Korean Fashion, Street Photography, and the "Korean Wave"

As I have argued elsewhere in my own classes on the topic, as well as in Korean media venues, there is really no “Korean Wave” besides the vainglorious media construction that has resulted from attempts to describe the very real global successes of some Korean cultural products as a singular, discrete phenomenon. That being said, I do recognize that certain Korean cultural products have indeed risen to global prominence according to a discernible pattern, which I call a “perfect storm” of structural forces and resulting conditions that combine in a singular and particular way to create anything from a growing interest in Korean dramas in Japan to the explosion of “Gangnam Style on computer screens across the planet. 

There are two crucial points I would like to make about these perfect storms of Korean Wave surges, assuming a “perfect storm” model of hallyu production:

  1. There are individual agents responsible for specific points of hallyu success. It is a peculiar aspect of Korea’s growing status as a world metropolis that non-Koreans or even academics ostensibly studying hallyu as a phenomenon can play a role in the actual propagation of the “wave” itself. 
  2. Much as in the cases of other accidentally successful manifestations of the “Korean Wave,” it was incidental and often quite accidental structural changes that allowed for the existence of certain cultural products. For example, it was a 1996 Korean Supreme Court case that declared previously harsh government censorship of films unconstitutional led to a change in the creative cultural environment that would allow films such as Old Boy, Lies, The King and the Clown, to be made and gain critical acclaim in international film festivals. 

In the case of Korean fashion, which I argue to be a very possible and probable flashpoint for another surge of the “Korean Wave,” recently described by the term “Korean Wave 3.0”, I exist as an intermediary (smong many) who has been helping lay the groundwork for an eventual “perfect storm” event that could vault the Korean fashion industry into the international eye given the right conditions, much in the same way that myriad social factors within South Korea combined to allow the creation of the film OldBoy, which would win accolades at the Cannes Film Festival and spur on interest in Korean cinema, or more recently, as PSY being able to focus his own talent and virtuosity into the YouTube video and dance sensation that famously spread across the planet like a runaway wildfire. 

More specifically, content producers such as myself seed the English-speaking Internet controlled by Google with the raw content that needs to exist on that fateful day when an Anna Wintour might hear about a prominent Korean designer and enter his name into a Google search. There is obviously quite a bit of content on the Korean-speaking Internet, but since the majority of the world does not speak Korean, a significant undergrowth of English-language content must exist for any interested outsider to stumble across. In terms of the actualization of so-called “soft power” in the Korean case, such cultural intermediaries are required as part of the quickening process that will eventually result in the propagation of Korean fashion content outside of the peninsula along similar lines of success taken by other fields such as K-pop or Korean cinema.

And Korean fashion, existing as it does within the new catchphrase and conceptual space defined by the term "Korean Wave 3.0", is ripe for the picking. One might ask the very good question of what is paticularly Korean about fashion in Korea, which many say is a hodge-podge of borrowed sartorial ideas and imported trends. One might even ask the related question of what one casn gain from taking pictures of -- or concerning oneself with -- clothing. Well, clothing is certainly worthy of serious attention, of even the most deadly serious social scientist interested in what makes the proverbial clock tick. 

The point is most clearly made in the article "Appearance Stratification and Identity: Fashion as the Clearest Example of What Sociology is All About" by Yves Laberge:

Fashion and the ways people dress are not only decided by the weather: because there are clothes you must wear and others that you just cannot appear in public anymore with, these seemingly individual decisions are in fact some truly social facts, as Émile Durkheim would probably have said. Moreover, the studying of fashion as a social phenomenon that influences the clothes we decide to buy, wear, and even be proud of (at least for some time) is possibly one of the easiest examples of what sociology is all about; with, in the case of fashion, numerous references to culture, norms, representations, consumption, social roles and models. Whenever a social scientist has to explain to any newcomer or non-sociologist the basics and purpose of the sociological science as a discipline, the understanding of fashion movements should be among the first examples that come to mind. (Laberge, 407)

I could make the same arguments about gender and describe the warp and woof of gendered subjectivity without the photographs, but these expressions, gestures, and poses – usually partially interpellated through clothing -- are some of the very moments that causes me to have certain moments of insight. As far as the photographic subjects-as-ethnographic subjects goes, the traditional understanding of ethical boundaries must be reconsidered. In response to the criticism that my photographs deprive the subjects of their “voice,” my simple response is that the subject is speaking, loud and clear, if one believes the sociologists of fashion and the body. In that sense, my camera is not much different than a field recorder documenting actual, if not metaphorical voices. I'm not telling anyone's stories, nor ever claimed to. I make observations as both photographer and academic. I don't hold to some notion of etic "truth" in the telling of the stories. What potential "harm " can a given picture cause? I have thought those questions out quite a bit in terms of reducing harm, but the conflict is that as a photographer, you have to believe in breaking eggs in order to make an omelette (or any photograph that anyone would even be interested in looking at), while as an academic mindful of ANCIENT notions of using photographs as DATA or photographic subjects as SUBJECTS in the paradigm of participant-observation, you are setting yourself up to be so fretful over the mere act of ding street photography that you prevent yourself from even using your camera. Simply put, in order to make any real images on the streets, you have to abandon certain antiquated notions of these people as traditional ethnographic subjects. It's a different ballgame when you're talking about mixing art and sociological practice.

The gathering of the visual data itself requires techniques and methods anathema to traditional research as done in the humanities and social sciences. But this does not mean that journalistic work in the service of academic pursuits should be dismissed as not having merit. Such work is done in society anyway; the best way to guarantee minimal harm to subjects is already provided for by pertinent laws and standards of professional behavior. Each society has its own, well-calibrated balance between ethical practice and the pursuit of data-as-truth. This is the culturally and societally specific set of guidelines that more deeply interested participant-observers must follow, or at least be cognizant of. 

Slippers, any and everywhere.