What You Feel is What You See: Interview with Josh White from Seoul

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Josh White is a street photographer from Newfoundland in Canada, and has done the majority of his work in Seoul, Korea. I conducted a video interview with him when I taught my Introduction to Street Photography Workshop with him in Toronto. We caught up, chatted about his beginnings, his inspirations, working in film versus digital, why he prefers black and white, and some memories from Seoul.

Josh—tell us more about yourself.

My name is Josh. I’m originally from Newfoundland in Canada. I lived in Korea for a long time and a lot of people probably know my Korean street photography the most.

Tell us your life story. For those of who don’t know, where exactly is Newfoundland?

Newfoundland is East-Coast Canada, a small island. It wasn’t part of Canada until 1949—interesting fact.

How did you make it from Newfoundland to Korea?

From Newfoundland I played hockey, went to Wisconsin for a year ,and I finished my undergrad here in Canada, then I went to law school. Then I went to Korea to teach English. After that, I got into photography pretty hard.

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How did you first pick up a camera in Korea?

I bought a Leica Digilux 2 because I thought it looked cool in  a small camera shop in Namdaemun (a shopping district in Seoul). I really dug it, and eventually bought a Leica M8 and a 35mm f/2 Summicron. I shot with that for a long time—and it got me really into it. From that point forward, I pretty much owned every piece of gear in the middle.

Tell us a little bit about your GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)

I got a lot of GAS, really.

You went through a rehab session in GAS though.

I went to rehab a bit—and now I’m on the way. I’ve had pretty much every single decent camera you could probably imagine.

Two Leica M8’s, two M9’s, a M9P, an M6, M3, M5, that’s only Leica.

For Ricoh, GRD 3 twice, GRD 4 twice. Fujifilm X100 twice. Fujifilm classe. Gr21 Ricoh (my favorite camera ever), GR1v, GR1, GR1s, I’ve had everything man—everything.

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Can you tell us what fed this GAS?

Wanting a new camera fed the GAS. Like everyone else you think the more cameras you have, the better you are. It’s all bullshit though.

You’ve own a lot of Leicas and Ricohs. What about the Leicas or Ricohs appeal to you? And which you prefer at the end of the day?

I guess the Leica appeals to me because I like the idea of shooting with a rangefinder camera—it suits my eye the best. The feeling of shooting with a rangefinder camera is very organic to me, I enjoy it.

In the end, I always go back to the Ricoh film point and shoots. I have the Ricoh GR1v, the GR21 is probably my favorite. For my style, it allows me to not worry so much about the process of shooting as opposed to the final product. It feels naturally a part of me.

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After an unfortunate series of events, you went from having every single Leica out there into having nothing pretty much. Can you talk about your rehab session?

Like you said, an unfortunate series of events—and I guess that will be our inside joke. I ended up with literally nothing – my cell phone camera. I didn’t even have a film camera, I didn’t have anything.

It was cathartic in a way because there was a point I had 8 cameras and 10 lenses, and probably $30,000 worth of camera equipment—and have no idea what to shoot with. I’d end up carrying 3 of them, and I would still come home without having taken a single interesting image. So now I’m back to square one.

It was funny, you had all these expensive cameras, and now back to your simple film Ricoh. Do you find it to be liberating having that one camera?

It’s definitely liberating. This past weekend, we’ve all been arguing about film versus digital. You know that I have a hard time editing my shots. So going to film really helps me a lot. I can let my photos marinate while I go out and shoot more, not worry about editing or getting them on Lightroom right away and posting them.

I have 12 rolls ready to getting to get developed. I think that’s a big change for me, and a positive one, it allows me to keep shooting.

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Tell me about your ideas of film versus digital. You shot with both in the past, what do you find the pros and cons to be of each? Can you also share why you decided to shoot with black and white film at the end of the day?

Digital pros: fast, see your photos right away. Actually, I don’t know if that is a pro. I feel it is a con.

For me the biggest pros of film are (people are going to laugh) but it definitely has a different look. You can’t easily mimic in Lightroom or whatever. For me personally, film allows me to step back from my photos and take some time to think about them. If you go out and have a photo with your 5d mark 2, and you go back and get it into Lightroom, you have this emotional attachment because you shot it that day. Then in 2 days on Flickr you see it and delete it because you no longer think it is a good shot.

For film I think it helps me get past that. With the film Ricohs it gives me a look I cant get with anything else. For my personal aesthetic and style it works for me the best.

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Tell us about your experience shooting street photography in Asia versus Toronto. Also about your “Labyrinth” project and the story behind it.

So obviously I’m white. If I shoot in Asia I can pull off the white guy tourist pretty well. I think that helps out a lot. Realistically you use what you can take. In Asia, I’d string the camera around me and they’d give me a totally different look than here in Canada.

Its good to shoot in Canada because its from where I’m from. But in the end, I enjoy shooting in Asia more.

Labyrinth” was a project shot here in Toronto. Toronto is a bit of a cold city. When I was shooting the project, I was working the corporate  life– suit and tie. When I walked to the subway, it became a blur to me. I had a really hard time, and I fell upon a series of unfortunate events.

The project is dark and not for everyone. I think it is quite polarizing. I also shot the entire project on my camera phone (a  crappy Blackberry) and everyone in the project looks anonymous because that’s what everyone looked to me. It was the world through my filter.

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You got your strongest following through your blog. How did you give birth to your blog and how has it changed and evolved over the years?

It started when I lived in Asia, and my family wanted to see what I was doing. Now It is more of a visual diary of my everyday stuff. I also have a portfolio website which is separate from my blog. My website is my work and my blog is about the writing and the photography. For me at the end of the day, street photography is a visual diary—because it is the world through our lens.

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I enjoy your writing a lot and I learned that you read tons of books growing up. What did you study in school?

I studied English literature. When I grew up as a kid, I had at least 1400 books. I read all of them at least once, so I read a lot growing up. It helped evolve who I am.

I also grew up with sports. I played hockey, golf, tennis, basketball, baseball, soccer– all of them at the varsity-level. I played a couple sports in Wisconsin on scholarship, and then here in Canada too. But in the end, I was the pocket nerd all the time.

How do you think your background and interest and writing plays into your photography?

A lot of people will argue that photography is not about stories and I sort of agree. Unless you are a war documentary photographer—and even at the end of the day, it is told through the lens that can’t tell the whole story no matter what.

I think most people say a great photo doesn’t need words. But for me, I enjoy combining my photography and my writing– as it is a big part of my life. Writing supplements my photography.

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In a month you’re going on a road trip and back to Korea. Tell us about your upcoming journeys.

Similarly to you I just left my corporate job. Hung up the ties. So I wont see myself in your suits project [laughs]. But I’m going to drive back to Newfoundland from Toronto, maybe a week long drive. Probably it will make it a couple of weeks. My dad passed away a few years ago so I want to visit his grave.

I also want to visit my hometown. I wasn’t into photography when I lived back at home so it will be interesting to shoot the area. I also want to document more of Eastern Canada as part of my road trip. For the trip, my mom will also be with me. After that, I’m back to Korea, to start in late August.

Why you want to go back to Korea?

Korea is great—I love the atmosphere and the vibe. It’s a great place to wander and explore. It’s also a good home base if you like the Asian culture. It costs around $150 to fly to Tokyo, $300 to go to Thailand. Korea is a great base and a good place to live. I also have a lot of good friends there. We also first met there! It will be a good place to go back to. I’m excited.

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You work primarily in black and white, and I think it is your strongest work. Tell us about the photographers who helped shape your aesthetic and vision?

It’s not necessarily that I try to mimic anyone’s style. I think you are shaped by photographers. However you don’t necessarily have to mimic them.

I like Daido Moriyama‘s work, but like you, I agree he is not so good at editing. But I do really take a lot from his work. I like how his world is reflected through his work, sort of like a self-portrait. I appreciate that. I like Koudelka’s work, which I was introduced to by you. I also like William Klein — Klein and Diado are on similar veins.

I also look at a lot of modern guys, like you, Charlie Kirk—and I appreciate all their photography. I try to look at and read and see as much as I can.

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To go back to Daido—there are a lot of people who don’t ‘get’ Daido- what do you get from his photos? Or what draws you to his work?

I think honestly most people don’t get it because they look at his work very broadly. He tends to put every photo he takes into a book, and you have to weed through that.

When I first started liking him I saw his work at a small exhibition in Tokyo. All of his work was printed quite large. The work was from a series he shot in Hawaii I believe– and seeing them printed large gave a sort of atmosphere.

I know he probably took 400 photos or 4000 photos there, but seeing those 8-12 photos — I thought it was powerful. Printed, and knowing that there is a lot of artistry in the darkroom. I can’t do or mimic that process, and I just really appreciate it a lot.

I recommend if you have the chance to check out Daido’s work, look at it in terms of a walk—and selectively. He describes himself as a walking or straying dog. I think his work is a visual diary, so there may be a photo of nothing, but realistically if you look at it of him just wandering around—you see the world through his eyes. I appreciate that, because street photography is a visual diary. The high contrast and black and white is just his filter. I like the walk.

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You shoot black and white, and you often shoot with TMAX 400 or HP5 pushing to 1600 on your GR1v. What draws you to black and white and high contrast as an aesthetic?

I like the aesthetic. I’m a sucker for real grain. Not that Lightroom kind. Our buddy Neil Ta was teasing me because often shoot out of focus and blurred images. And if you like that you gotta stick behind it. I take all the ribbing, so I give it back. Its my aesthetic and I love the way it looks. In the end, isn’t photography about loving what the photos look like?

Your work has a wide emotional gamut; some of your images are very happy while others are very dark. Can you tell us about how your emotions play into your photos, and what your photos say about you as a person?

If I posted a really dark photo, my buddies would send me a message—you all right man? Feeling a little emo [haha]. A good example when a guy who followed my blog who said you should change your name to the ‘biopolar photographer.’

Photographically I guess I am a bit bipolar. But I think the world reflects back at you. What you feel is what you see. And what you see is what you feel.

I guess my photos are no different.  Photos are supposed to be a realistic representation of what you see. If I take a photo that is dark, that is what I’m seeing. If I take a photo that is really happy—that is what I’m seeing. In the end, that’s just how it goes. But I think that’s what makes photography interesting.

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When it comes to your photos, is there a legacy you want to leave behind?

I think I’m still trying to find it. And we are trying – but I’m not sure if I found it, but will let you know when I do.

Anything people can expect from you–in terms of your photos, project, blog?

I’m working on a couple of projects. Probably the biggest on the tattoo culture here in Toronto which should be interesting, that won’t be as bleak. It will be more of my more happy projects.

For my blog , it will be a lot more visual diary than the last year. Going back to korea, and going on this trip is a fresh start. Its been stagnant. So it will get a big boost soon, and it is going to go back to the roots. I will also feature a couple of photos a week.

If you stepped in a time machine, maybe 5 years ago and went back to Korea—what would you have done differently?

I would have saved a lot of money. I would have bought a lot less gear, and used a lot of that money to travel and to meet more people and do more things. You can go out and buy a $5,000 camera and walk around your block, but that $5,000 could have taken you half around the world for a week or two.

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More than week or two! Perhaps if you are traveling like a baller?

Haha true that. But those are the experiences you will remember, not the cameras you had. I am sure I had 3x more cameras than what I mentioned before in the interview, but I just don’t remember.

In the end that doesn’t matter what cameras you have. Just take what you have and go out and do it. I wish I learned that a lot sooner. And probably learned that before experience made me learn it. I’m glad I eventually figured it out.

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This is a fun question that I learned from Charlie Kirk: What is one question nobody has ever asked you, that you would ask yourself? Or somethign you don’t mention about yourself?

What street photography means to me. For me, I have only recently discovered what that means. I have met some of my best friends through photography. People I would have never had the opportunity to meet. The friendships we make through such a mundane activity are the most important to me. We will be sitting around in 50 years maybe talking about our photos whilst having a strong bee cider and most likely still arguing about grain patterns and GAS. In the end, even if we’ve taken shit photos, it will be those friendships that are the most important.

What are some misunderstandings people have about you? The online versus real-life Josh?

I’m not nearly as bleak as it sounds. People ask me things: are you really that fucking dreary? No I’m not really that dreary. I’m usually an upbeat guy in real life.

Another thing, people ask me why I show too many photos. And I think that’s an interesting thing. I wish someone asked me that a long time ago. That would have helped me learn. Because I’m back to basics, and trying to show as little as possible. You show your best, its what you don’t show.

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For people watching –who are some contemporary street photographers you recommend people to follow?

You could follow Charlie Kirk. It’s very different from mine. I think Charlie is a very realistic photographer. His work is very, in your face and I appreciate that. I’m really looking forward to see what he is going to get from Istanbul. So I guess that will be good.

We were talking about Junku Nishimura—our friend from Japan. His stuff is some of my favorite. I guess it is also somewhat bleak. But I like the fact that his photos seem like you are stepping into a time machine– seeing Japan from around 40 years ago. Except you are seeing the modern Japan, but with a classic look. Junku doesn’t rely on expensive camera equipment, but he gets very nice candid moments. I like it. He is a very good modern black and white street photographer. It takes me to old Japan, through a modern lens.

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Any other photographers?

The modern guys—you can go through the Magnum list, those are probably the two guys I follow the most right now.  When I need inspiration, I always end up going to old stuff and Josef Koudelka for example—because his stuff is so strong.

Anyone else you would like to give a shout out to or thank?

To my buddy Tyler who is sitting next to me—he helped me out through the series of unfortunate events and I appreciate that. That’s really it, you should give a shout out to your manager Neil Ta who is in Toronto—who has began to be my good buddy. He doesn’t get enough play into the whole Eric Kim scene. So he deserves a lot of credit—in the workshop we taught. He was on top of stuff he is an all around funny dude. Check out his stuff, you get a good vibe from his rooftopping.

We taught a workshop here together in Toronto the past weekend. Tell us about your experiences teaching the Leica workshop with me in Seoul, and this workshop? What you enjoy about teaching and what have you learned?

Every time we teach one together—I pay attention to what you say, when you’re doing your thing. Especially your presentation on composition was quite excellent and I learned a lot through that. I find myself—it is rules that I knew but seeing it right in front of you, it allows you to see it when you are out there.

I learned stuff about myself—I looked at my old work, and seeing how I moved on. Looking at my old stuff, I find I learned a lot about myself and how much I’ve changed from 5 years ago to now. So that was important to laugh at myself. And something we should do at one point.

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By ERIC KIM

Artist-Philosopher