The "Urban Landscapes" of Seoul and the Ethnographic Practice of Street Fashion Photography

“urban landscape”


A cultural landscape, as defined by the World Heritage Committee, is the "cultural properties [that] represent the combined works of nature and of man."[1]
"a landscape designed and created intentionally by man"
an "organically evolved landscape" which may be a "relict (or fossil) landscape" or a "continuing landscape"
an "associative cultural landscape" which may be valued because of the "religious, artistic or cultural associations of the natural element."
There are two main meanings for the word landscape: it can refer to the visible features of an area of land, or to an example of the genre of painting that depicts such an area of land.[1] Landscape, in both senses, includes the physical elements of landforms such as (ice-capped) mountains, hills, water bodies such as rivers, lakes, ponds and the sea, living elements of land cover including indigenous vegetation, human elements including different forms of land use, buildings and structures, and transitory elements such as lighting and weather conditions.

By repurposing the concept “cultural landscape”, I propose a new direction, one partially (and minimally) explored by the century-old practice of street and the much younger genre of street fashion photography, in which physical landscapes are affected by their human geographies in a direct way, whether commercially through consumption (“ladification” in Seoul), governmentally through zoning or other kinds of use restrictions, or traditional/customary patterns in land/building usage or cultural practices within certain spaces. 

What i hope to do is demonstrate how fashion plays a discursive role in the consumptive sense in certain neighbourhoods in seoul, partially by using street fashion photography as part of an ethnographic profiling of certain neighbourhoods that have become greatly marked by processes of uniquely Seoulish “ladification” and how specific fashions become markers of certain kinds of people who are themselves representative consumers of certain cultures of seoul.

This is part of my bigger “Cultural Geographies of Seoul” project that I’m planning to launch with my Visual Sociology students from this semester, with outstanding final term ethnographic profiling assignments acting as some of its first studies. 

Some preliminary thoughts/field notes from a photographic perspective, from my body of around 15 years of street photography and 12 years of street fashion photography work in Seoul:


Shinchon, August 2007.
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Smoking on the move in shinchon. A decade ago, a young woman would never DARE openly light one up while walking on the street in Korea and even today, this sort of thing draws stares from other "respectable" young women. My companion while walking cl
A young lesbian couple goes at it in Shinchon's (in)famous Changcheon Children's Park.
Throwback Seoul Street Fashion: shinchon Park Couple, Shinchon , Seoul, 2011.
Throwback Seoul Street Fashion: Shinchon Girls, Shinchon, Seoul, 2011.
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Within the neighborhood known as Myeongdong, it is easy to see the tension that the many street itinerants within this space feel as the (sole?) players culturally contesting both its use and its inhabitants. As even a single visit to the space shows, Myeongdong, as an area full of shops catering to its primarily female clientele, is one of open and conspicuous consumption, and has become the very symbol of that deadly sin and vice to the many itinerants of faith who come to not just proseyletize there, but to conspicuously condemn and exhort what they see as a place of unabashed sin, especially in its perception as a place of heavily gendered sin, i.e. the unfettered consumptive, concupiscent desires of young women on parade . Consumption is the main mode here, and young female consumers its prophets. 

This is Myeongdong.
Myeongdong Minnie-me.
Flower girl in Myeongdong.
A Myeongdong tourist delicacy: What I like to call The Potatornado.
Myeongdong has long represented the excess of Cardinal sins, where concupiscent consumption happens  but Myeongdong hasn't REALLY been that since the Eighties, at the latest. These evangelical Korean Christians need to update their play book and go to Gan

Towards a methodology:

Quantitative parameters: As much as possible, there should be an image of every type of representative social character (preferably recorded in the style of the environmental portrait, which is as much as record of the subject's relationship to the environment as it is of the subject him or herself, and the relationship between the surveyer  and the surveyed. A good environmental portrait makes a statement about these aspects and relationships. In addition to examples of social types, there should also be clear examples of the kind of social practices that define the area in the city, likely done in the candid genre of street photography. This sets the bar quite high in terms of the sheer amount of physical, in-person ethnographic engagement required of the researcher/photographer, and is both a visual proof-of-life as participant-observer, as well as a source of ethnographic data itself, as each picture is the result of social interaction, by definition. To truly document a neighborhood in all its conceivable parameters, there would likely be at least three to dozens of photohgraphs if experience is any guide. 

Qualitative parameters: The "write-up", being based on the restrictions of the photographic typology of social characters and social types, still begs extensive textual explanation. One might explain, first of all, how/why certain social type were identified, while providing written explanations of some off the elements in the visual texts, explications of social interactions with and between human subjects in the pictures, as well as variations/multiplicity of social characters and practices that may differ enough that additional explication is needed. Additionally, the photographs themselves can provide non-verbal, direct explication of what a given urban landscape is really, socially like, in terms of the way is peopled, which is why photographs are important at all as visual data, as they can provide a direct experience of places -- its social valence -- in a way that verbiage is often inadequate to express, which has defined an ongoing epistemological problem ever since the written word, especially as it finds expression in the highly stylized, academic form that inevitably privileges a very narrow, positivistic way of conveying social knowledge. 

The overall empirical logic: All qualitative, ethnographic research is inherently inductive and is but a small picture, a snapshot that is argued to be representative of a greater, whole reality. The analogue of street photography images in standard ethnographic practice is that of an ethnographer standing on a street corner counting the number of people sporting short haircuts from a significant distance. The traditional methodological analogue of a street fashion portrait in this new approach would be that of an ethnographer stopping each short haircut-sporting subject and asking them how they feel about their haircut and their motivations for getting it. This is the fine grain view, since there is significant social interaction involved to get to the taking of a street fashion portrait. By utilizing inter-dependent, multimedia and multi-modal angles of empirical inquiry that, taken in the aggregate, adequately conveys a complete,  compelling, and consilient social picture of the subject/s being studied, which also utilizes different levels of interaction between the investigator and complete strangers, the overall effect can be that of a great deal of coherence between the various approaches and interactional techniques that result in a level of epistemological consilience, ethnographic coherence, and overall compellingness that is rare to find in the social sciences. 

The "urban landscape" approach, broken down:

  • a mix of the two most visceral, compelling, and data-rich forms of photography ethnographers can use: street photography and environmental portraiture
  • overlapping, reinforcing streams of interaction -- photography, interviews, and some degree of quantitative analysis 

An example of place data gleaned from two environmental portraits taken at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul:

Throwback Saturday. My absolute favorite picture from SFW. Gender taboos have come a long way, baby.  Traditionally, women are supposed to only smoke under a roof, not ever outside, out in public. This young lady in the picture IS ladies, nowadays. Not al
Shirt girl n friend

Data Analysis: In the two pictures above, one of a college-age young woman who felt comefortable not only smoking in public, but being photographed and published doing so -- a pretty significant social taboo only a decade ago in Korea -- and the other of a 17year-old high-school girl sporting a backwards checkered shirt in a way (inspired by the Korean media star Kim Na-young) that reveals not only a significant amount of bare shoulder, but a bare back and bra strap, reveal a great deal of social bravery for violating a taboo for young girls her age in public places. Aside from the fact that the checkered-shirt girl is almost certainly required to adhere to strict dress norms during the day (in her school uniform), for a girl her age, this attire would certainly be be deemed too risqué by anyone of authority whom she personally knows. However, both young women feel comfortable pushing the envelope of acceptability in the transiently wildly open space of Seoul Fashion Week (SFW) that takes place twice a year (in March and October) inside or in the immediate environs of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), which is also known as an area of relative sartorial and hence social freedom. What is significant from interviewing the "I'm Ladies" subject is the fact that she not only feels safe smoking in public immediately in the SFW/DDP area itself, but that she feels safe about her photo being taken and even published by me, the photographer. The same can be said for the backwards shirt-wearing girl, but whose sartorial precociousness itself being somewhat socially unusual should mean that her willingness to pose should perhaps not be too surprising, but it also helps define the FSW/DDP space as indeed one worthy of the "fashion district" moniker supported by the municipal government. Both young women are typical of the kind of social/sartorial bravery that is typically displayed in the area, for quite some time. 

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The young lady in the pictures from 2008 is standing across the street from the finished structure in which the two women in the first pictures find themselves either in front of or inside, respectively, but the more open sartorial/social nature of the space became apparent to me more than a decade ago, as one of the first places I ever saw a Korean woman openly and proudly sporting a tattoo, which was much more of a social taboo then than it is today.