Though I would hate to say that first impressions are everything, I will say that they are usually good indicators of where our interests most genuinely lie. It was for this reason that as I looked back over the photos I had taken since first stepping off of the plane in Korea a few months ago, I noticed that they could be grouped fairly comfortably under a few broad themes. It was clear that there had been just a few subjects which had really caught my eye (and also my interest) and I had been capturing them again and again in my photographs. In the coming months, I hope to take even more photos which share the same themes as this initial set. I hope that by now consciously photographing these subjects, I will avoid desensitization and a loss of interest in them.

In a sense, I want to preserve my ‘culture shock’ for as long as I possibly can! Below are a few of the first photos I took in Korea and some of the thoughts they inspired.

Ajumma power

With my luggage still in hand I am standing in a subway train waiting to arrive at what I had been told would be the nearest station to my home. Suddenly the doors open and I feel an elbow dig into my airplane-famished stomach and push me off to one side. I look down to find the culprit but they are already carving out a trail of the dead off into the distance; aggressively shoving people out of their way with both arms. But just what kind of person does this? I squint my eyes only to discern an old lady- at about half my size- a visor crowning her thin dyed hair and a floral patterned vest wrapped snuggly around her body. Not exactly what I expected! Little did I know that this would be my first of many rendezvous with members of what is probably the most dangerous street gang in all of Korea: the ajumma From that moment on, the age group of Korean society known as the ajumma, has been a constant fascination to me. From where do they draw their superhuman strength and vitality? And with all jokes aside, have you ever seen a more vibrant and happy group of older women in all your life?

Cute Korea

It’s not just that everything here is three-quarters of the size of things back home but also that nothing seems to be immune to being made cute. ‘Cuteness’ seems to have a monopoly over so many artistic, fashionable and commercial ventures here that it is quite difficult not to notice it upon first arrival. It seems that even the most mundane objects (ex. toilet seats) need to be adorned with some smiley-eyed-furby-like-creature if it is to be made desirable to consumers. Is this a nationwide aesthetic or just a matter of my western perspective failing to pick up on the subtleties of cuteness? Are there sub-genres that I am insensitive to?


When I first arrived it was difficult to miss just how hyper-connected Koreans and especially Korean youths were. Cell phones filled the hands of every commuter on every train I took, video games were widely spoken about between young friends in my classes and even the neon signage that filled the streets spoke to a preference towards digital displays which radiate light. In my photos I hope to capture images of people embedded in technological environments. I want to use these images to think about what things are going to turn into based on what current habits now predict. I like to see how the youth depend, interact and react against their technology and there is no better place to do so than in Korea.

People on the Fringes

Coming from a large North American city, I arrived in Seoul expecting to see the usual cast of characters living on the fringes of society: homeless people, the mentally unstable, drug addicts and street kids. To my surprise these people were so entirely absent from my everyday experiences of Seoul that in my first few weeks here, their very absence became noticeable to me! Soon after this initial period, I began to occasionally spot a few people living on the fringe and their lives and narratives have become of increasing interest to me.

Art & Nightlife

I was lucky enough to have a group of co-workers who within an hour of arriving in Seoul put me in a cab and shipped me off to Hongdae for a night out. I fell in love with Hongdae straight away for its small size, its quirk and especially for its openness; it seemed to be a place where anyone who wanted to could actively participate in the community. I look forward to shooting more in this area, which against a backdrop of the rest of Seoul, feels a lot like a revolution.

Market Life

It was amazing when I first arrived to think about just how many shops are crammed into a single city block in Seoul. Where are all of the customers to support such a density of commerce? Just walking up and down the streets in my most immediate neighbourhood I remember picking up on an air of competition between store owners. In weeks to come, I would discover the market places and see this competitiveness crystallized into its most intense form. Just how these market vendors make it work will continue to be a mystery to me; I am truly in awe of their thrift and perseverance.

Click here to see more photoessays from Korea on Chincha.

Words and photography by Mike Stulberg

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