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Exhibition shows Seoulites aren’t always lonely

Expat photographer out to capture ‘decisive moments’ of life in a bustling metropolis

A smartly suited man walks down a street near Seoul’s City Hall with a bunch of flowers hanging loose in his hands.

Photographer David Kim named the black and white image “Paramour” ― meaning illicit lover ― as it seemed to tell a story. But Kim says we will never truly know what that story is.

The former strategic consultant in the U.S. has based his first solo photography exhibition on Henry David Thoreau’s observation that, “City life is millions of people being lonesome together.”

Mindful of the American philosopher’s words, and inspired by photography greats such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus, Kim took to the streets to capture the lonely people of Seoul. 
                                                                                                                                       (David Kim)
                                                                                                                                       (David Kim)
Switching between his trusty Leica and a Rolleiflex cameras ― which Kim finds much less obtrusive than DSLRs for capturing street scenes ― he shot countless reels of film to capture the nine images in his “Society of the Individual” exhibition.

But the 25-year-old, who grew up in the U.S. after moving there from Korea as a child, said his search for lonesome Seoulites took him in some interesting directions.

He has spent the last two years teaching English here after leaving America following the global financial crisis, and the past seven months have seen him exploring “anywhere and everywhere” to capture fine-art street scenes of Korea’s capital city.

“I was looking for lonely people at first,” he said. “But there can also be some personal joy in being alone. It is a little bit more difficult to find that emotion and photograph it though.”

Kim cited French photojournalist Cartier-Bresson’s focus on the “decisive moment” as his inspiration for telling shots of individuals ― such as the one he aimed to capture with Paramour.

“In Korea everyone seems so closed off but it seemed like this man had his heart on his sleeve. The image reminds me of a modern day Romeo in Seoul. He was walking in such an honest and open manner as well, which I found quite unusual for Seoul.

“There are so many stories you could imagine out of that image.”

In another shot titled “The Individual” a young woman stands stiffly at an Apgujeong bus stop, mirroring closely the pose of a model in an advertisement behind her. Meanwhile, an old woman in the foreground munches on a banana with uninhibited glee.

“What truly comprises the individual?” asked Kim. “The young are supposed to be leading the trend of individualism but society is still being dictated by advertisement corporations. The old woman is supposed to be part of the old guard but she is just living her life and loves her banana.”

Another photograph taken in Namdaemun shows a solitary man sitting surrounded by LPs in his record store.

“At first glance it looks lonesome ― a man in a record store with thousands of records as his life ― but they are also what he loves at the same time. Can we really say that he is unhappy? This is also what he finds joy in,” said Kim.

He put his love of Seoul down to the 24/7 culture here ― something he engages in photographically through the Flickr Seoul Group ― a community of expat photographers who regularly meet to take pictures in the city.

“It is kind of like any other city in that it really is what you want it to be. How far will you venture out, how sheltered will you make yourself? I know a lot of people who stay in Itaewon and that is about it.

“I understand that there can be language difficulties but part of what I want to do with my photographs is break down these barriers.”

“Society of the Individual” is at Apgujeong’s Guillaume Cafe, near Gangnam-gu Office Subway Station Exit 4 until July 31 with an artist’s talk from Kim on Sunday July 24 at 3 p.m. The exhibition was organized with the help of the 708Art Artist Collective.

By Kirsty Taylor (