Our most recent Shot of Soju interview is with Aaron Choe, a Korean-American photographer, DJ, and independent cinematographer. Aaron is one of those people you meet in Seoul that successfully plugs himself into every creative outlet he can possibly find. From DJing at Exit to shooting independent films to working alongside multiple photographers, Aaron has really made a name for himself here in Korea.
After welcoming us with a home-cooked curry in a cool co-op located in the back alleys of Hongdae, Aaron told us about how he started to tackle his creative projects, why he feels like he’s in disguise in the ROK, and what type of establishment he’s planning to open this fall.
Chincha: You’ve lived in Korea for five years now. What brought you here exactly?
Aaron: I moved here five years ago from San Francisco, California. I came here to learn more about Korean culture. My sis was doing a year exchange program and I came to visit and had such a good time. I moved here a few months later.
Chincha: How did you get into photography in Seoul? Was it something you were doing in San Francisco before moving to Korea?
Aaron: I was a photography assistant back home so I wanted to find something similar in Korea. It was hard to find Korean photographers to assist for because I had a bit of a problem expressing myself in Korean when I first got here. Since I didn’t have much a network established I couldn’t find many photographers that I immediately wanted to start working for.
I was on koreanfilm.org one day and I noticed a contributor who had the same favorite movie as me. It said he was a photographer and a filmmaker and that his name was Nils Clauss. I emailed him to ask if we could work together and he said yes.
Chincha: Can you tell us about one of the projects you worked on here in Seoul?
Aaron: Nils Clauss was doing a series at the time on re-urbanization in Korea because you see it a lot in this country. We’d go into these places that were set to be demolished to take photos.
This is a problem we see everywhere in the world, but in Korea it’s more rapid than anywhere else. This was always going to happen with a country that was modernized in 30 years. In the 80’s, when Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ was the number one song, Gangnam was farmland. I think it’s one reason why it’s hard for Korean people to be sentimental. Their favorite little bread shop could be gone next week. It’s just that fast.
When Nils and I went in we actually saw that the spaces that were about to be demolished were really beautiful.
Chincha: I’ve spotted you DJing at Exit a couple times. How did you get into music?
Aaron: I was always in the music scene growing up; I had a lot of friends who were into DJing. We wanted to play the music we wanted to play. I first started playing really weird stuff, like psychedelic rock mixed with old soul music. Then my friends and I got into the mod scene and then onto disco about ten years ago.
Anyway, all I did was collect records. I didn’t want to just listen to them at home, so I just started to DJ. I just played music that you couldn’t really hear when you were out. When I came to Korea I just wanted to play music somewhere, so I did. I’ll be DJing at a next week at Powwow. You should come.
Chincha: So word on the street is that you shot a documentary, can you tell us about that?
Aaron: It’s called No Place Like Homeland. It was shot with my friend Woomin Hyun from Tokyo. It’s about ethnic Koreans from different countries and their lives. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting lots of people like me while living here and I wanted to do a film on them. Sometimes I feel like I’m in disguise in Korea, like I’m undercover. I’m not perfect at speaking in Korean, but I’m pretty fluent. I like it because living in Korea I don’t really stand out. I’m not the “Asian guy” anymore. It’s like being in plaid clothing in front of a plaid background.
Chincha: Do you feel that there’s a difference starting a project or business here in Seoul versus starting a business back in the states, for example in San Francisco or New York?
Aaron: I feel that we definitely have an edge here. We see what’s possible in America and then we take that and apply it here in Korea, and we can do really, really well. That’s the beauty of it. I actually helped start a magazine for their first issue in Korea, Art & Seoul. It probably wouldn’t have been as easy to do back in the U.S. Korea is a great place to start start projects and businesses, I think.
Aaron: I’m just that guy with a lot of hobbies. I think it’s also because when I was younger I didn’t like working. I still don’t like working that much. I’d rather spend my time doing something that I want to do. I mean, even cooking. I want to start a restaurant. I’m planning to open up a pizza place this fall. I’ll bring in good ingredients, set a cheap price, and it’ll hopefully be located in Hongdae. I think Korea deserves better pizza.
Aaron will be releasing a photography book and holding a solo exhibition in Tokyo this summer, and you can also check out his photos from his recent IISE shoot.
Follow Aaron on and tumblr for updates and visit his website.
Interview by . Images by Aaron Choe.