Aaron Choe is a Korean-American photographer and filmmaker who moved to Seoul from San Francisco 4 years ago. Currently, he’s working on an upcoming photo exhibition and a documentary about Korean food culture. We were fortunate enough to capture a few moments of his time to pick his brain! Read below for the full interview…
You created a series of black and white photographs entitled ‘One’. Is B&W the best way to expose the most important visual elements of a photograph?
Aaron: Well, there was a time when serious photographers, critics, and I guess people in the art world thought real artistic photography had to be shot in B+W but ever since William Eggleston everything kind of changed right? I personally don’t shoot as much B+W because it’s just more expensive here in Korea but I do love the experience. Although, I remember when I was in photo school and we all started with black and white film and then in Photo 2, we started printing in color and going from printing in B+W where you’re just focused on two things: the highlights and the shadows, and then printing in color where you learn to be really sensitive about all colors, that’s when I started to appreciate color photography more and I guess I never really looked back after that.
Going back to your days as a novice, how did you end up deciding what you wanted to pursue and what kind of photographer you wanted to be?
Aaron: I always wanted to take pictures and I always wanted a camera but when you’re young you can’t really afford to have expensive hobbies. I bought my first camera, when I was around 20 because I wanted to become a cinematographer and I thought it could be a good way to train my eye. At the time, my friend was the manager of the store Giant Robot in San Francisco and they had the Japanese photographer Hiromix’s book and I got really into how simple her photos were. Photography can be a bit daunting when you haven’t tried it and seeing her work made me think “Ah I could do that too.” I started out shooting pictures of my friends and just carried a camera around with me all the time and I still do that but now working on my commercial stuff, which can be really stressful, honestly I think perhaps out of laziness or something but I’d rather just keep taking candid shots for my own work rather than something that take’s a lot of time to shoot. I don’t have any problem though with spending a lot of time on planning, it’s just that when I do take a picture of something, I’d like to not kill the moment by pressing the shutter over and over again.
I see certain themes in your landscape work (of damaged areas), such as loneliness and tranquility…maybe even sadness. Why are you drawn to exploring these ideas?
Aaron: That’s an interesting observation. I think a lot of my photography comes from a positive place in my heart although I do love listening to sad music and watching sad movies because for some odd reason they make me feel happy. The goal of a lot of photographers, is to convey how they see something, and as a result a successful photo will also carry over the emotion that they were feeling as well I think. For example, I really like the photographer Ume Kayo’s work and when I see her photos I can tell she’s a fun person to hang out with since a lot of the time I laugh out loud when I see her work. Her stuff’s intentionally supposedly to be funny, I’m not just laughing at someone’s photos for no reason by the way.
What cameras and film do you use? Why do you prefer using film to digital?
Aaron: I use whatever I need for the job. For street photography, whatever’s quick and easy to carry is always nice. Rangefinders and point and shoot cameras over SLR’s usually for me but I do love my Hasselblad 500 c/m, as heavy as it is. My first camera was the Contax T2 and it already died unfortunately but I bought a new one and love it. I’ve heard from other photographer’s that they like other camera’s over that one but I’m attached to it. I don’t really prefer film to digital. In this day and age, digital can be just as good but film is what I started working with and luckily in Korea developing is still cheap so it doesn’t hurt the bank too much. If I had the money right now, I’d buy a digital camera and I do use them for work when I have to.
How has California influenced your work? And as a Korean bred creative, does that have any impact on your work as well?
Aaron: The people that I met who were into photography from California influenced me because I had the great opportunity to meet a lot of photographers. In San Francisco, the zine “Hamburger Eyes” was pretty popular and I remember thinking just how crazy the photos were and if I could ever get some of my work in there. I still haven’t but now I think that my style is a bit too different and more Asian than American. I take pictures of the people and places in my life and living in Korea now, that’s just what a lot of my photos are about. I think Japanese photographer’s have influenced me the most and one day I’d like to live there and work, if I can, as a photographer.
What are some of your favorite Asian films and/or anime?
Aaron: I love Wong Kar Wai’s movies but only the ones that he did with Christopher Doyle and William Chang but these days I wonder if watching really romantic movies like that is really good for me (haha.) I loved “Tokyo Sonata” and watched that a few times and recently I saw “Kiseki” which I thought was wonderful. Anime, I haven’t watched for a while but I watched Akira for the first time last month and was pretty blown away by it.
I saw you gave out a really great recipe for banana bread and now you’re dipping your feet in a food documentary. What about this subject that gets your passionate?
Aaron: I like eating! I don’t really like calling myself a foodie. I’m just Asian and I got to grow up around excellent food. My grandmother, my mother, and my aunt are all fantastic cooks and when I cook I’m always chasing those incredible food and flavor memories I had, when I used to eat there food. I’ve been living on my own for a while now and I cook a lot but sometimes I wish that someone would cook for me. My grandmother’s food was the best, she was the first woman in Korea with a cooking license and I brag about that a lot. It’s been around 10 years since she’s passed away now but if she were alive right now, this sounds bad, but I wish I could eat her food. Like that scene in “Tampopo,” where the mother on her death bed dies but seconds later she miraculously comes back to life to cook one last meal for her husband and children and as they’re both crying and eating they say their final farewells. It sounds pretty sad but I could definitely relate to that scene. Anyways, there aren’t a lot of things in world that make me happier than eating so I try and incorporate that into my work. Food is fun for me.
You’ve done some extensive travelling and spent some time in Japan. Could you touch slighItly on the type of food culture comparisons between Korea and Japan and why this particular doc will be interesting to an audience?
Aaron: Korean food and Japanese food are both phenomenal but what I appreciate about Japanese food, which I wish I saw more in Korean cuisine, is the amount of care that goes into something. All the little steps, like making a miso soup for example. How you cut the potatoes, so that they don’t break apart while boiling, or turning the heat off when you add miso, greatly effects the taste in the end. Or when you see a family that’s been making the best miso paste for generations, that kind of stuff, I wish I saw more of in Korea. It’s changing a lot though. 60 years ago, Korea was dirt poor and they had no choice but to make due with what they had but now you see a lot of artisan’s out there. I love though, how Korean food isn’t pretentious and the best meals are often super cheap and really satisfying.
Where is your photography going? What future photographic projects are you excited about?
Aaron: In 2013, I’d like to exhibit in Japan and finally make my first photo book to be sold internationally. I’m really bad at promoting myself and I’d love to show the world my pictures.
Lastly, any advice to any photographers out there?
Aaron: Be yourself. Every photographer should have their own personality and approach which is difficult but in the end that’s the best way direction to go I think.
Want to stay updated on all Aaron’s works? Follow his cookie crumb trail below: