David Kim: Society of the Individual

David Kim is a photographer currently based in Seoul, South Korea. Formerly a strategy consultant in the United States, David took up photography during his last semester at university, seeking a creative outlet from his finance coursework. When not on assignment, he can often be found roaming the cityscape with his trusty Leica and a cup of coffee. Specializing in fine art, street and portrait photography, David seeks to document life’s decisive moments and capture the beauty from the everyday ordinary. Eric Kim interviewed David about his photographic journey to date and goals for the future.

Q: How did you stumble upon street photography as a creative outlet? Also, tell us how you first got introduced to your film Leica M6.

A: When I first became aware of street photography I didn’t even know that it existed as a specific genre. During my first year at university, I was simply flipping through posters at a store and saw a Cartier-Bresson image (Behind the Gare St. Lazare, Paris, 1932) which simply took my breath away. I didn’t actually pick up a camera until my senior year, when I was becoming burned out from my finance and accounting coursework. Prior to university I had been a dedicated cellist. However, I wanted to explore a new form of creative expression so I decided to try my hand at drawing. That lasted for about two weeks. After coming to the realization that I could not draw, I decided that taking photographs would be a better alternative. Being a university student without much spare cash, I couldn’t afford the latest and greatest DSLR, which at the time was to me the Nikon D200. So I hopped on a bus to downtown Minneapolis in Minnesota walked to a camera store there and walked out with a Nikon FE and a nifty fifty for about $100. As soon as I left the store, I began to photograph the streets of Minneapolis. My purpose and philosophy for taking images then is still the same as today, to document life’s decisive moments and capture the beauty from the everyday ordinary. I knew that I wanted to do this on the streets, but I didn’t know that there was such a dedicated genre at the time.

I had always been aware of Leica’s cameras, but never personally handled one until my friend and fellow photographer Ron came to visit me in Seoul in 2010 with his Black M6 Classic. This was about five years after I had picked up my first camera. I was now a full-fledged DSLR photographer with a Nikon D700 and a few prime lenses. I had a few film cameras, but I still gravitated toward the digital option. I picked up his M6, looked through the viewfinder, cocked the shutter and then clicked the camera. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that first click of the shutter. My eyes widened, jaw dropped open and I was in love instantly. Before Ron left Korea I bought the M6 from him and it has since become my primary camera. I ate cup ramen that whole month to help fuel my purchase. That month was particularly difficult, not because of the ramen, but because I had to wait an additional month before I could purchase a lens and use the camera! I also ate cup ramen the following month. I have absolutely no regrets, although I don’t eat ramen very much anymore.

Q: As a Korean-American, how have your experiences been living and shooting street photography in Korea? Do you see yourself as more of an outsider or an insider?

A: While I don’t believe it makes a difference in the images that I capture, shooting street photography in Korea as a Korean-American has been a unique experience. Particularly since Korea is a very homogeneous society, although this is quickly changing. While I look ethnically Korean, culturally I am an American. I don’t believe it has been an influence on my shooting style, but it has, at times, given me greater access to my subjects. This is primarily because I am able to speak Korean with them and also partly because I look more familiar to them. However, since most Koreans don’t consider me to be a foreigner, it also means that they can be less understanding of what I’m trying to accomplish and more comfortable with yelling at me for taking a picture. I’ve always felt strongly connected with the subjects in my images whether they be taken in Manhattan, a small town in Wisconsin or Seoul, South Korea. Sometimes I have nice conversations, sometimes I keep walking and sometimes I end up having to run away before things get ugly, but every time I feel that I’m a part of the scene and street.

I don’t consider myself to be an outsider when I take street photographs. I’m a big believer in Ansel Adams’ statement, “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” I believe that every street photo not only reveals an aspect of the subject, but it also reveals an aspect of the photographer, which the viewer can judge for themselves. Why did we frame it a certain way? Why did we decide on this EI? Why this subject? Why this moment? These are all decisions that we make at a conscious and subconscious level. It doesn’t matter how invisible we try to be as street photographers, since at the end of the day, the decisions we make end up leaving our personal mark and style on our images.

Q: You recently held an exhibition in Seoul titled “Society of the Individual” which was inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s quote, “City life is millions of people being lonesome together.” Can you describe how this quote relates to the lives of Koreans living in the city and what you are trying to achieve through your photography?

A: When I first decided to explore Thoreau’s words with my images, I focused on the association of being lonesome as being sad or depressed so I looked for those types of images. However, I soon realized that people could be content and even happy when alone, whether it be through reading a book, taking a walk or even simply eating a banana. Therefore, rather than seeking to validate or invalidate Thoreau’s ideas, I strived to find images of individuals in the group of society in order to explore the idea of who really is an individual and how the environment/society/culture impacts the individual. Hence, Society of the Individual.

I think Seoul was the perfect place to explore this theme because of its group-centric culture and a rise of self-expression and individualism in the youth. As I continued with the project, I realized that it was actually quite difficult to find subjects being alone or acting as individuals, due to the advent of smartphones and telecommunications technology. Seoul is an incredibly wired city, with free Wi-Fi hotspots on every city block, subway stop and sometimes even inside the subway trains themselves. However, even though Seoul is a city with approximately half the nation’s population (about 20 million) in the area, I noticed just how little interaction people would actually have with each other, even when there was barely any elbow room inside of a bus or subway. Most people would rather shove their way through rather than ask politely for someone to move, but if they knew the person it was quite a different story. It struck me then that here we had millions of people being alone, acting indifferently because they simply didn’t know who the person next to them was. And this is why I turn to street photography, to show that the person walking past you with the newspaper truly isn’t that different from you. I believe that street photography, more than any other photo genre, has the greatest ability to connect people from around the world to help them better understand each other, simply through capturing life and its quirks.

Q: You have a combination of color and black and white images for your photos of Seoul. What purpose do both mediums play in your work, and how do they convey different images?

A: For me, it’s important to have both color and black and white film on hand, so I always keep Tri-X inside my M6 Classic Black and Portra inside of my M6 Classic Titanium. With my style of photography, I primarily use color film to capture sensory detail and black and white to capture emotional detail. I believe color really helps convey the five senses more readily to the viewer, while black and white strips them away to leave a more emotionally impactful moment.

Q: Why have you decided to shoot with film when it comes to street photography. Do you feel that shooting with film captures a different essence of Seoul?

A: I’ve chosen to shoot with film primarily for the reasons of image quality, workflow process, the art process and to keep improving. I like knowing that actual, physical light is hitting actual, physical film, from which I can create an actual, physical print. Seoul is an incredible bastion for film users with a whole section (Chungmuro) known as the film and camera district. I’m able to drop off my rolls at my lab, have them developed, scanned and uploaded on the server within the same day at a far lower cost than doing them myself or back in the U.S. It frees up quite a bit of time for myself to get work done or to go out and keep shooting.

I’m a firm believer in darkroom printing and there is absolutely nothing like seeing a print come out of the wash. You can take an image and feel great, but printing provides a whole new type of process and look that can’t be matched by digital images. You become a better editor because of the process and I also believe that it helps you learn more about yourself as a photographer. From there, by knowing more about yourself as a photographer, I believe that it can also help you improve more. I definitely believe that film helps capture a different essence not only of Seoul, but of any place else as well. I was recently photographing street fashion with a friend who was shooting digital and the difference between the images was like night and day. I don’t believe that film is for everybody; however, I do believe that everybody should at least explore it as far as they can go.

Q: How is street photography regarded in Korea? Do people see it as an invasion of their privacy or do they not mind your camera?

A: I think street photography is regarded the same in Korea as it is in most parts of the world. Primarily as an annoyance, but almost everybody has a camera out here in Seoul and I can see that this perception is slowly changing. I believe a large part of how people view it though depends on the photographer’s approach. Personally, I’ve actually had less people view it as an invasion of their privacy and have found that most people really don’t mind it. I think that’s mostly because of how I interact while photographing. I don’t act in a way that makes people suspicious of the images I take and am very open about what I’m doing. I’ve actually made new friends and received free food while out photographing.

Q: What do you think constitutes a good street photograph? When you are out shooting, do you instantly know that you took a winning image or do you typically review your images afterwards?

A: I think a good street photograph has several characteristics. It’s revelatory, documentary and it has vision. It also evokes an emotional response. I believe that this is what separates a street photograph from a candid photograph taken on the street. When I go out shooting, I always try to see that decisive moment, but honestly I don’t always see it in time to photograph it or it’s too far away, and that’s ok too. To me, the decisive moment means being a part of the moment at all times, and if you’re part of the moment you can see the part that you want to photograph. I believe this approach is absolutely necessary for street photography, especially when shooting with a rangefinder.

However, I don’t always put my eggs into one basket and I always review my negatives afterwards. What I thought was absolutely brilliant in the moment can turn out to be simply average when I review it. I don’t think this means that the moment itself wasn’t there, but that I didn’t capture it adequately enough. So I try harder next time. With darkroom printing, my review becomes even more stringent and this has translated into my being more selective of what I want to capture on the street and striving to be even more highly aware of what’s happening around me.

Q: You have drawn quite a bit of inspiration through Henri Cartier-Bresson in stating that you want to “document life’s decisive moments and capture the beauty from the ordinary.” Who are some other street photographers who influence your work? Are there any Korean street photographers that come to mind?

A: While Henri Cartier-Bresson has helped me formulate the foundations of my shooting philosophy, most of my influences actually come from outside the street photography world, from books, musicians, movies and different genres of photography. I would say though that Robert Frank’s “The Americans” has made a big impact on me. In terms of modern day street photographers, I’m highly impressed by Matt Stuart’s ability to find great examples of life’s quirkiness and humor. When Chris Weeks was in Seoul, I met with him and was inspired by his fearlessness in getting the shot. He was very helpful in answering the questions I had for him.

I haven’t met any other Korean photographers who are very interested in street photography as a medium. However, I have met a few who have helped me improve further in my photography. Dohan Kim, who runs Amsil where I do my darkroom work and develop my black and white films, has been an incredible resource in understanding film and printing. YoungDoo Moon is another photographer and a close friend of mine who continues to inspire me with her ability to find beauty in moments and places that others easily miss. Two other expat photographers who are in Korea that have influenced me a great deal are my friends Neil Alexander and Paul Redmond. We are often out shooting together, bouncing around new ideas and techniques on what to try and experience.

Q: Do you plan on staying in Korea indefinitely? Where are some other places you would like to travel to and create images?

A: I currently don’t have plans to stay in Korea for longer than three years. I’ve have a bucket list of cities and countries that I want to travel to and capture on film. The top three of that list would have to be Bhutan, Petra in Jordan and Paris, France. I’m hoping to travel primarily by land from Korea across to Europe, with each of these destinations in mind.

Q: What are some other creative projects you are working on now and how do you see your work evolving in the future?

In addition to Society of the Individual, I am currently focusing on finding more images for my two current projects of Umbrella People and Cloud Studies in order to finalize each of them into book format. I am also in the process of choosing images for a group exhibition from October 6-12 with the other members of the Amsil darkroom. It will be held in Gallery Illum, which is actually located right above the Leica Korea store in Chungmuro.

Right now, I see my work branching into a few different areas in the future. I’ve been gaining greater interest in doing documentary work, particularly of individuals. One project I’m in the process of planning involves photographing a variety of people from all walks of life from all over the world, from the moment they wake up to the moment they fall asleep. I’m also continuing to work on generating greater awareness of street photography as a form of fine art. I’ve found that both photographers and members of the general public don’t really view street photography in this light and I hope to change that through both my photographic work and by highlighting the photographic works of others.

Q: What do you wish to ultimately achieve through your images? When your viewers look at your photographs, what kind of stories do you wish to tell?

A: Honestly speaking, I want to recreate that first moment, that feeling when I saw Cartier-Bresson’s photograph in other people. I want people to see life’s beauty through the differences, similarities, relationships, tribulations and joys of the subjects in my photographs. I want to create stories that other people can continue to imagine on their own. What happened to that man in the puddle? Why did he jump? Didn’t he realize that it was actually a small lake and not a puddle? Those were some of the questions that went through my mind in the beginning. At the end of it, I suppose I want the viewer to want to pick up a camera as well.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of David’s work on his website, www.davidkimphoto.com.