In the ‘80s, many of us listened to the radio the way that people nowadays cradle their phones. It’s a time that’s foreign to both Millennials and visitors to modern Seoul, but dig around for old footage of the National Song Contest, and you’ll find singing ajummas, kids and proud grandmas from all over Korea who have competing ever since November 1980. The longest-running music program in Korean history, the TV show and contest mainly takes place in rural districts like Chungcheongnam-do to pick the town’s most captivating performer. It’s a nation-wide program that bestows a generous amount of stage time to local restaurant owners and housewives alike who are as passionate as the crowd is, but when the show ends, the contestants return to their everyday lives in which they are only stars in the eyes of their families and friends. However, photographer Byun Soon-choel extends the contestants’ 15 seconds of fame by photographing their full-length portraits in “National Song Contest,” a photo series he’s named after the TV program.
When Byun first started his project in 2005, he hauled around a massive camera. But upon discovering stiff and expressionless faces in the photographs, he switched to a DSLR in 2012 and took the contestants’ portraits without much direction. “Think of this as a rehearsal. Do whatever you want!” is what he actually said. “I recall a man from Gangwon-do who owns a local restaurant in Sokcho, who really, really poured his heart out during the shoot. Looking at the pictures on the surface, they’re fun, but what I see are the sorrows of the average Korean—cause 80% of the contestants are lower middle class citizens. The project is about the joys and sorrows of their lives, so I take these pictures with a sense of social duty.” The dedicated photographer still finds joy in photographing the fantasies of Korean locals all over the country for this ongoing project. We only hope the photos continue to accumulate and age with the program’s 30-year history, as these kinds of portraits are not only artistic, but depict a frank record of Korea’s national character over the past decade as it continues to evolve with time.