I'm getting bored, but I'm also getting bolder.
BEWARE – "SCARE QUOTES" AHEAD
I just spent the evening skulking around the back streets of the City Hall/Namdaemun area taking pictures of business clubs and with lots of seedy looking guys in suits standing in the doorways looking sneerily about. What I have found out – for those of you who may find this useful – is that generally, gangster-looking types generally aren't as sensitive as you'd think about pictures.
I didn't really get any great shots, but I did push my boundaries a little, while exploring a place I'd never really been with a camera in tow. Lately, that's where I've been getting my thrills.
Don't get me wrong – street photography is fun! But even though my eye is always open, it's getting duller to certain things. For my first year here, I spent lots of time photographing things that were gritty, but in an "exotic" sort of way: old ladies manning the food stands no one was going anymore, homeless guys sleeping in the Ulchiro subway station, couples stroking each other all out in public. They were good shots, but "interesting" because they were Korean old ladies, Korean homeless dudes, Korean couples. In the picture of the two girls shooting each other with the cellphone camera, it was "everyday" material, but still very "Korean" to me. Yes, there is the fact that Korean cellphone technology is at least a couple years ahead of much of the world, so I was just playing catchup, but the point's the same: I don't find these pictures interesting anymore.
Then my interests started becoming more focused. I was still shooting stuff, but I was seemed to be shooting street, but with the sense of stuff that was "in Korea." It's hard to describe the difference between the previous two categories, but there seems to be one for me. When I was shooting "Korean" stuff, it was cool everyday stuff, but it was still somewhat new to my eye and particularly "Korean" somehow. As the wonder and shininess of starting to consider myself a real photographer – by gum! – had worn off, I was still shooting everyday stuff, but it was just me being a foreign photographer in Korea, as opposed to doing photography of stuff that looked foreign to me in Korea. I think that's where the photos started getting stronger.
And at the same time, I was starting to get less and less obsessed with documenting the "dirty underbelly of Korea" or going out to get the "gritty Seoul" thing on purpose. I was just taking pictures of stuff that looked interesting or poignant or intriguingly mundane to me. Some people said to me "Cosplay isn't really Korean, you know." This was at the point where I just said, "So? Kids in Korea are doing it, aren't they?" I didn't have some agenda to nitpick between showing the "real" or "true" Korea. Many Koreans did, and often expressed concern that I was "misrepresenting" Korea or that somehow people would "misunderstand" it.
I became satisfied with know that it's neither my job nor agenda to try to "represent" anything. I just push the shutter button when I get the urge to. Yes, I am "saying something" about "Korea," but not much more than, "Look – here's something interesting I saw in Korea." Of course, the things I choose to shoot and not to shoot reflect my views of this place, express an opinion, and in the end, inevitably "represent" something. But I try not to get grandiose about my observations; I just stick to my guns in being assertive enough to say, "My slice of reality is just as valid as the one any Korean person has." I live here, too, man.
That's the thing that bothers me about "representation." A certain way of thinking would hold that any "real" Korean person has a trump card on what Korea "is" and "isn't." It's funny that when I get in arguments – and I swear fo' the Lord that I really do try to avoid getting into certain things, but get dragged into them by Korean folks who insist I give my opinion of the middle school girls' deaths or the FTA negotiations or North Korea's "right" to have nuclear weapons – after getting into the nitty gritty of the discussion, many Korean folks are embarrassed to find out that they know far less than I do about that particular thing.
Now, I learn some new things, too, and am pretty careful with holding a stubborn line against a Korean person who seems to have thought a lot about a certain issue; but when a Korean person tries to "school" me on how Koreans "don't have much experience" with race and "it's only been a few years" since Korean folks have interacted with foreigners – and then we get to talking about the ideological genealogy of the concept of minjok, for example – most folks decide to take a sip of that old, universal elixir:
Now, I'm not saying people do that because they magically realize that they are wrong and I am right. I think it's more of a dawning realization that I actually know something about the subject, and if I'm lucky, they'll be consciously realizing that if they are actually talking about this particular subject – explicitly and out loud, at least – for the first time in their lives.
Usually, there is a moment of embarrassment – with most Korean people with whom I come to be friends – that I at least know "what time it is" and I'm not going to fall for the "old banana in the tail pipe" trick of "I'm Korean, so I know. You're not, so you don't."
I think that's true of most discussions, wherever you are – if you're in the US and talking about Katrina or the LA Riots or affirmative action in a college lecture and it's your first time talking about something academically and seriously, many people get all dug into the ground and emotional. Many foreigners say Koreans are too "emotional" about certain issues; try to hold a reasonable discussion about race in America on an academic level one time. It's sad how little actual, factual, historical information people have about the single most divisive subject and concept in American culture. Race is central to the American experience, but Americans are pathologically afraid to talk about it, deal with it, or even learn about it as an explicit field of inquiry. Hence, Ethnic Studies is seen as itself "racist." Shows how emotional we get over shit we actually are loathe to even learn the basic facts about. And so our historical/psychological blind spots continues.
So I can't be too hard on Koreans trying to tell me for the ten-thousandth time that "Korea has 5,000 years of history and America not even 300" – many Americans are busy trying to convince each other that racism ended with Martin Luther da King singing some "Negro spirituals" and finally giving Denzel Washington an academy award. Hehe.
Anyway – as a photographer, I started getting more sophisticated 'round about my third year here. Then, I was really taken up with the subject of women and the construction/consumption of femininity here. It was driven partially by my heterosexual sex drive, an overly robust "male gaze," and my deep sense that here was this huge pink elephant in the room – "why isn't someone documenting this?"
I saw all kinds of relationships here, between women, their patterns of consumption, the way they were constructing and consuming themselves, the way female bodies are used to drive consumption in general, and how that all linked into women's social collective social position. Here, I was making an argument, but not one so much informed by me being an outsider, but more from my informed partial status as insider that my knowledge and experience gave me, yet still kept somewhat sharp by certain ways of thinking and looking that came from being, inevitably, and outsider. For me, it was a neat balance to strike.
[Scrawled text reads: "Too old."]
I see a pattern here – I see relationships. Now, many people may disagree with me or say I'm crazy; I simply demand the basic respect that goes with not saying, "You're just looking it weird because you're a foreigner." My response is, "Have you spent a significant amount of time thinking about the subject of women's objectification and how this relates to their societal position – OR – is this just a kneejerk, emotional response to a foreigner who is saying something you don't want to hear, critical of Korea?" If the former is true, we can have a conversation; if the latter is true, there's really no point in talking any further, anyway.
But now I find myself tiring of even that major topic – at least as a driving force in my photography. Now, I want to try something new, something that will push my boundaries a bit more. I am talking, ladies and gentlemen...about...[cue drum roll]...flash photography.
I don't know which would be more dangerous in Korea – "flashing" someone by opening my coat and exposing unsuspecting victims to my original birthday suit, or walking around with a big camera and taking flash photographs. As sensitive as Koreans are about taking pictures, using a flash in my street photography is going to get you in trouble. It simply will, sometimes, probably the majority of the time.
But I wanna do it.
Recently, I've been inspired by Martin Parr's work, especially on the English middle class and consumption during the 1980's – and now, I soooo wanna use a flash. It just freezes the moment in a certain way candid can't, and it's so...so...invasive. That can be a powerful effect if you can handle the consequences. Back when Parr was photographing in British and Irish towns in the 1980's, people just reacted sort of puzzedly, if at all, to his taking pictures.
In a post-"Dog Poop Girl" Korea, however, sensitivities are high. I would estimate that one out of every two or three times I take a picture, some excited or even irate subject is going to come up to me, demanding I erase the image. Of course, since no image from my camera is getting erased unless I'm lying on the ground bleeding, with my camera removed from my cold, dead fingers – trouble's gonna ensue. That's just me. It won't matter that legally, no one – not even the police – can force you to erase any images; when I get punched in the head, it's on.
And that's the point. It's not a question of if, but a question of when. It's a numbers game. I may have a 1/1000 chance of getting decked in the head by an angry boyfriend, but if I take 5,000 of those pictures, well...it means I had better expect to be punched in the head a few times, right?
But his pictures are just so...tasty and hyper-real. It's tempting. Who knows? Maybe it won't be as bad as I think?
Here are a few shots I took earlier today – no flash, but a mixture of my normal style of candid street with getting right up on people – without even trying any longer to hide the fact that I'm taking a picture anymore – and shooting them. Some interesting results, although nothing to write home about.
This was just one of me practicing getting "street protraits" of normal people just being people, but in the middle of very, umm..."human" moments. This woman was pretty pissed at having to wait for someone and being made to follow confusing directions.
I cropped the picture below because it's a sensitive moment and I think it important to leave people their sensitive moments. Yet, I think this picture works well even without the guy's face – the focus is on the rough way he's grabbing his girlfriend, who was trying to walk in the other direction as they argued in the street. I like the other two major elements in the picture, those being 1) the couple seeming to be having a lovely evening together, and 2) the young girl whose attention has been caught by something behind her – perhaps their loud arguing? Anyway, it's a richer picture because of these two elements.
I'm pretty sure that flash used to freeze this "decisive moment" would have gotten me into some trouble with Mr. Angry over there, on top of the fact that I would never publish this photo as-is, anyway. Why even go through the bother?
The shot above was desperate for a flash, and I think the two high school girls would have been easy to take in a fight – just kidding. But I think they would have just whispered angry words at each other about me, scowled, and taken off. Still, I was just getting warmed up.
I did do the same kind of stand-and-shoot-from-the-street shot I did in Yeongdeungpo, but this time, the couple got off the bike (their destination was actually just a few dozen meters past me) and the girl – very politely, I must say – asked me why I was taking pictures. I gave her a standoffish no, to which she asked/suggested, "You're not going to do anything bad with it, are you?" Well, I had no plans to, and that's not why I'm out taking pictures. I simply said, "Of course not" and she smiled and let it go at that.
So it was kind of a nerve-racking night, and I had weathered the storm and used that frickin' flash.
Yet, I still ended the evening as a big, fat pussy. Yeah, I try not to use that word – but that's exactly how I felt. Positively pussified, people. Check this out:
I got up the nerve to start flashing people from the relative safety of my taxi ride home. I saw this older ajussi with a fly ajumma on his ride and popped up the little punk-ass, close-range flash on my SLR. Since auto-focus is slower than good old-fashioned manual focus at times – no focus, no fire – and I ran out of time, I missed the shot. You can see that the camera metered and gave flash power for the area past them, and they're over-exposed on the part that it did catch. But had I aimed right, I woulda got them good. Dangit!
But I had another chance, people. Our cab was actually booking, so we passed them and I was waiting arouudn to see if they came back, which they did (and they weren't looking like they were on Road Warrior patrol to hunt me down, neither). I saw them coming up again behind us, but at the moment when I could have flipped up the flash, I had this image of the guy waiting for us at the next intersection (Gongdeok is like a 4-5 minute light change, people). I had the chance to pop up the flash, but I didn't do it. What if he rides back up on me at the next traffic stop? What if he tries to start some shit? I don't feel like street fighting today over a picture. So I put the flash back down.
So when they passed, I was ready, but not ready, you know? Here's what I got:
The perfect, mothafucking shot. Perfect. Look at that!
Ambient light? Check.
Blurred background? Check.
Colorful background? Check.
Framed (albeit accidentally) perfectly to get just what I needed from the couple and just what I needed from the background? Check.
Flash to pop the motorcycle couple out to make the image positively 3-D? PUSSY.
It's time to start pushing boundaries, people. If I end up on the Korean news holding my t-shirt over my head as the camera crews track me into the police station, you'll know why.
But I need to push myself a little more. That last missed shot's gonna taunt me forever, dude. I don't want those missed shots in my head no mo'.
In my dreams, that blurred ajumma in the picture is peering at me through all that motion blur and smiling, tsk-tsk-ing and shaking her head in disappointment, while she mouths – in slow motion, mind you – the word you already know is coming: