This guest blog post is by JT White, a street photographer based in Seoul, Korea.
JT: I get asked a lot about film versus digital.
I use both film and digital cameras. Which, depend really depends on a lot of things. It can depend on my mood or on the lens I want to use. I don’t think I really have much of an aesthetic style as opposed to a way of shooting. I decide what camera to use depending on what I have and what my subject is going to be.
Sitting around with a group of non-photography friends the other day one of them all of a sudden asked me why I posted a “‘normal” colour photo of them on Facebook. I thought it was a weird fucking question, considering the photo was just taken while they were just standing in a stairwell after playing a local gig. I took a photo with a small camera I had and one with my phone. I posted the one with my phone as I thought it would be something they would like more considering it was more “normal” as he said.
“No man, when I saw the photo you posted I was like, what the fuck? Looks like the same photos I always see. I was disappointed man.”
I thought this was funny. All artists in one form or another the conversation quickly morphed into talking about styles and the importance of having your own.
“I think I’m going to go a different way with my photos. More naturally documentary style..”
I said this without thinking. I had taken some photos the day before of my friend’s band. The photos I took were quite normal, moody lighting and in colour. Photojournalist style, I suppose you could say. I wasn’t really sure if I liked them or not, but somehow I felt like they would be more appealing than high contrast, compact camera, flash, exposure compensation tweaked, monochrome stuff I usually do.
Another friend (pictured) stopped me as I was explaining my idea to become a little more “run of the mill” and just said,
“But, if you look at the famous guys, the Magnum guys…”
“You live in Korea where every photographer is famous only for their ability to be able to copy any style they see. They, for the most part, have NO voice of their own. You have your own voice, or at least I thought you fucking did.”
I didn’t get another word in for a while. What was meant to be a coffee to talk about plans for a concert the following week turned into an intervention. My own intervention.
In the end, what I took out of the 2 hour long conversation was the importance of not necessarily following the crowd, but following your gut. The point that in particularly struck me the most was when the guy that had been with me during the shoot the day before said,
“Yesterday, you looked quite different when you were shooting. Usually, with the small cameras you look as though you’re shooting with your heart. Yesterday, you looked like you were trying to shoot with your brain. That’s not you man, not at all.”
Well, finally today the lens on the little dude decided not to come out any more. Playback works, but when trying to get the lens to come out the mode dial just goes haywire.
Maybe he’s trying to tell me to let him sleep.
Strange that. I’ve only had this camera for six months but it’s the first time I’ve seen the “death” of a camera. I’ve owned ten thousand dollar Leica cameras and not a one of them have I ever loved as much as I did this. It is kind of ironic that it still shows me the photos from last night even after it refuses to take another.
Over the same six months I’d really started to hate the idea of camera gear. I’d made friends angry in my blatant distaste of their talking about it. I make no apologies as the idea of photography equipment making someone a better photographer is ludicrous. It helps poor photographer’s make up for their shortcomings (of which I most definitely was and probably am one). Nothing more or less.
Maybe though, at first I didn’t want to talk about gear because I couldn’t understand why I hated talking about it all of a sudden.
I understand now. Since picking up this little camera I have had nothing but regrets for the money, time, and energy I’ve spent on cameras and photography. Pointless.
In fact though, the photos I take with this camera are rarely my most liked or popular. I could care fucking less. I think my photographic eye has matured more in the past six months – because of this camera – than it had in the five years prior. I’ve grown more in that time as well, and learned more.
Stranger yet, it has helped to teach me something about my life in general. I spent twenty three years of my life buying whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted no matter how poor it made me or the people around me. Cameras were just the latest iteration of the long line of things I would convince myself I needed. Motorcycles, cars, clothes, watches, wallets, shoes, sports equipment, and a whole lot more came before. You might even say I was like that with girls.
I never settled, nor did I feel like I should.
I wasn’t poor while owning this camera. I could afford others but I never bothered with them. I take what I am given or offered but never much felt the need to buy. I look at camera all the time but I never lust.
I look at much everything that way now.
“I make no apologies as the idea of photography equipment making someone a better photographer is ludicrous.”
I said that earlier, but I’m not sure I believe it.
I used to walk past this dog all the time. He even started to recognize me as I’d stop to play with him. He always jumped on the fence and looked at me in the same way. A couple of months ago when he was a puppy it was a happy look. The more I came round the more I realized he was always outside. No matter the time or weather he’s there in the same place. It was raining today, and quite cold but there he was. His “area” was littered with things you wouldn’t find on the dirtiest of sidewalks. Truth be told, I had stopped coming to see him a month or so before. No longer a puppy, I found it harder and harder to look at him. His look had changed. Selfishly, it was his changed look that had stopped me from taking that route home. Being a while since I’d come home from this direction, he jumped up on the fence when he saw me. Definitely recognizing me, his look had changed, again.
I set out from my house today to take some photos for a blog post I wanted to write about something completely different. On Friday, I found at an old friends the first camera I had ever bought for myself. Not a glamorous Leica, the old Sony A700 was sitting near his desk no longer being used. Instantly, I was brought right back to the moment I had decided to buy it. Offhandedly I asked him if I could maybe buy it back from him. He gave it to me for nearly nothing, and I gladly took it. The next day, I scoured the local camera stores to track down the same 50mm Minolta lens I had used on the camera when I’d first been its owner.
I walked out my door this afternoon to take photos with the old camera like I had once done. Infatuated with the streets of Korea I bought the camera back in 2008 to take photos while I walked to work. I wanted to send them back home to my family. Not really knowing anything about photography I bought the 50mm f1.7 lens because it was the only one I could afford. At the time, I remember being pleased that it felt “zoomed-in” (probably because of the 85mm or so equiv on the APSC camera) when I was taking photos.
How things have changed. I quickly today became completely and utterly frustrated by the lens being so tight. The telephoto look completely fucking wrong for street photography, I went and sat in a coffee shop thinking the nostalgic moment was over. Photography has frustrated me altogether lately and this moment was no different.
“What the fuck am I doing?”
I couldn’t think of much else. Felt like I was trying to buy back the feeling of being excited to go out and take photos. Felt like I was trying to buy back the eyes of someone who didn’t know anything about f stops or shutter speeds.
I suppose that line of thinking brought me out of the coffee shop and on my way home. I was already planning the sale of the camera. Not really thinking much, I ended up back at the cage of the little dog I’d consciously avoided the past month. I’d tried to take pictures of him before. I’d tried to capture the look of mutual understanding we’d always shared. I never could. Not really. Like most dogs, he always managed to look cute in the pictures, his eyes shining with a light I couldn’t see aside from in those photos. The look that scared me most was the one he’d given me the last time I’d seen him. Maybe I’m reading too much into the consciousness of the canine but I swear he looked at me with resignation. Resignation to the fact that his life was to be lived out behind those bars. He looked at me with sympathy. Sympathetic to the fact that I didn’t come round anymore because I couldn’t bare the guilt of my own cowardliness.
Today, I took that photo, above, without much thought. I played with him, for a minute as much as I could make myself do. I left, and instead of chasing me down the gate he just sat there and watched me leave.
I got home, no longer thinking much about cameras, or dogs. Having only taken three photos over the course of an hour and a half of walking I connected the camera to my computer and watched Lightroom import them as a matter of routine. A shitty, reflection of myself in my lift’s mirror. A photo I always seem to take no matter what I’m doing or where I’m going. I don’t know why I take them as they read as nothing more than a marker of the litany of cameras and things I’ve tried since coming back to Korea. A wider photo of a man jumping as he walked across the street. I took it almost as a self obligatory joke as to the type of photo I used to take with the “zoomed in” feeling 50mm lens the first time I had owned the camera. Finally, the photo above.
For the first time, when looking at his photo I felt exactly as I did seeing him. The sympathy and resignation burned eternally into that 1/125 of a second. Over the next minute or so I looked at the photo both mesmerized and inundated with illusions of what his life might be like if he’d ended up in a different situation. I imagined him running across an apartment floor to a faceless owner with a ball. Imagined him waiting at the door for the owner to return from work ready to give the sort of reprieve that makes dogs the best of human companions.
Snapping out of the fantasy I was just looking at the photo again. There is no resentment in that look, just resignation. His life will never be like that. The momentary glimpses of love and attention I’d given him before were no longer enough to brace unfounded optimism.
I think this simple photograph may end up being personally one of my most profound. I went back to that house and put a note on the door in my broken Korean asking, ” if it’s too much trouble to take care of their dog I am someone that would like to try.”
I’ll keep the camera, too. While it may not have provided me with the photography innocent eyes I’d thought it might, it perfunctorily did something much more.
It, in that 1/125 of a second, reminded me about why taking pictures is important to me.
Pyeonghun, from Hi-Camera in Namdaemun Market, Seoul. I bought my first camera in Korea from him and he’s been the only place I’ve been too since. A great shop owner, who has become a good friend. If you’re in and around Korea and need anything camera related don’t go anywhere else. His website is here:
Last week, I spent Saturday night and Sunday morning in Busan. Busan is a city on the southern coast of Korea and is famous for beaches, it’s fishery, and a strong dialect.
I got up at 6 on Sunday to go to the fish market near my hotel. Stupidly, I had forgot my film I had intended to use next to my camera bag at home near Seoul. So, with a roll of cheap Chinese film (ISO200 pushed to 400) bought the night before I set out early to be in the market with the sunrise.
The market itself isn’t as big as I’d imagined. People went about their business with early morning gumption. This man stopped me to ask me to try the whale meat he was selling. He claimed it to be the secret for his debonaire 85 year old appearance.
It was early, and there weren’t many customers around yet. People didn’t seem to notice me much or care that I was there. They just got on with their business.
I loved the smell. It reminded me of growing up in Newfoundland. The “get on with it” attitude of the people here is palpable, too. It’s just as akin to the Newfoundland culture I grew up in as the smell of the sea.
I am glad I left my film at home and ended up with this color film. More touristy, it goes better with the way I felt walking the market.
Taking 20 or so photos, I really enjoyed the walk more than taking pictures. The smell and feeling of the sea air in the morning was something I needed more than the photos.