Tensions and Dualities

The Short of It

This picture stands as an example of how various visual elements combine into a multilayered text about society. It explicates the contrasts between black and white, young and old, modern and traditional, Chinese and Korean. It also explores the tension between specific, subjective statements about the seemingly obvious and objective reality of major social forces. Finally, it highlights the inevitable contrast between the emic way the photographic subjects understand themselves and the etic interpretations held by the photographer/researcher/photographer.

The Long of It

The background for this picture is, both figuratively and literally, Korean traditional culture. On a photo shoot for an event sponsored by the Korean Senior Public Diplomacy group as part of their effort to highlight UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites in Korea to non-Koreans — this time at Namhansan Fortress —I had the idea to visually highlight Korean traditional culture as signified by the Namhansan Fortress structure and contrast that with Korean contemporary culture as conveyed through the two trendy young Korean women striking street fashion portrait poses in their Adidas and Nike Air Jordan sneakers, which have recently come back into vogue in Seoul.

Of particular sociological interest is a reading of their clothing as social texts. Especially indicative of just how internationalised Korean culture has become and the way the expression of identity for young Koreans takes place through the consumption of brands and other concrete symbols that are more than mere symbolic declarations of good taste, but signifiers of specific affiliations as consumers.

Our two young models are especially poignant reminders that contemporary Korean culture stands most markedly in sharp relief against “traditional” culture not as evidence of any supposed perceived loss of supposed “tradition,” but rather as evidence of how the very basis of Korean identity itself has come to be redefined.

No longer do many young Koreans identify themselves in terms of overlapping sets of social roles and responsibilities  as “student,” girl,” or even “Korean” in a nationalist sense, but rather as Consumer, with all the rights and responsibilities such identification entails. Nowadays, the twenties-and-below generation in Korea is typified by the kind of identification that posits self-expression as a positive, defining value system concretely expressed through a kind of conspicuous consumption of brand labels, corporate logos, and participation in the sartorial trend economy.

This is partially related to wholesale social statements of class and wealth status that are often linked to these very brand identifications, but fashion has become more than a mere marker of social status in class-conscious Korea, which never completely shed the influence of the true class system dominated by the yangban — it is not merely a case of the new yangban marking itself with symbols of wealth as opposed to emphasizing markers of lineage and rank.

This tendency is partially present in a capitalist economy driven by consumption, of course, but class and social status is so much more than this in the new Korea. Clothing labels and designer logos are important markers of monetary value and relative social worth, of course, but sartorial choices are just as importantly signifiers of taste as a marker of relative social status and other modes of social ranking. In this picture and for our purposes, these symbols of fashionability and trend awareness are the very markers of youthful social ranking status while at the same time act as markers of South Korean postmodernity itself.

The semiotic play within the image reflects these significant social realities that exist outside the image itself. The alternation between black and white, dark and light throughout the image acts as a visual rhyme that highlights the Chinese characters in the image. In the structure itself, the Chinese characters are markers of the historical and cultural influence of China on Korea and her history, evidenced as they are prominently on the white pillars on the structure that has become a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Chinese characters on one of the young ladies’ backs were, crucially, drawn there as a decoration, a fashion statement.

The image itself is a construction of a single photographer who set it up within a certain aesthetic logic that suggested the picture looked good, looked right. Yet, despite the fact of having put the elements of the image into its final configuration and form, some aspects of the image are in fact documentary, most notably in that the two young ladies were told to simply dress their best for what was described as a street fashion photo shoot.

Their clothing-as-social-text is indeed their own and emblematic of their own, real identities and social identifications. It is easy to see here, in the contrast between old and new, traditional and modern, and the social assignment of identities versus its organic, individualist self-expression, it becomes easier to see how young women are the emblematic, most iconic symbols of a new kind of Korea and Korean identity, even as they are drivers of the Korean consumer economy which is itself constituted by consumers not just of material goods in the formal economy, but of a new kind of Koreanness itself.

In this way, the image acts as an illustrative, socially descriptive text with which to more deeply understand social forces while allowing a greater conversation to be held through its utilization as a piece of social documentary. Yet, it is also a subjective statement of a single photographer/social scientist about Korean society.

Neither has to detract from the other; subjectivity in social research has a clear place in that the voice of a study’s main investigator can provide a certain, guiding clarity to the reader as we try to make sense of various, interconnected layers of social forces that can, through a single image that edits out and excludes as much as it expresses and conveys aspects of social realities, defining the very foundation and strength of what is called the ethnographic approach.