Seoul Diary, 2014: Josh White and Documenting my Personal Journey

Photo by Cindy
Photo by Cindy

After being in Vietnam for about a month and a half, I am currently here in Seoul, Korea for a week. I’m primarily here on holiday, and wanted to have a chance to see my grandmother, some family, and some close friends here. In the spirit of my “Saigon diary” series– I wanted to share some personal reflections about my trip so far:

Last time in Korea

Jan 13, 2012
Jan 13, 2012

The last time I did any workshops here was 2 years ago, a street photography workshop with Josh White and Leica. It was a ton of fun, and I was quite proud to teach the workshop in both Korean and English. I’m a full-blooded Korean-American, which means I was born in the states, but I’m fluent in both Korean and English. Except my Korean isn’t perfect, and has a really strong American accent. I was quite ashamed of this for a long time, but nowadays it doesn’t really bother me anymore. At the end of the day I’m provably 80% American and only 20% Korean in terms of my world view and my personality.

Anyways this year I was going to do another workshop with Josh again, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough interest. So instead we decided to cancel it.

Free workshop in Korea

Translating Josh's presentation from Korean to English (my Korean isn't great, but good enough)
Translating Josh’s presentation from Korean to English (my Korean isn’t great, but good enough)

I thought it was a shame to not do anything while here– so I offered a free street photography workshop to a select few people. Leica Korea invited some VIP people, and Josh and I invited some friends and close people we met.

Sharing the stories behind my "Grandfather" series.
Sharing the stories behind my “Grandfather” series.

The 1-day free workshop was exciting. Josh and I both shared our experiences in street photography– and it was much more about sharing our personal journeys in street photography rather than being instructional and technical.


What Josh White taught me on being personal

Josh taking a photo of me in a restaurant
Josh taking a photo of me in a restaurant

One thing Josh has taught me is that it is so important to be personal with your street photography. I think I often come off too much as trying to “teach” and share information with others. I often forget to share my own personal experiences, and what I personally want to get out of street photography.

The portrait Josh shot of me.
The portrait Josh shot of me.

What really inspires me about Josh and his work is how personal it is. He said something during the workshop which really touched me: He no longer cares much about photographing strangers in the streets. Rather, he prefers to photograph his close friends and family.

Recently Josh went back and deleted every photo he has ever taken, and thrown out tons of negatives. He only ended up keeping 20 or so photos. Most of the photos he ended up keeping had some personal significance to him– and most of them ended up being photos of friends and family.

One of my favorite photos from Josh.
One of my favorite photos from Josh.

This is what Josh said about this photograph on Flickr:

By now, I suppose most people have heard the news of the ship filled with high school students that sank yesterday while on route to Jeju Island. As I type this some 290 people, most of which are just high school students are still missing.

Hearing about this yesterday and thinking about it last night really brought back a lot of different memories. My own father, drowned, albeit under different circumstances. Still, I remember the feeling after hearing about what happened to him and how hard it was to imagine his life ending like that. A lot of news agencies are really focusing on the messages the students were sending to loved ones once they knew they were in trouble. I’ve often wondered about my father’s last thoughts. I’ve often wished I could have gotten such a message.

The photo above is from Jeju Island, the Spring of 2010. After my dad passed I was told it was the background of his desktop at home. He had a sticky note on his computer that was to remind him to remind me to take him there some day.

As tenuous as these connections may seem, they did well enough to bring back a lot of emotions for me. I met someone whom has a cousin on the boat and I really wanted to say, “I know what you’re feeling.” The words are cheap, and said far too often without much thought. I remember people often saying them to me and my reaction more often than not telling them to fuck off. I didn’t think anyone understood.

I hope they find more people and the rescue effort has some success. The hardest part is waiting.

I remember that well.

Which made him realize, “Why am I wasting all this time photographing strangers who I have no personal connection with, and who I really don’t know? Why don’t I turn inwards, and photograph the people closest to me. When I’m about to die on my deathbed, I’m not going to care about photos of strangers I took. Rather, I’m going to care about the photos I took of those closest to me.”

Josh inspired me greatly during his talk, and also through conversations we have had over coffee and beer.

Me writing Korean into Josh's hand
Me writing Korean into Josh’s hand

Josh has inspired me to become a bit more personal with my work. With my writing, with my photography– and with my life.

Josh told me how he felt that through my blog and writing, he didn’t really get a sense of who I was as a person. He knows me in real life, and knows I’m a quite friendly and outgoing guy. He also knows my personality quite well, and the impetus which drives my writing and work–which is to help others.



But he told me also that my photography isn’t very personal. It is mostly outwards looking, rather than inwards looking.

I totally agree with him. Unlike him, I approach street photography from a more disconnected perspective. I see myself as more of a sociologist with a camera, rather than an artist or someone who is trying to express his own feelings. I think the direction I’d like to take my photography is to make it more personal.

Contact sheet of photos I took of Josh
Contact sheet of photos I took of Josh

One thing that I’ve really enjoyed writing in my “Saigon Diary” series is sharing my doubts, frustrations, and difficulties. It is quite cathartic and refreshing to write in this personal, free-flowing type of way. While I do highly value sharing information, knowledge, and ideas– I want to also take my blog in a more personal direction.


So moving forward– I’m going to try to do some more of these “Diary” type of posts. I’m going to try to share the photographers I’m thinking about, projects I’m thinking about, difficulties in photography I’m having, and people I meet during my travels.

I also hope one day when I’m 100 years old and on my deathbed, I can go back on these entries and reflect on my life and appreciate it.

Appreciating friends

Posing for the camera
Posing for the camera

Josh and I are very close friends. No only do we know each other as photographers, we know each other as human beings.

One thing Josh said in an interview I did with him back in Toronto was this (paraphrased): “At the end of my life, I’m not going to really care about all these photos I took. Rather, I’m going to value the friends I made along the way, and the fun of the process of making photos.” You can also see the YouTube video I did with him.

It really struck a chord with me. I also value the friends I’ve made through photography more than the photos I’ve taken. And to be quite honest, I always put my friendships and personal relationships before my photography.

My goal in life isn’t to become the best photographer. Rather my goal is to be the best teacher I can, to share as much love and knowledge about street photography, to help support the street photography community, and make some meaningful relationships along my life’s journey.

Thanks to Josh for this emotional portrait :)
Thanks to Josh for this emotional portrait :)

Spending time with Josh in Korea has been great. We both love good coffee, good food, and good beer. He is someone I can talk openly and freely about photography about. Both of us admittedly geek out about cameras and gear a bit – but more than that, we love to talk about photography. And because I respect his photography and work, I highly value his critique and feedback of my work.

Not only that, but Josh is also an amazing writer. Josh’s blog is one of the few that inspire me. I love how open, transparent, and honest his writing is. So he’s greatly inspired me in that regard as well.

I love having him – someone who can be open and honest about my work. He is a good friend, yet he doesn’t bullshit me. He gives me brutally honest feedback on my work. I tell him to give me a brutally harsh critique, to help me see my flaws and grows. I carry around my laptop and iPad when I see him, and he has helped me make some editing choices for my “Saigon diary” series and also some of my “Only in America” series.

Documenting my life

Photographing the streets of Seoul, photo by Cindy
Photographing the streets of Seoul, photo by Cindy

I’ve also been trying to spend more time to document my own life. I think I often take too many photos of strangers– and not enough of people close in my life.

R0101261 R0101265

So I’ve been photographing Cindy a lot more (on color film, Kodak Portra 400) on my film Leica. I’ve also been taking a lot of photos of my grandma, as she is 79 and who knows when she’s going to pass away. I want memories to record our good times together.

One thing I keep remind myself is this: which photos at the end of my life when I’m 100 years old will matter? Will I care about the photo I got 500+ likes on Facebook? Or will I care about photographing those close to me, who were truly meaningful to me?

I currently have a backlog of 150 rolls of Portra 400 at home. I’m quite excited to get them processed, and see what I get.

Digital vs film thoughts


I finished out my “Saigon diary” series, and am still doing the final edits and sequencing. But in the meanwhile, I’ve switched back to shooting color film.

I feel that black and white digital was suitable for the mood I wanted to capture in Saigon. Also I took some photos in Vietnam for the Fujifilm Vietnam team, and also wanted to share the “behind the scenes” – which digital gave me the flexibility to do so.

As much as I love shooting digital for the convenience– ultimately nothing gives me more pleasure than shooting film. I love how calm and relaxed shooting film makes me, and how less urgent I feel to download my images and share them online. I also far prefer the look of the colors on color film, versus digital color.

I think I’ll still take some snapshots during my trip digitally (to share on this blog and Facebook with my friends and family) but still work in color film for my work in America, for my “Suits” project (which I’m probably going to end soon), and for my personal documentary series.

Moving forward

Instax of Cindy and my grandma (she turns 80 next year)
Instax of Cindy and my grandma (she turns 80 next year)

Thanks so much for tuning into this Seoul diary. I’ll try to write a little more regularly, and share my thoughts in this unedited “stream of consciousness” type of way.

Oops it is 230am, time to hit the sack. Fun touristy stuff in Seoul the next few days, and off to Tokyo on Wednesday. More stuff to come :)

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3 thoughts on “Seoul Diary, 2014: Josh White and Documenting my Personal Journey”

  1. Great insights to photography. I don’t think many people think about this. It was great to read and it really got me thinking about my own work. I totally agree with most everything you mentioned and I almost feel like I should ditch everything I’ve worked on to this point and start over. And that would be okay.

    I also think its time for you to change your blog name to Erik Kim Photography Blog.

  2. My goal in life isn’t to become the best photographer. Rather my goal is to be the best teacher I can…………..

    Well said, I love it.
    Your blog and coverage of street photography is very inspiring. Keep up the good work


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