Capturing Korea: The streets of Seoul
Zack Cluley is an American teacher, writer and photographer based in Seoul. Hailing from a small town in Texas, he finds his subjects on the streets of the bustling city he currently calls home, and focuses on finding fresh perspectives from various points of view, revealing beyond what meets the eye. This month, Cluley tells Groove Korea about his passion for street photography, interest in shooting in black-and-white, and his favorite places to discover peculiar subjects.
To see his collection of observations, stories and adventures, take a look at his “perZpective” at perzpective.com.
Groove Korea: Give us a little background on yourself — the human and the photographer.
Zack Cluley: Coming from a big small town from Texas, I’m a far way from home to say the least. In short, Seoul captivated me from the get go. From the towering skyscrapers to the narrow alleyways, I’ve always wanted to live in a real big city and I find this environment widely photogenic on so many different levels.
Oddly enough, I’ve always considered myself a writer first, photographer second. But who’s to say that will always be true? Recently I’ve spent more time behind the lens. But they’ve both been creative outlets for me, what keeps me going 24/7. And that’s no exaggeration, I literally spend almost every second outside of work pursuing my passions; caffeine has become a close friend. Although, it doesn’t feel like work when it’s something you love.
Your repertoire has a lot of variety in it, especially at the beginning, but more recently you have been documenting the city of Seoul at a street level. Tell us a little bit about that.
Well, I will say I try not to confine myself to one style, especially since I haven’t been doing this too long. I continue experimenting with everything, which happens to appeal to my wide-ranging interests, and doing so has exponentially contributed to the rapid development of my work.
Yet buried deep within it all lies this burning desire to document the world around me. Looking ahead, I hope to discover and shed light on the various stories less known on this intricate planet we inhabit. But life as a documentary photographer is not easy, and it’s a long journey down that road. So for now, the streets of this complex city have been my training grounds.
Your street images generally have a fairly gritty, high-contrast black-and-white feel to them. How does this reflect your feelings about the city?
Seoul, like so many other enormous cities, is built atop infinite layers of personality and interaction, giving it a unique character only found here. But for the average person, it’s difficult to notice the subtle differences in the everyday. Images in high-contrast black and white tend to highlight these understated characteristics, opening up the viewer to what it is I see.
But my street work isn’t as much an expression of how I feel towards this city as it is how I see it. Life is gritty on the streets of Seoul: the by-product of cramming 24 million people into one area.
On the other hand, the millions of interactions that take place everyday, whether people are aware or not, is what makes it so intriguing. There’s an inexplicable beauty to it, especially those moments of pure alignment between people and their environment. Although, now more than ever there’s plenty of shit out there. For me it’s not just snapping photos. Street photography is one of the last styles that remains highly artistic — technical creativity, you might say. It’s 100 percent about composition, making the ordinary extraordinary.
Any tips for budding street documenters?
First, and most importantly, people don’t just want to see what the same things they find on the streets.
Introduce new perspectives, get used to crouching; oftentimes things can appear drastically different once you get away from eye level. Second, create clear objectives, goals, for what you want to find that day. It can be simple things such as people with hats.
You might find it a little more interesting focusing on various emotions, people laughing or caught in a daze. These little themes will help narrow down all the clutter.
Last, always be ready for the unexpected. These will probably be your favorite photos as well. There’s no predicting what we will find each day, so the main goal is training your eye to find these moments when they happen.
That’s assuming you know your camera, which should never leave your side. Seriously, never.
To wrap up, what would you say is your favorite place in Korea to photograph and why?
That’s a tough decision. It really depends on what you’re looking to shoot that day.
As I mentioned before, Seoul is so photogenic that there are great places for all kinds of images. For my street work, though, I tend to find myself between Jongno, Chungmuro and Dongdaemun most often. I like the mornings there, too — you don’t get all the mindless consumers crowding the areas, but the work force prepping for a long day.
Myeong-dong is a perfect example — a place I don’t really enjoy visiting at night, but in the mornings it’s magical. Scattered with workers and the small crowd of early shoppers, it’s an ideal location before the lunch crowd floods in.