Josh White: Outsider and Inhabitant

Josh White describes himself as a law student on extended vacation in Seoul. Throughout his journey in Korea, he is able to capture the fleeting moments of everyday lives of the inhabitants in a stark, realistic and profound way. Using his Leica M9, he is able to poetically juxtapose his subjects with their environment and captures a piece of their soul. An expert storyteller with his words and images, he carefully captures the decisive moments that occur in front of him. Eric Kim talks with Josh about his passion for and insights about street photography in this interview.

Q: How did you stumble upon street photography as a mode of storytelling?

A: I came upon it honestly, like most do. I had an old Digilux 2, which I had never thought much of until coming to Asia. One day I took it on a trip with me to nearby Gunsan. I took a picture of two kids at the candy machine. It stirred up so many emotions. It reminded me of my childhood, of my father. The photographic medium began to sing to me at that moment on the bus, looking at that tiny LCD.

Q: Tell us a bit about the gear you shoot with.

A: Well, I shoot with a variety of gear! I have an M9 and an M8. Although the M8 doesn’t get much love anymore! I have the 28mm Elmarit, the 35mm Summicron, and the 50mm Summicron. All great lenses! Whether it be blasphemy or not, lately I’ve really grown fond of the Voigtlander CV 50mm f/1.1 Nokton. My favourite camera still remains that Leica Digilux 2 that I started with. On film, I have an M6 which I also love dearly! I haven’t shot much with it of late. Not a knock on the M6, but perhaps more a testimonial for the M9.

Q: Tell us the story of how you first started shooting with your Leica M9. What drew you to it compared to other cameras and how does it help you capture your soulful images?

A: Well, as I’ve said I started with the Digilux, then on to the M8 and M6. I loved the M8, even with its limitations. I felt it was a camera that got a bit of a bad rap. It was a wonderful piece of kit. The M9 was a natural progression from the M8. It’s everything the M8 was supposed to be and more. I’ve used almost every camera you can think of, from Nikon to Canon, Sony to Ricoh. Honestly, none of them can match the pure photographic experience of using an M. When I’m shooting with my Leica gear (even the Digilux) I feel a part of the action. It’s a great feeling. There’s nothing like it in photography as far as I’m concerned.

Q: As a Caucasian shooting in South Korea, do you feel that you capture images of Seoul as an outsider or as an inhabitant?

A: Perhaps a mundane answer, but a bit of both. I probably see parts of the everyday Korean life that Korean’s themselves take for granted. I’ve grown to love this place and its people, but I’ve come to accept that I’ll never be truly an “inhabitant” as you say. With that being said, I believe the longer I’m here the more I’ll understand the culture, each frame growing more honest in the process.

Q: Your portfolio has a mix of digital and film. How are both of these mediums different to you and how do they help you express yourself in different ways?

A: I’m not sure it matters much what I’m shooting or what camera I’m shooting with. I started shooting with film to teach myself not to rely on cropping or processing to get a good image. I don’t like much shooting from the hip, so shooting film really forced my eye to the viewfinder. I’ve continued this practice in my digital work as well. Shooting film I think is a great way for young street photographers to start out. Shooting film forces one to be careful, to take more time, to conceptualize. The street photography genre forces these things to happen quickly. I think together, shooting film is a great way for people to start. It really helped me to hone my craft.

Q: How do your interests in law intersect with your interest in street photography?

A: I’m not sure they do. I’m not even sure I was ever interested in law. Law felt to me like taking the easy way out. I was a law student, but never felt I was meant to be a practitioner. I’m artistic at my core. If law school taught me anything, it was that life is too short to not pursue your passions. That’s why I left. I don’t regret it for an instant.

Q: Have you ever thought about shooting photography as a full-time profession or would you rather keep it as your passion?

A: Do you mean, have I ever thought about being homeless? I jest! I hadn’t until lately. Street photography is, as we know, a type of documentation. Perhaps it’s close cousin, photojournalism is somewhere I’d like to be. I love the idea of documenting life. I love the idea of bringing people’s stories to the world. Sounds cheesy, but I mean that in all seriousness. I have a great respect for those guys, photojournalists. Especially the ones who do it right. I guess I didn’t answer your question! I think there is a fine line between work and passion. Am I scared to cross it? Perhaps. That being said, taking a camera with me every day would very rarely seem like work. I’m not sure I’d ever lose that passion whether I was being paid to do it or not. So, yeah I could see myself doing it. In fact, I’d love to give it a go.

Q: What draws you to capturing a certain scene? There are hundreds of moments which unfold in a day, what makes one moment more special than another?

A: Nothing draws me besides instinct. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not very technical. I just go out and shoot what feels right. Most importantly, I shoot what makes me feel something. I strive for every one of my pictures to capture an emotion.

Q: Are you a self-taught street photographer or have you ever had a mentor?

A: I guess you might say I’m self-taught. The wonderful thing about photography is that we have all sorts of mentors. I’ve never met a photographer that wasn’t willing to share. I learned, like most do, by looking at as many images as possible. I learned by asking for criticism and by getting criticism. I tell everyone who asks me how to learn that the best way is to get out there and do it. You can’t learn without putting your pride on the line.

Q: Who are some street photographers who have helped influence your style?

A: Anyone and everyone! I believe there is something to learn from every photographer, no matter what genre they happen to be in. Case in point, perhaps my favourite current photographer is fellow Leica shooter Bruno Stevens. He isn’t a street photographer, but a photojournalist. I’m enchanted by the honesty of his work. When I’m struggling for inspiration, I often visit his galleries. He tells stories in every one of his images. It’s a wonderful thing.

Q: Can you describe the most memorable street photograph you took and tell us why it means so much to you.

A: I have two. The first was taken a couple of years ago. I set out from my house one day with my M8 for a boring Saturday walk. Around the corner from my house there was a candy machine. I should preface by saying, I was still a bit timid at this point. I still stood a little further away than I should; I still was a bit scared of confrontation. Anyway, I saw a little girl chasing her brother near the machine. The brother went inside with their mother while his sister stayed outside. She hid behind the candy machine, peering through the glass with one eye waiting to scare her brother. I got ready to shoot, but at the moment I fired she looked down at her dress. I missed. Usually at this point I would’ve kept on walking, but that day I decided to wait. She brought her eye back up again just a moment later so I recomposed and fired. I’m not sure why, but it still feels like a turning point for me. It still feels like the moment I stopped being a guy with a camera and became a street photographer.

The second is much more recent. Again to preface, I’ve suffered with bipolarity for much of my adult (albeit young) life. It’s a constant struggle, and I think my photography often follows the ebbs and flows of my mood. Often, for weeks my photos will be colourful, happy, full of hope. Then for weeks they’ll be dark and full of despair. People sometimes tell me to find a style, but I tell them that every photograph I make is in my style. My style depends on my mood. Anyway, about a week ago I noticed a woman talking on her phone waiting for the subway. As she talked, she gradually grew more and more sincere. Some type of bad news she must have been getting. Her reflection, in the double paned glass created a sort of double reflection, the light seemed to be different on “both” of her faces, on both sides of her. Again, I’m not sure why, but that was the first time I felt one of my photographs spanned both of my poles. It felt a profound shot for me personally, if not for those who view it.

Q: How has street photography changed your perception of the world and of people?

A: Again, I’m not sure it has. It’s made me more keen to the details. Often, people walk without seeing. You see people, but you don’t SEE them. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has a story. Street photography has made me appreciate the thousands of moments we take for granted.

Q: What other types of street photography projects or ventures are you currently working on?

A: Lately, I’ve spent much of my time doing travel photography! A friend and I have started to plan a trip from here in Korea, back to Canada via Japan, Russia, Mongolia, Russia, Europe and eventually shipping the bikes back to our home in Newfoundland. In the interim, we’ve done a lot of travelling in Asia with our bikes. The M9 comes with me every step of the way! We’ve recently started a blog as well, http://asmallworldafterall.squarespace.com. Aside from that, I have a solo exhibition here in Seoul next month, at the Guillaume Gallery in Apgujeong. People can email me for details if they wish!

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Josh’s work on his blog, http://jtinseoul.wordpress.com/.