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Why Don’t the Pros Come to Korea?

By on Jul 10, 2016 in Photography | 5 comments

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Bomunji Pond

For years I have been following so many pro photographers and I was always bummed when they would do “Asian Tours” and skip completely over Korea. While Seoul may not be as popular as the so-called “world-renowned” locations like Beijing or Tokyo, it is not to say that it should be passed over.

Currently, the food scene is picking up. Over the past year or so, great chefs like Anthony Bourdain and Jamie Oliver have visited and were impressed with the warmth of the people and the food. However, it seems that only local Korean photographers and the expats are the ones taking the memorable and striking images in Korea.

layers of urban development in Ulsan

What about that TV Show in Korea?

Off hand, I can think only the show on Arirang called “In Frame” that brings great Magnum photographers like David Alan Harvey to Korea. There have been other photographers which I will mention a bit later. However, I feel that the TV show is totally different than professionals setting out on their own to photograph personal projects.

So this begs the question “Why are so many photographers passing over South Korea?”

This is a question that pops into my head whenever I hear that one of my favourite photographers is heading to Asia. As I heard that Justin Mott, a great photographer based out of Bangkok, Thailand was loving Japan I wondered if I should be that fan that writes “When are you coming to Korea?” As if that would make any difference. However, it did get me thinking.

Korea   Old and New


What Do You Know?

For the most part, I think it has a lot to do with how we look at different countries. For years people have had a love affair with the futuristic almost anime style backdrops that Tokyo provides. Then you get a taste of the famous temples and shrines of Kyoto. We are so familiar with the Great wall and Forbidden City that tourists flock to every year.

However, when you mention places like Gyeongbukgung and Bulguksa, many people draw a blank. They probably know Seoul from the ’88 Olympics or possibly even from the Korean War and the TV sitcom like M*A*S*H but probably not much more.


Check These Guys Out

Images are what creates wonder in the minds of travellers and artists alike. While I feel that Korea is an untapped resource for photographers, I also feel that the ones who are taking photos of this country deserve more recognition. I am taking myself out of this discussion and directing you toward great photographers like Sungjin Kim, John Steele, Robert KohlerDouglas MacDonald, Leigh MacArthur and Roy Cruz. Not to mention my good friend Pete DeMarco who recently left Korea.

With so many awesome photographers already here, you would think that it would entice some of the bigger names in the industry to come around and check the place out. A few have come, but I heard very little about it. I know that Matt Granger came for a workshop in Seoul a few years ago and Elia Locardi did a quick tour. Trey Ratcliff has not been here in over a decade. There maybe others that I am missing and if I am, let me know. It is really hard to find pro photographers excited to come to Korea despite all that it has to offer.

I feel that the answer is the fact that South Korea itself has a bit of an image problem. It affects the way travellers and photographers look at the country. Many people do not really know much about the countries they visit aside from what the see on facebook feeds and in travel magazines. Word of mouth is equally as important. If no one is saying much or what is being said is slightly strange. Not too many pros are going to come just on a whim.


Creating Interest or just Meh…

So while Korea has all of the ingredients to make a great destination in Asia, it lacks the pull that places like Tokyo, Beijing, Bangkok or Singapore have. Perhaps, this could be also to do with the wealth of English teachers passing through the country every year. The feeling that I got when I talked to many of the younger teachers in my Masters of Education classes was a feeling of “been there done that” which I would imagine came from a frustrating experience at a language school and using Korea as a jumping off point for other destinations.

With that sort of “meh” attitude towards the country, it is no wonder that many of the pros skip over Korea. Their jobs depend on getting people excited about their photographs of “exotic” locations. If the photos that you take are getting “meh… I taught English there in 2010” or something like that, then it is not going to be high or your list of places to return.


What Sells Photos?

While there are lots of reasons why photographers skip over Korea, I am lumping it into how the photo industry really works. Pro photographers need the popularity of their photos to keep them relevant and keep their viewers interested. If the audience is either largely uninterested in your destination then it is sort of a flop and not worth investing the time and money into heading there.

Unless they are like the Magnum photographers who are no doubt paid to come here, South Korea is a hard sell. This is why I have so much respect for the photographers here in Korea who are taking images that rival the pros. It is my feeling that Korea is a bit of a diamond in the rough. The photographers that I mentioned before are taking amazing images and that is not always an easy task.

The final point here is if this article strikes a chord with you, share your thoughts below. If you have found other pro photographers who have come here, send me their links. Let me know what you think! Why are so many pro photographers skipping over Korea?



  1. Roy

    July 16, 2016

    Post a Reply

    Well said, Jason and thanks for the shoutout! I agree it’s a shame that the big names seem to skip over Korea, as it has so much to offer! At the same time, I also see it as a challenge to us who are here to show Korea to the world via our images. In many ways, it’s even more exciting to have a diamond in the rough to work with. And you are certainly doing your part to cut and polish that diamond!

    • Jason Teale

      July 17, 2016

      Post a Reply

      You make a lot of great points! Thank you also for the compliment. I think that you are right there is something nice about being one of the few capturing the beauty here.

  2. I invited Rob Woodcox out and he taught his workshop here last September. We ran an ad in Korea’s largest photography magazine. They also ran a six page interview with him and talked up the upcoming workshop.

    The only attendees at the workshop were expats. It seems that Korean culture forbids the local nationals from gaining experience from a foreigner.

    While the workshop was an amazing experience for me and the two weeks I got to spend with Rob was life altering, I am not pursuing any other artists to come to Korea. It’s still too closed of a society to make such an event feasible.

    • Jason Teale

      August 5, 2016

      Post a Reply

      I remember that event. Had I not had to work, I would have come up. I think that you make a strong point about the exapts too. I guess that it all boils down to business. If there is not strong support from the local community of photographers, then it is hardly worth coming all this way for a few expats.

      • It’s totally worthwhile to come out for the expats. The issue is that by the time you factor in travel and room and board to stay in Seoul, you have to adjust your workshop price, which renders the cost to be too prohibitive for most expats. We ended up offering huge discounts on Rob’s regular fee, just to fill the class. If he hadn’t stayed with me and gotten support from his sponsors, it would have not been affordable to visit Korea.

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