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Seoul eye: Eyes in the sky

Photographer SeongJoon Cho captures Korea from a new angle

Haeundae Beach, Busan, 2014

It’s that breathtaking feeling you get looking out the window of a night plane, when you have that moment of awe at all the tiny yellow lights in the distance and think, “Wow, the city looks like this.”

Photographer SeongJoon Cho calls this “rediscovery” or the “ability to find new angles in a familiar image” and uses his drone to return you to that feeling over and over again.

Back in 2011, SeongJoon visited an exhibition of aerial photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand. Struck by the Frenchman’s images, he began to dream of capturing Korea from above and from a Korean point of view. Fast forward a few years and, in 2014, that dream finally become a reality when SeongJoon begged his wife to let him invest in a $14,000 DJI S1000 drone he himself wasn’t sure how to use. “I had to take lessons from an expert and practice by myself for a good two to three months. And in many ways, it’s a lot like driving a car,” explained SeongJoon, who is now head of his own multimedia company called Drone Images and a photographer for Bloomberg.

Though SeongJoon has photographed everything from the 2000 Sydney Olympics to life in Bangladesh, he speaks with enthusiasm about life close at hand. “Look at the photo of Seoul Olympic Park—the one that looks like a mural on the wall. Did you ever know that it could look like that?” he excitedly exclaimed when we met up. Without the two pedestrian shadows and the streetlight in the far corner, it is indeed difficult to recognize that the tiles on the floor belong to a park you might have passed dozens of times. “The photo I really dreamt of was that one of Haeundae,” he said, as he pointed out the beautiful blue ocean that’s often overlooked on the tourist-filled Busan beach.  

However, capturing the photo is no easy affair. Not only does he have to get approval from the local government and aviation control (e.g., Capital Command Defense and the Defense Ministry), he often has to worry about the crowds of people curious about his gadget as well as having to consider the frame, lighting and composition of the photo. “Every time I go somewhere crowded, like Haeundae, people want to know where I got my camera and how much it cost,” SeongJoon explained. (He also advises that amateur drone photographers make the safety of others their top priority.)

SeongJoon often plans in advance with Google Maps or with a Sky Map before photographing. However, when asked where he would like to photograph the most, he named a place full of new angles to discover—North Korea. “A lot of the North Korean countryside can be likened to [South Korea] in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I would love to capture [it] just once before it disappears.”

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