South Korean Street Style as Captured by a Western Tourist

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Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek
© Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek

From sweet school uniforms to military motifs, a visit to the busy city of Seoul left photographer Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek fascinated by the sartorial eccentricity of its residents

Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek first picked up a camera a decade ago, and in the years that have elapsed since it has granted him access to people and places all over the world. “Taking yourself a step back from the action can help to get pictures that otherwise would not be possible to achieve,” the photographer explains. His latest photographic adventure took him to South Korea, where he was working on a project on meteorites that have landed in the countryside, but he also spent some time in Seoul, a city known for its audacious creativity and fashion. Inspired by what he saw on the city's vibrant streets, Gebhart de Koekkoek decided to shoot a fashion story exploring all kinds of Korean style, ranging for from school children in their matching uniforms to the eccentricities of the elderly.

“Everyone is dressed up so nice in Seoul, and so I decided to make a little fashion story on the streets outside of its hipster area.” Gebhart de Koekkoek tells me from his studio in Vienna. His approach was spontaneous, which perhaps explains the moments of magic that pervade his pictures. “For this particular story I just set my mind free and let go,” he says. “It’s like a vacation from shooting, while still shooting. I’m working on assignment a lot and when not shooting commissions I work on personal projects, which also follow a storyboard. But sometimes I have to break out of that routine and let go. Then I just shoot what feels right to me, and whenever it makes me happy to hit the shutter.”

“I always had to be very fast, before they would start to give me the V-sign and a big smile.” Daniel Gebhart de Koekkoek

The result is a series of everyday portraits of people and objects in lesser known parts of the Korean fashion capital – not the typical street style shots that proliferate, but suited workers on their lunch break, scenes at the market or school children peeling out from school, alongside other fragments of life caught in motion, seen through the lens of a western tourist. “Seeing something for the first time and experiencing it with the camera at the same time is the best that can happen to me as a photographer. I love that feeling and lust for the unknown. At the same time, I also know I have to keep shooting, before I get used to my surroundings.”

Young, old and inanimate, the series gives a sense of the breadth of inspiration in South Korea. A military motif also emerges in some of the photographs, shot closer to the border with North Korea. “Camouflage is always coming back in fashion, and I wanted to include these pictures in this fashion story to highlight that connection.”

How did his subjects respond to his camera? “I always had to be very fast, before they would start to give me the V-sign and a big smile.” Gebhart de Koekkoek recalls. “But people in South Korea are very friendly and open-minded. I encountered them all with a friendly smile and got the same vibes back.” The photographer prefers not to reveal too much about the people and locations he shot, however. The magic of the photographs, he explains, is in these fleeting encounters with the anonymous.