Seoul Metro Project: Shooting all 400 stations in the city
The Task: Take one photo at each station in the Seoul subway system.
The Mission: Communicate foreigners’ experiences on the subway.
The Result: Hundreds of collective kilometers traveled, red tape, strange looks, angry ajossis, a notoriously transient bunch of expats on the job, and an enormous collaborative creation to top it all off.
The total length is in excess of 700 kilometers and includes more than 400 stations, all of which have a total annual ridership somewhere north of 2.2 billion. No small project here.
The concept was born in the mind of Flash Parker, the prolific Groove Korea contributor, then-Osan resident and Seoul Photo Club dynamo. Way back in the spring of 2009, Parker was riding Line 1 and contemplating the challenges of being a foreigner on the subway.
“I was lost coming home from Seoul trying to figure out where to get off — unable to read the signs in English — and was hit by an idea that this must be what everyone experiences when they arrive in Korea and jump on the subway,” said Parker, the project editor. “People selling rabbits out of cardboard boxes, men eating steaming soup while riding home after work, people drinking soju en route to a bar or restaurant ... all very foreign and affected the way I looked at the country.”
That Flash couldn’t read — or at least make sense of — the signage in English might strike some as strange. But this is an experience I think we can all relate to. The first few times we experience the Seoul subway system, we can certainly read the information provided, but it doesn’t seem to make any sense. And it’s not because of incomprehensible sentence structure, but more due to the hundreds of people jostling and barging by as we try to maintain position, squinting and scratching our heads while examining station diagrams or trying to figure out which train to board.
Add to this all the colorful characters and the seemingly free-for-all behavior, and the subway can quickly become sensory overload.
Reflecting on this experience and trying to provide some kind of structural framework and direction for the undertaking, Parker decided upon the theme of “difference.” A term coined by French philosopher and author Jacques Derrida, difference seems to have a rather complex and nebulous definition. The meaning appears to be an idea, thing or experience both differing from, and deferring to something simultaneously — a concept that seemed to resonate with him regarding the actuality of the subway.
After discussion with other Seoul Photo Club members, the project was finalized: One photograph would be presented from every station in the Seoul subway system. It was then imagined to be an exhibition, or maybe even a book.
But it was not at all as simple as it at first appeared. What kind of undertaking had the Seoul Photo Club unwittingly embarked upon?
The Seoul Metropolitan Subway is huge, one of the world’s biggest. Like Seoul itself though, its size depends upon how you actually define it. The SPC decided that if a station was on the current subway map, it was part of the project. This approach had the effect of in fact widening the scope beyond what is generally considered the metro system to include lines such as AREX and the far-flung extremities of Line 1.
Indeed, the project did turn out to be challenging in many, many ways. Chief among these were issues related to access, time, expense and towards the end, tying all the loose ends together.
Initially, everyone involved in the project assumed that as the subway was an open and public space, photography would naturally be permitted. This wasn’t the case, leading to many awkward encounters with subway personnel.
One example took place on Line 9. “I was enthusiastic about starting photography for this project and as soon as I got to the third station, they rounded up their forces and took me in their office,” said Lee Smathers, an SPC member. “I pretended to not speak Korean, then they called a PR lady who spoke perfect English, telling me for security reasons I couldn’t take photographs in the subway without their permission.”
This was a typical experience and the photographer subsequently left the project. In fact, to photograph on Line 9 a written request stating the purpose and exact time the photographs would be taken is required.
Similar incidents led to repeated attempts to secure official sanction for the club to photograph in the stations. This turned out to be a largely fruitless pursuit, as most people who have tried dealing with any municipal bureaucracy will appreciate. As a result, the project at times turned into a kind of underground guerilla warfare, involving hit-and-run tactics and surreptitious shooting. It wasn’t all so, and though almost everyone involved had to make escapes from subway platforms or offices at some point, there were some positive experiences.
“The stationmaster approached me as I was shooting in his station,” said Dylan Goldby, a photographer on Line 5. “He asked me what I was doing and I told him I was working on a project documenting the subway line on which I live. Everything was friendly until he told me I needed permission to photograph here. When I asked why, he said it was to stop North Korean spies photographing the subway system for intelligence purposes. I showed him my photos, which to my surprise got him excited. He stopped asking me to leave, gave me his e-mail address, and asked for copies of the photos.” To the great appreciation of the SPC, the Seoul Metro company who run the inner-city sections of lines 1, 2, 3 and 4, did eventually provide the club with an official pass to be shown to station staff prior to taking any photos. But even the possession of a permit from Seoul Metro didn’t prevent things from going slightly awry.
Sam Wigginton, a photographer on Line 2, was at Gangnam station with his tripod set up away from the bustling crowds when an ajossi in uniform approached him. “What are you doing here,” he asked Wigginton. “I tell him I’m taking photos for the Seoul Metro Project and show him my signed permission letter from the subway authority.
He casts a suspicious eye over the paper. ‘Come with me,’ he says sternly. Resigned to my inevitable interrogation, I gather all my gear and obediently follow, weaving awkwardly through throngs of people. We stop abruptly right in the middle of the busiest section of the station. ‘Put your tripod here,’ he commands, suddenly beaming. ‘THIS is the best spot for taking photos of Gangnam station.’”
Two largely unforeseen issues of time and expense soon became apparent to the project contributors. The typical modus operandi for a series of stops in the project was to get off at a station and wander around, scouting for points of interest, compositions, light, vantage points and other photographic considerations. Members would often pass in and out of the turnstile in pursuit of the shot they were after. Many set up shop with a tripod and a cup of coffee, waiting for the right moment. Once several potential images were captured, it was on to the next station.
Most photographers were covering at least 15 or 20 stations, some twice that or more. Factor in travel time between stations, transiting home and back again and the expense in man-hours and money turns out to be very significant indeed, especially as this was in most cases done piecemeal at odd times.
In addition, many stations needed to be re-shot, as images weren’t quite up to standard or fresh ideas presented themselves.
Despite the obvious frustrations and inconveniences that this project at times presented to the participating members of the Seoul Photo Club, the fruit of all this effort is very impressive. Which brings us to the last major challenge that fell mainly on the shoulders of project editor Flash Parker: seeing the project through and bringing it all together into a beautifully presented book worthy of any coffee table.
“It was tough keeping people motivated when other responsibilities like work, school and family were also in the picture,” said Parker. “Some would go out and shoot five or six stations and report back that they were well on their way to completion, but then I’d never hear from them again. That was frustrating.
“We had half a dozen members begin and not finish one particular section, and they had to be replaced by photographers with similar outside commitments, but now working on a tighter schedule. However, I never questioned the dedication of the people who came on board at the beginning and stayed through to the end; they saw the potential in this project and without them it would have never come together.”
Among the members of the SPC, The Seoul Metro Project would come to mean many different things. And in the book — it’s large, 8 x 11 inches with over 200 pages of stunning images — the SPC has taken a fresh look on something so ubiquitous, familiar and yet almost un-noticed in the day-to-day life of most commuters and day-to-day life of most commuters and travellers.
The theme of différance when applied in practice to The Seoul Metro Project, came to represent what the individual photographers involved took from their subway experience. Each photographer catalogued in pictures their personal reaction to the process of traversing and absorbing each stop along their particular route in the system.
Coupled with a short essay from each photographer, each set of images conveys a unique commentary that will demand from you a fresh look at the beauty and mystique that is The Seoul Metro.
* Photos by Alex Murry, Aaron Raisley, Aaron Brown, Jacob McEndollar, Simon Bond, Sam Wigginton,Anthony Dell'Ario, Dylan Goldby, Flash Parker, Jesse Lord
GET A PREVIEW OR PURCHASE THE BOOK AT www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/321091 — Ed.