, Yeouido, and Mokdong, to Hongdae, Shinchon, and Chongno, there is a new kind of community and interconnectedness that really defines Seoul as unique.
Perhaps Kim Ki Chan, may he rest in peace, can find solace in that.