If writers reveal a part of themselves in their characters, perhaps that’s what photographers do when they take photos of others. Twenty-four years ago, the then-graduate student Koo Sung-soo started to photograph Seoulites. Years later it seems, he did more than that: He managed to unravel a part of himself and maybe, capture the ever-weary nature of humanity.
In 1992, Koo moved from Daegu to Seoul to attend photography graduate school. Whilst on a budget, Koo used an old German camera model, the Zeiss Ikon, to capture the streets of the city. From 1993 to 1998, Koo clicked his shutters in every nook and cranny of Seoul, observing its streets and people. Selected photos from his 5-year collection made up his first solo exhibition “Living in Seoul.” In the series, a man stoically looks into the camera amongst a protesting crowd and a woman stands with an unreadable expression in front of trash-ridden Seoul Station. The powerful stares of the black and white faces may cause you to uncomfortably shuffle your feet, but you won’t be able to look away. A heavy and tired air hangs in every photograph that speaks powerfully about the turbulent violence and onerous weight Seoul carried during Koo’s days. Tensions that plagued the time are almost tangible inside the square frames that show a woman sitting in the back seat of a bus turned facing the window and a middle-aged man leaning against the sign of a subway station and smoking. In a place riddled with uncertainties and sorrow, what did it mean for these people to live in Seoul?
Of course, all of the photos are from Koo’s point of view. Some could even argue that his photos reflect his own insecurities as a student and an artist rather than making a general statement about Seoul at the time. In a recent interview, Koo said: “The future’s unpredictability is still as scary now as it was then. I think I tried to see a reflection of myself in the people I met walking down the street.” In a country where age is so important to self-development, Koo (now in his late 40s) finds Seoul a difficult place for a man his age. Nonetheless, he continues to live here, just like the rest of us, trying to carve out as much meaning as he can.
More Seoul eye
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.
It’s never a pleasant task to serve as the hands and feet of a person in need, especially if he or she is a full-grown adult. In spite of this fact, artist Ji Yeo posted an ad on multiple plastic surgery community sites. She reached out to women who’d just had plastic surgery and, out of her own pocket, paid for their food and accommodations.
When Happy Together (1997), Wong Kar-wai’s film about a turbulent romance, was playing in Seoul theaters, photographer Kim Ok-sun was exhibiting her photo series “Happy Together” (2002) at an art gallery in Jongno. In 2002, the local papers had a lot to say about interracial marriages in Korea and Kim, who married her German husband in 1994, was there to observe it all. “As it takes a lot of courage for a Korean woman to pursue her love, marry a foreigner and live in Korea, I decided to photograph interracial couples residing in Korea with the Korean woman as the protagonist.” That is why the women of “Happy Together” stare directly at the camera as requested by Kim, while their husbands carry on watching TV or eating supper.
There’s an artificial quality to Jung Yeon-doo’s work that you can’t quite figure out. Despite the ever-so-slightly awkward smiles and staged poses, the people in these photos aren’t hired models. These are real families that live in the same apartment complex.