[Herald Interview] Life beyond the lens

By Im Eun-byel

Fashion photographer Hong Jang-hyun ready for second chapter in life

  • Published : Jan 10, 2019 - 15:53
  • Updated : Jan 10, 2019 - 15:53

Lights, camera, action! There is always a sense of glamour in the fashion industry. Pricey labels, niche perfumes and expensive Champagne exude a certain “wow” factor.

Here is fashion photographer Hong Jang-hyun, a man who must be living a life full of glamour. He is the first man you search for when planning a luxury photo shoot here. He is invited to every posh party and event, where he mingles with high-profile figures.

Working with top celebrities and high-end fashion houses, those who do not know him may see Hong as straight out of “The Devil Wears Prada.” But meeting him in person, behind the thick horn-rimmed glasses, Hong is a man in his 40s, yet still in his boyhood.

“I do not really like hanging out with industry people. Socializing does not really help my career. It is always simple -- if I do my job well, opportunities will follow,” Hong told The Korea Herald at Yong Jang Kwan Studio in southern Seoul.

Fashion photographer Hong Jang-hyun poses with his camera for a photo shoot before an interview with The Korea Herald at Yong Jang Kwan Studio in Nonhyeon-dong, southern Seoul, on Dec. 26, 2018. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Sitting down for a photo shoot -- this time, the viewfinder was on him -- Hong appeared shy, embarrassed to be under the spotlight. His crew, who watched him being photographed, tried hard to suppress their laughter.

“I feel at ease when I hide my face behind the camera. It is my comfort zone,” he said, sporting a cap emblazoned with “Possibilities are endless.” Wearing an oversized duffle coat and pair of old sneakers, there was a sense a boyishness to him.

After graduating college in the early ‘90s, Hong worked his way up in the fashion photography scene to become one of the most sought-after photographers today for fashion and advertisement shoots.

At the beginning, young Hong did not know that things would turn out like this. He chose to major in photography because he wanted to go to college. He specialized in fashion photography simply because “it looked cool.” 

Hong Jang-hyun during a photo shoot (Hong Jang-hyun)

After establishing his name, the ambitious photographer got on a plane to Paris, not for a luxurious on-location shoot, but to start all over again. He was not sure how long fame would last back home.

“In Korea, there is this overall consensus that fashion photographers’ careers come to a stop after they turn 40. People in the business prefer younger photographers as it can be uncomfortable to hire someone older than them,” Hong said.

“But in Europe, it was totally different. I was a junior there. Gray-haired editors called me ‘Baby.’ Photographers in their 40s and 50s said, ‘Our time has not yet come.’ Everything was so new,” he recalled.

Language was no barrier as the fashion scene there was highly international. Photographers, makeup artists, models and editors all spoke different languages and thought differently, but they had a single goal: creating the best photos.

The effort paid off. Hong is now signed with agencies in Paris, Milan, New York, China and more. His photos have graced the covers of Grazia and Vanity Fair in Italy -- every fashion photographer’s dream.

Advertisement cut for fashion brand Juun.J (Courtsey of Hong Jang-hyun)
Photo taken in Cuba for magazine Heren’s December issue in 2017 (Courtsey of Hong Jang-hyun)

Hong hopes the scene here will change to become one where older photographers with experience are respected. But first, established photographers should take up greater challenges, according to Hong.

“In Paris, at first I had to pay to shoot for an indie magazine. It is normal to do so there as it is a chance for us to have our name printed on a magazine, making us known to the industry,” he said.

Hong also hopes to create a different apprenticeship culture here. He currently works with three first assistants. He referred to his crew members as his “home.”

“It is like a family. We spend so much time together. I spend more time with the crew than I do with my wife,” he said. “At the end of each year, our house -- assistants who ever worked with me and even their crews -- gather together.”

His studio, Yong Jang Kwan Studio, which he co-founded with close colleagues, is now referred to as the photo training school of Korea. Many who have worked at the studio go on to successfully establish themselves in the field.

“Before a crew goes independent, we discuss if the person is ready or not. It would be irresponsible to not care about the crew members. They are here for themselves, for their future. But for their success, they work hard for me. There should be something that I can do for them in return,” he said.

Though Hong might appear to be an established photographer who is confident with a full philosophical take on his career, the artist is still a novice trying to find his way. He and his wife and their two young daughters have been living in Hawaii for the past year and plan to stay for six more months.

“Many think that I moved to Hawaii for the girls’ education. But the move was actually about me. I am thinking about the second chapter of my life,” he said.

Hong has been visiting Korea whenever there are projects. The 8-hour flight is nothing for him, as he used to spend 200 days a year abroad, commuting from Seoul.

“For the past 20 years, I have worked hard, thinking about how to outrun others. But now, it is time to consider other possibilities, about what kind of a career I should pursue for the rest of my life. I want to complete works of my own,” he said.

Over two decades, it is not just Hong who has changed. The fashion scene has changed, too -- not an exception to the digital revolution. In the 1990s and early 2000s, photographers used to say “Our photos last just a month,” referring to the cycle of monthly magazines. Now, the photos circulate in minutes, perhaps even seconds, online.

But that does not mean there will be a switch in his career. Hong is sure he does not want to pursue other realms of photography. Fashion photography is where his heart is at and where he belongs.

By Im Eun-byel (