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‘Not Seoul’: Photo exhibition rediscovers ordinary aspects of the city with vivid colors

K. Chae at his exhibition “Not Seoul” (Park Hyun-Koo/The Korea Herald)
K. Chae at his exhibition “Not Seoul” (Park Hyun-Koo/The Korea Herald)
As borders were closed by travel restrictions due to COVID-19, one photographer in South Korea decided to embark on a new challenge at home: photographing Seoul in his own way.

K. Chae, a 43-year-old street photographer whose full name is Chae Kyung-wan, has traveled to 85 countries for his photography work. His goal was to take his camera to 100 countries. But his last planned trip to Central Asia in 2020 was forced to be canceled due to COVID-19. And in a way, his latest exhibition and photo book is a full-circle moment, as they are about Seoul.

“I don’t believe photography is to keep a record. To me, photography is an expression. So when I go abroad to take photos, it was more to express myself rather than to showcase the places on the other side of the world,” he told The Korea Herald.

“I took the same approach while photographing Seoul. Though I took photos in the city, what I wanted to show was not Seoul but myself through the city.

“That’s why I named the exhibition and the book as ‘Not Seoul.’”

Instead of photographing Seoul landmarks such as the N Seoul Tower or Lotte World Tower, Chae tried to find beauty in ordinary Seoulites‘ everyday lives.

Having focused on photographing foreign cities, he said capturing Seoul with his camera has been a challenge. In the past, Chae would come back to Korea from photo shoots abroad and consider his time in the city as an “offseason.” Being a street photographer where he lives also meant that as soon as he steps out the door with a camera, his work could start wherever and whenever. 

The Han River Trilogy (K. Chae)
The Han River Trilogy (K. Chae)
“To live in Seoul every day with the gaze of a photographer was a little challenging,” he said.

His work is known for a colorful finish and some of his photos have gone viral on social media. But Chae said the editing is not to stand out among others but to express himself who is interested in colors.

“I’ve always been interested in color. When I see the world, the first thing that comes to my eyes are colors and my interest has been reflected naturally in my works in the form of vivid colors which are a part of me and a way to express myself.”

One multimedia piece named the “Han River Trilogy” -- consisting of three photographs -- encapsulates the city’s beloved spot seen from multiple different angles in different times.

“The first photo was taken when I went to Han River one early morning. I saw a Line 1 subway train pass as the sun was rising from the east. The sunlight was reflected by the train and I thought it was extremely beautiful,” Chae said.

“The second picture was during a journey between Dangsan Station and Hapjeong Station which would be familiar to many people living in Seoul.”

K. Chae’s exhibition “Not Seoul” (Park Hyun-Koo/The Korea Herald)
K. Chae’s exhibition “Not Seoul” (Park Hyun-Koo/The Korea Herald)
He faded out the background, which could be a familiar scene for many, and focused on the train door instead, allowing the viewer to imagine their own scenery outside the window.

“The last photo features a purple sky. I took the photo when I was cycling along the river when the sky looked pretty in a mysterious way.”

In the age of social media, when many creators and artists are keeping in mind their online audience, Chae said he tries to showcase his work in person.

“In my view, photography becomes complete when it is printed and framed -- I have this idea at the back of my mind when I’m working. Many people enjoy photos on their phone which, for me, is not complete,” the photographer said.

There is a dilemma he is facing -- a gap between what is liked on social media platforms such as Instagram and his personal favorites, as some of the latter require to be seen on a bigger scale.

People cannot enjoy some photos on a small phone screen, Chae said.

“Those photos are less popular and ignored sometimes which is regrettable. But some people have come to my exhibition, saw my photos in person as intended and have told me that they love the photos.”

The “Not Seoul” exhibition continues until April 24 at Gallery Minjung in Samcheong-dong, central Seoul. Entry is free.

By Yim Hyun-su (hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)
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