The saga was nearly complete.
But that's only part of the story, actually. I got an email yesterday from the publisher, who decided to cancel the photo book project. They cited two main reasons for their decision: 1) our inability to agree on the tone of the content, and 2) its extreme lateness. For me, Reason #1 was directly responsible for Reason #2, as the more parts of the manuscript I handed in, the further away I was told from the "original" mood of the book's concept.
For those of you who've been around over the past several months, you've seen me handing in chapters-by-chapter and know my work. The first round of chapters – the first two mammoth ones – were 1) too photography-oriented and 2) too academic for the publisher. They didn't like the parts where I talked about Korean photography back in the old days, nor did they like my talking about subjects that were too "dark", which I guess Korea was more of back then. I don't know – I thought it was kinda interesting.
Also, my initial tone was too academic, a criticism with which I wholeheartedly agreed, but when I brought down the qualifying and explaining a notch and revved up the describing and informality a bit, they said it sounded too much "like a magazine." Hmm.
I thought the original kicker and gimmick of the whole thing was describing the nitty-gritty streets of Seoul, but in a flavorful way, depicting their attraction and charm. For me, one of the biggest attractions has to do with the "dark side" that comes to life when day turns to dusk. It may be a little embarrassing to talk about sex, booze, and playing bad past bedtime – but that's an essential part of the draw, right? But they wanted to not only cut that down, but also told me to reduce the "presence of my voice." Huh?
I thought they had wanted to see Seoul from the eyes of a foreigner photographer, with one foot on the inside through my years of experience in this culture, but also as an inevitable outsider. I think that's part of the story – they did – but it came up against what my book manager described to me as "the bad mood" that many Koreans find themselves in lately, having to do with the economy, trade relations, trouble with North Korea, etc.
In the end, their goal "is to sell books" and not print stuff that will add to the already heavy funk in the air, a point that I completely understand. My book manager basically said that I needed to "write something that Koreans will want to buy." I can understand her point of view, but it was making chapter 3 – the final chapter that was supposed to be the "insider, playful" chapter – difficult to write.
So I had asked her – give me three adjectives that describe what you want to see, and three that describe what you don't – and my book manager came up with these:
3 things to stick to:
- original perspective
3 things to avoid:
- "lower your voice"
As I sat down to finish that out, I realized that with my style of photography, trying to say something new and impressive, as a photographer with an outsider's eye, without sounding purposely pandering – is hard to do without being accused of violating the rules of what not to do, which was to be "irritating, accusing, or dark."
What we had was a problem of definitions, since much of the stuff I just considered pretty neutral or matter-of-fact was seen as embarrassing or inappropriate, I think, to be 1) taken by a foreign photographer, and 2) be published in a book that looked more and more like they wanted it to be happier, lighter reading than I had ever thought.
So it became next-to-impossible to write anything good, something that got my heart pumping and my fingers dancing across the keyboard.
One reason was because pictures such as this, one of my strongest images in that it shows the red-light district in action, captures the real feel of Seoul at night, yet is too grainy to get that heavily made-up girl identified and in trouble, end up going into the figurative trashcan.
As they say, "You just can't fake the funk." So it went, so went my final deadline, and so remained my content something they didn't really want to take a risk on.
Anyway, I'm actually shooting much more these days and entering my 5th year of shooting in Korea. I've got more than enough text for a photo book, as well as other options. I see this as a good thing, because I really wasn't too sure if I was comfortable with what I was going to end up having to put my name on as my first work.
So it went with Seoul Magazine deciding to stop running my pictures a couple years ago. So it went with me stopping shooting for the Seoul Selection newsletter. So it goes with my photo book. I think that someday it will be an apparent "fit" with what Korea wants to see about itself, but for now, I think that my photography – and moreover, the content of the writing I do – is not something that a lot of Koreans want to hear about or see. And hey, it's understandable, even if disappointing.
When immigrant photographer Robert Frank exhibited and published The Americans in the conformist and paranoid 1950's, he was, in many people's eyes, the biggest asshole around. Why was he taking pictures of black mammies taking care of white babies or gay latinos in the barrio? In the mind of many people at the time who were trying their damndest to believe that Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver reflected anyone but a few people's reality, these pictures were definitely not a "true" picture of America.
When Martin Parr took – either on purpose or through others' interpretations – a skewer to the British middle class and the mundaneness of bourgeois consumption, it didn't make a lot of people happy, either.
I'm not saying that I'm either of these guys, nor is my work up to par with Parr's (sorry – I had to do that). But I do know that after nearly 5 years of shooting here, I've got some strong work already done, even as I am starting to feel revved up and charged to do even more interesting stuff.
So I think I'll be alright.
I've got plans, connections, and schemes, and am confident that things will work out in the end. As "Jackson" so profoundly put it in his scene from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle: "The universe tends to unfold as it should."
And I think it is.