America may have been the first country to invent what it means to be cool, yet South Korea has redefined it for the 21st century. Two decades ago it was still a developing country. Today, Seoul has become one of the most talked-about cities in the world as a high-tech, green, fashion-forward capital as well as a mecca for the music machine that is K-pop. Gergely Szatmari took to the task of photographing this rapidly changing city.
“Working abroad is always a challenge. I’ve travelled to Japan and to South Korea and also spent some time on the other side of the world visiting 36 states in the USA. Photography is a way to get closer to things. The camera is the best tool to explore an unfamiliar land and cultural context. This is an inspiration in and of itself,” Szatmari says.
This series was unlike anything Szatmari had attempted before. His previous two publications — American Idler (2012) and Meadowlands (2011) — present a photographic survey of America. The South Korea series came about following a request from the Korean Cultural Centre in Budapest, and the photographer only had 14 days to shoot it. “I was asked to create a photo series which depicts Seoul today,” Szatmari explains. The resulting body of work was exhibited in Hungary alongside Korean photographer Jin Seok Kim’s photos of Budapest.
Seoul is a truly dynamic city and there is plenty here that stands out: from roads that charge electric buses as they drive along, “bullet taxis”, virtual shops, malls that stay open 24/7, Zaha Hadid’s futuristic Dongdaemun Design Plaza and an airport that is more entertainment plaza than travel hub. Though this can feel chaotic, Szatmari felt at home there from the start. Over the two weeks he discovered that what makes the city cool is not the speedy gadgets and high-speed Internet, but the people.
“Seoul is a monumental and rapidly changing city, where things change progressively and people react quickly to the changes. For me the city looked more familiar and friendly than other cities in Asia. People were more relaxed and cool. I could easily communicate with them. I wanted to show this kind of immediacy in the pictures,” he reveals. Shining a light on the vibrant and fast-paced local scene, Szatmari also made sure to capture moments of pause.