Hanna Moon’s Unvarnished Portrayal of Life in South Korea

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Almost Something by Hanna Moon
Almost SomethingPhotography by Hanna Moon

For her latest photo book, Hanna Moon travelled to Seoul and Daejon – her hometown – to capture family and friends. The result is a welcome break from the mainstream, sanitised image of Korean-ness

Flash-lit shots around a table at Korean barbeque; celebrity-fronted ads for soju and beer plastered on a bus; glassy high-rises foregrounded by a traditional Korean pagoda. These scenes by Korea-born, London-based fashion photographer Hanna Moon will feel familiar even to those who’ve never been to South Korea, thanks to the country’s ever-growing cultural footprint.

But in Moon’s new photo book, Almost Something, the overall mood is more intimate – and save some cinematic shots of casted talent, refreshingly less glamorous: Korea serves as a captivating backdrop, but the photographer’s friends and family are its candid stars. There’s her mother enjoying a slice of watermelon; lively scenes at a sleepover; various generations of friends and family, mid-selfie or ringing in Seollal (Korean New Year) by paying respects to family elders.

And of course, there’s the necessary inclusion of food, in all stages of preparation and ingestion: women with plastic-gloved arms rubbing crimson paste into cabbage for kimchi; a bird’s-eye shot of a table crowded with banchan, or small side dishes; girls crowded around an order of late-night fried chicken; two pigs heads floating in a plastic tub.

“Living [in London] and going back to Korea, I saw all these things you don’t notice at first. I documented them because I found them hilarious, or because I was out with friends and having fun. I didn’t think that much,” says Moon, who returned to the country after the book was commissioned. But she didn’t seek out “anything obviously Seoul, like architecture or landscape pictures, because I wasn’t making a travel book.”

Curated from an archive of thousands of photos, the snaps were accumulated over the past decade, during which Moon lived in, then was a visitor in Seoul and Daejeon, the country’s fifth-largest metropolis where she was born and raised. With a layout mimicking windows on a desktop computer, the pages are tinted with voyeurism, their familiar digital frames contrasting with nostalgic scenes. “I’m drawn to the traditional side of things, rather than the new,” adds Moon, who shot the bulk of the book in the older northern districts in Seoul.

Named Almost Something because it was originally commissioned by a luxury fashion brand, the project’s unvarnished exploration of life in South Korea is a welcome break from the sanitised Korean-ness born of the country’s soft power machine. “While [her work] is essential in its uncontrived Korean-ness, it does not overly identify with being Korean, or with any of the wretched and limiting ‘buzzwords’ that are used to describe it,” friend and writer Moffy Gathorne Hardy notes in the essay punctuating Moon’s images. “It recognises identity as perpetually under construction, that both people and things are constantly becoming.”

Moon is conscious of the “obsession” many have with only showing South Korea’s more manicured side. “We’re just so afraid of showing the vulnerable side of it, and we should be proud. We just want to be seen, and to be seen as great. But we don’t have to try so hard.” 

Though Moon could certainly continue with an entire series on Seoul from her archives alone, the photographer has plenty in the works. Alongside her own photography, which now spans editorials in British Vogue, campaigns for Gucci and an album cover for Harry Styles (Harry’s House), Moon is putting together the upcoming issue of her self-published print title A Nice Magazine. She’s also studying a masters in film at London’s Goldsmiths University, and is plotting a project around the Korean church. But it’ll be hard for her to resist capturing photos to accompany it. “Studying film only made me realise how much I’m into photography,” she laughs.

Almost Something by Hanna Moon is published by Patrick Remy Studio and launches on December 2 at New Malden Methodist Church in London.