Better Days


An interview with Seunggu Kim

Earlier in the year, Korean photographer Seunggu Kim won our Open Call theme with a stunning image depicting leisure time in Seoul – a shot of a packed swimming complex taken a from a remote vantage point, the multi-color sprinkles-like details of the foreground in contrast with the flat, lifeless cityscape behind. Dense and busy with the chaos of life, it shows a world we might not experience again for some time.

Keen to know more – about the image, the series Better Days from which it is from, and his development in photography – we put some questions to Kim…

Hi Seunggu. Firstly, a belated congratulations on winning our Open Call theme judged by Martin Parr. Can you tell us a little bit about your winning image, and what you thought of Parr’s comments?

It’s an honor to hear Martin Parr’s simple and clear comment about the picture. It comes from my series Better Days which explores urban leisure practices in my home country of Korea. This is my series statement: Korea has been developed rapidly over the last 40 years, which has created a lot of social ironies. One such irony is long working hours with very short periods of break. During the holidays, Koreans try their best to enjoy themselves, but due to lack of time to travel, they mostly stay close to the city. This collective leisure and its spatial environment reveal the attitude of Koreans living with optimism and a sense of community despite social constraints.

Where did the idea for this series come from, and what were you hoping to communicate with it?

In a way it’s sad to see people spend their leisure time in this intense way, but at the same time their optimistic attitude toward life is heartening. People living in cities can suffer from unbalanced desires and isolation of relationships, but I hope these pictures will give people optimism, and a chance to think about community spirit.

And from a technical perspective, how are the images achieved? The level of detail is incredible, and it can’t be easy to always find a high and distant vantage point to photograph from…

For a good point of view I climb buildings, bridges and mountains. In many cases access is restricted or dangerous and so I often fail to get the image I want. In that case, I constantly re-visit and try to find new locations or ways of access.

Seunggu Kim’s winning image from our Open Call competition – Swimming Pool, 2016

Martin Parr comment – “I love the contrast of the packed pool and surroundings with the lonely river in the background of this view in Korea. A stunning example of how a high viewpoint, can offer so much detail and yet still have an overall impact.”

Snow Festival, 2014

Your work such as Better Days is best viewed at a large scale, and I see that you’ve used very large prints in past exhibitions? Do you think consciously about the differences between online and physical gallery viewing when you create your work?

My focus has largely been on the context of exhibitions and publications, but nowadays I also perceive the importance of online.

You studied photography at Sangmyung University and then at Korea National University of Arts? What do you think was the biggest benefit of a university education in photography, rather than following a self-taught path?

I think it’s a big advantage that I have a general understanding of analog and digital photography, the history of image-making, commercial and art photography, and so on. It helps me pinpoint exactly where I am as a photographer and set the direction of my work.

And how is Seoul since the COVID-19 pandemic? I suppose that we won’t see the types of scene you depict in Better Days for some time… Has it impacted your way of working?

You’re right, I’m working on other series now, working within the constraints this new reality presents.

What’s the one piece of advice you wish you could go back in time and give to your younger self, or would pass on to other aspiring documentary photographers?

I think it’s important to take time and shoot alone and deeply explore the questions ‘why do I have to photograph this?’ and ‘what do I really want to talk about?’. It’s crucial to find a real interest and to have a coherent perspective throughout the work that comes from it.

And finally, what’s keeping you busy right now?

A constant cycle. I search for and photograph my interests and then develop, scan, retouch and print. And then I order more 4×5 film from B&H and repeat.