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.
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.
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 Kohler, Douglas 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?