I like photographing all the amazing touristic places in Seoul, I really do, but I started to think that I was doing the same thing as every travel blogger in this country. In other words, I got bored. To overcome my boredom I thought of doing a project at the Han River. This is a blog post about that project and my thought process on how these pictures came to be. Maybe reading my ramblings will help you to be more creative if you're stuck in a rut like I was.
The picture above was taken when I was on another assignment for my blog. I noticed there weren't many bloggers writing about the cafes on the Han River, so I visited them all and wrote about it. Beneath one of the cafes were these murals painted on the underside of the bridge. Just by themselves they were nice, but not special enough for me to take a picture of. Then I saw the bikes passing by, which gave me the idea that you see above. I waited for a bike to be exactly in the middle, snapped, and instantly knew I had struck gold. Back home behind my computer I cleaned some things up with Photoshop, so the viewer wouldn't be distracted from the main subject. The rest is authentic. If you want to photograph this place as well, see the map below to see where to find it. It's on the south side of Hannam Bridge.
As time went on, there were fewer and fewer authentic places that nobody else already had written about. So when I was out photographing for my blog, I started getting bored from shooting the same things as everyone else. The picture above was in the back of my mind during that time. Trying to overcome my boredom, I started to think into making it a starting point for a project about the Han River.
I told some of my friends about my plan, but they didn't think much of it. According to them it had been done so many times already that it wasn't special at all. I wasn't deterred because I had something else in mind than just photographing bridges. What that something else was exactly, hadn't yet formed. I just took the picture above as a starting point and went wandering along the river. There wasn't a clear plan on what to shoot exactly (as you will probably notice when reading further), I just went and shot what came to mind. Some places I shot in the same style, with others I tried something different. I gave myself a restriction though: no excessive photoshopping. Removing or moving elements in a picture was ok, but that was about it. I broke my rule once, as you will see when reading further.
You may think I was going for the bridge/bike combo at this point, but the picture above was a pure coincidence. The pedestrian road on the north side of Jamsil Bridge is quite high compared to the underside of the bridge, so you have to bend over to see under the bridge well enough to discover its potential. It's also fenced off and there are steep steps right after the fence. There wasn't anyone present at the time, but I wasn't entirely comfortable climbing over that fence either. I saw a way around the fence if I backtracked a bit, so I did. When I came back I saw this guy sitting and having a smoke. I quickly climbed the aforementioned stairs, turned around, and shot the picture you see above. If I just had climbed the fence this guy wouldn't have been around, which would have resulted in an ok, but much less interesting picture. I got lucky. I haven't altered a thing in Photoshop at this picture, by the way.
This one I actually shot much further along the project than the ones before, but I used the same method as the others: I photographed without a plan. Although, not entirely. Fan Ho is one of my inspirations when it comes to photography and I think he died not much before I took this picture. His work must have lingered somewhere in the back of my mind.
It was a perfect day for black and white photography; it was early afternoon and the sun was out strong, which resulted in harsh shadows. Pedestrians were walking along the river and I took a couple of shots before I was satisfied with this one. I love that the shadows and the bridge make a sort of frame and the person being a part of that, but almost breaking free. I edited this in a way that the contrast is very high and also kept the strong highlights. No Photoshopping in this picture whatsoever. It's taken at the North side of Dongho bridge, just outside of Oksu Station.
Another Fan Ho inspired shot, although this one I took earlier than the one above. I was just looking to do something different, because I quickly figured out that shooting all the bridges in one-point-perspective would be too boring. Then I saw Seonyu Bridge, which is a pedestrian bridge leading to Seonyu Island. It's vastly different from the other bridges of Seoul, in that it's way slimmer and it is in an arch shape. I zoomed in as far as I could to eliminate any distractions in the background and took this shot. I edited it in black and white, because I liked the minimalistic feel and it would make that feeling stronger. The theme is still quite ordinary, but you can see I was already thinking of how to make my project different than just shooting some bridges the same way.
Here I tried to play with light in an otherwise boring tunnel somewhere near Olympic Bridge. I saw a few people walking further away from me and I immediatly saw the shot I wanted to take. I waited until they were at the end where they would be surrounded by the incoming light. I edited this in black and white because it gives more weight to the darkness in the tunnel and the silhouettes give an eerie feeling to the picture. This is the first time I started thinking to change the theme to be more scifi inspired.
I added this picture to give an example of what I mean with an ok picture. To me it looks nice; the light is great, there's repetition in the picture, and the murals give a nice contrast with the concrete. However, there's no plan behind it. It's just an empty hallway. I used to have a lot of these pictures (they're good for practice), but since I'm doing this for a while now, I want to tell a story that's something more than just a few pretty pictures. I have photoshopped exercising equipment out of this picture, because it was blocking the pillars at the end and it was distracting from the look I wanted the picture to have. This picture is also shot just next to Oksu station.
My Daughter's Fairytales
After taking a lot of similar shots of bridges, I wanted something else. However, there isn't a lot else you can do that would make a photo of a bridge interesting. I've seen other pictures of the bridges over the Han River and they all look similar; a one-point-perspective with a repeating pattern going all the way into the distance. It's just the most interesting way to photograph them. Trying to solve this problem got me thinking. I figured that although you don't always have control over your subject, you still have control over your style. At that moment I thought of experimenting with creating another world, than the world I was actually photographing.
I read a lot of stories to my daughter. She's crazy about books and fairy tales are her favorite. Reading her all these stories about magic worlds with princesses, fairies, and monsters started to make me think if that could be the answer to making my photography project stand out. In other words, I started to question if objects in this world could be imagined to be something else from another world. The picture above of Seongsu Bridge was my first attempt. I started to see the path that leads under the bridge to some sort of portal. I edited the colors to reflect this a bit, but I didn't alter anything with Photoshop.
The picture above is from the same location. I noticed Lotte Tower and I thought I maybe could do something with it. I've always thought that Lotte Tower resembled something of a modern Barad-dûr in shape, as well as the position a chaebol is in, within the Korean economy. I'm not the only one in this because people have been photoshopping the eye of Sauron on the tower. When I was scouting for angles I saw this view where the tower is perfectly framed by the pillars of the flyover. I edited it in black and white to subdue the feeling that it's a modern world and maybe make it more believable that the viewer is looking at a modern Mordor. I removed a concrete block in the bottom right corner with Photoshop, because it was distracting from the image.
My daughter usually is obsessed with one story for a period of time, which results in me reading the same story over and over to her again until I can dream the words. A lot of them feature dungeons (Beauty and the Beast, for instance) and that's what I was thinking about when I walking under the highway near Dongjak station.
When you walk here it doesn't resemble a dungeon in the slightest. There is a bike path and stream on the left. Also, the pillars are too far apart from each other. However, a long focal length lens compresses the background, which creates the illusion that those pillars are actually very close to each other. Changing the color of the pillars from grey into brown adds to the illusion of it being a dungeon instead of pillars supporting a highway. I removed a bit of distracting light on the right, but otherwise no photoshopping has been done.
This isn't the first time I flipped a picture upside down to create the illusion that it's a picture from another world. I'll go more into detail about that at the next picture, which was the first time I had that epiphany. The illusion of stairs that disappear in the water above, gave me the inspiration that this was the entrance to Atlantis. My daughter's obsession with The Little Mermaid might also have had something to do with it. Having to watch the cartoon together, then listen to the songs on iTunes, and then read the story at bedtime again, does something to your brain. I still think it's an elaborate scheme for revenge from the universe, because of all the times I teased my sister during our childhood about watching that awful cartoon every day.
Before I go off into a rant about mermaids, let me come back to this picture. This is the South side of Cheonho Bridge. I flipped the picture upside down and changed the color of the water and the "stairs" to give it a more off-worldly look. I didn't touch anything in Photoshop however.
My Own Interests: Scifi/Space Station
Seoul is a modern city and the Han River is spanned by many concrete bridges. I was increasingly feeling that the fairy tale theme wasn't fitting to a lot of scenes I encountered. Being a scifi fan, I contemplated with what a scifi theme could do to my photography. My first thought was that of a space station. Because space lacks a distinct up and down, it would open up creative possibilities.
I didn't take the picture above upside down of course. It was right side up and although it was a bit different, it was still just a picture of a bridge. Being a bit bored and pondering what I should do, I pressed the rotate picture button in Lightroom a few times. That's when it hit me. This picture is so much more interesting upside down, because it creates an illusion of stairs going up, but when you're at the end your brain starts to malfunction. When I posted this on social media it blew up a bit. People were not sure what to make of it, but thought it was very cool.
The black and white edit is on purpose, because having it in color doesn't work as well. Your brain receives too much information and figures out what's going on. The high contrast and blown out background emphasize the illusion. I photoshopped a few small distracting things out, but otherwise it is unaltered. The location is the same as number 4. Seonyu Bridge.
The above picture resembles a mass transport system that gets you from one part to another. In the real world it's exactly that (well not exactly that, due to Seoul's congested traffic), because it's an elevated highway flipped upside down. I photoshopped some buildings away and the lampposts that were sticking out in the middle. I used black and white to add to the illusion that it isn't just a highway upside down. This one is close to Oksu station as well.
Another elevated highway, but this time with V-shaped pillars. The curve and width of the highway give the illusion it's going in a circle. Here I used the water and gave the light a dreamy look with filters in NIK software's Color Efex Pro 4 to give the illusion that the whole place is underwater. I used this technique in some pictures below as well. I photoshopped all the buildings out of the background. This highway is near the north side of Dangsan Railway Bridge.
This is actually the underside of Dangsan Railway Bridge. I photoshopped all the buildings away and made it monochrome to construct the illusion that it's actually a landing platform. For some reason it gives me a 2001: A Space Odyssey feel.
I sat in one of these V-shaped pillars while I took this picture. I noticed a group of pigeons flying around and I waited until they passed right between the support structure. That was easier said than done, because they flew so fast that they already went past before I noticed them and could press the shutter. It took a lot of patience and several tries to get it right, and I'm still not entirely satisfied. Next time I'll bring a pigeon trainer. :-)
I flipped this picture upside down, altered the colors, and photoshopped two benches out that were in front of the first V-shape, as well as some people on the top left corner. The last V-shape is a bit different than the others, which gives the illusion there's a glass door at the end. I kept that part the original color to emphasize this. You can find this place on the north side of Banpo bridge just to the left if you are facing the bridge.
This photo is taken on a path that leads you under Dongjak Station towards the river. I noticed all the pipes and I thought it would have potential for my series. I flipped the signs in Photoshop so it would help in the illusion that this is the right side up and I changed the color of the concrete a bit.
I'm a huge fan of scifi movies and games where everything has gone to shit (not so much of a fan if it happened in real life though). Bladerunner, Fallout, the Matrix, and District 9, to name a few, are a huge inspiration to me. Although there are better places in Seoul to photograph a cyberpunk scene (Jongno-gu, Myeongdong, or anywhere with a lot of neon lighting), I confined myself to the river, so those were not an option for me. However, I still encountered places that could be transformed into a scene from those type of movies.
This is the only picture in the series that I broke my own rules (well there is another, but I didn't include that one in this post). The man in the picture is taken from one of my other pictures and photoshopped in. There were a few people walking behind the fence that you see to the right, but because they were behind the fence it was very time consuming to cut them out and move them. So I photoshopped them out and put a man in from another picture. I felt this picture needed a person for context. It gives more weight to the illusion that this is the right side up. I also flipped the sign in the lower right corner to add to this illusion and that sign also became an inspiration for the title. In actuality, this is the entrance to Dongjak subway station.
I saw the underside of Eungbong Bridge and got the idea to make it work like some kind of skyscraper, which houses something sinister in a scifi movie. I flipped the picture, removed two legs off the bridge and removed some buildings with Photoshop, and turned the picture black and white.
I'm proudest of this picture, because it took a lot of patience to get it right. This is on the south side of the river under Gwangjin Bridge. First I was photographing the opposite way, but I couldn't get it right because there were too many distracting elements in my frame. So I walked forward a while and turned around, which gave me this view of the bridge. I knew I needed a person in the frame to make this picture special. Since it was the dead of winter and there was a very cold breeze, there weren't that many people outside. When people did pass by they were on a bicycle or walking their dog. It didn't feel right for the dystopian theme I was aiming for.
I didn't have a tripod with me so I was handholding my camera while my hands slowly froze from the ice cold wind. I kept going at it for at least 30 minutes and I almost wanted to give up, because I had almost lost the feeling in my hands. Then this guy showed up and I knew he was perfect for the shot.
At home I edited the colors so they were a bit warmer, and I removed two small distracting locks on the bottom of the picture. The simplicity of this scene makes it so perfect to me.
When I put pictures of the underside of this highway on Instagram, I wrote in the description that they were ancient ruins . Obviously I meant that's what they represented in my artistic view, but someone mistook them for real and asked me what ruins they were and where they were located. I replied with a joke, which made them realize that they had been fooled and in embarrassment deleted their comment. I thought that was unfortunate, because that they thought it was real was actually a great compliment to my work. Also, one of my friends said it looked like some scene from the Alien franchise, which was of course also a great compliment for me.
In editing these I made the colors warmer than they were and also added a bit of a glow to give the illusion that it was underwater. I took a lot of pictures and just picked the best ones. Posting similar pictures repeatedly gets boring anyway.
Maybe you recognize this man from picture 17. (the police station), but he was originally in this shot. I moved him from the actual road you see above. It's not the best photoshop job, but it was my first time so please forgive me for that. One of my friends couldn't figure it out what I had done, so my mission was a succes.
I also posted the above picture in between the upside down ones on social media. Someone commented that for an instance they were puzzled why there were benches on the ceiling, thinking that I flipped this picture as well. For me it was proof that my thinking was right. Flipping a picture upside down for the sake of flipping it doesn't work. It has to totally transform the scene in a believable way. It wouldn't be believable if the benches were on the ceiling. Keeping the viewer guessing is much more rewarding anyway.
All the above pictures in this section were taken on the south side of the river between Dongjak Bridge and Hangang Bridge. I just followed the trail along the river.
Same Style, Different Location
These two pictures are taken at Hongjecheon, a stream that runs into the Han River. So technically not near the Han River, but I felt the style matched so well that I wanted to include them. Maybe this is a style I will continue to use, although using it too much will probably turn it into a gimmick.
In fear of boring people to death and running out of locations, I end my Han River project here. Doing a project made me so much more creative that I actually want to continue doing another one. However, I haven't had the time to think of one yet, so that's something to figure out in the future. I have learned so much during this project that I recommend anyone that wants to push themselves creatively to do one of their own. I'll list the things I learned along the way in the hope it will beneficial to anyone who is reading this.
1. Just start when you have an inkling of an idea.
Inspiration doesn't come while you are sitting around waiting for it. It mostly comes to you when you are doing something unrelated. If you have even the vaguest idea of what you want to do, just start. You'll work out the details along the way. An idea can be a place, a subject, or a style. Anything that gets you going to press that shutter, actually.
2. Set yourself some limitations in the beginning, not too strict though.
Creativity flourishes within limitations. If you set the parameters of your project too wide you're not going to go forward creatively. In part this project suffers from that problem; I didn't narrow it down to what I actually was going to do, so now my project can be separated into a few parts. On the other side it's perfect as a first project, because it shows the journey I was going through. For future projects, I'm going to narrow it down earlier, or split it up in several projects. I am glad I set a Photoshop limitation though, because that made me think harder and made my work stronger.
3. Don't be afraid to change things up if it doesn't work.
One strength of this project is that I changed the style several times to make it fit better with the scenes I encountered. If I would've just stuck to a bridge and bike theme for instance, it wouldn't have figured out the style to flip the picture upside down and create another world. It would have been an ok, but slightly boring project.
4. Don't be afraid of criticism.
“You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there's still going to be somebody who hates peaches.”
― Dita Von Teese
Regarding this project, I guess there will be a lot of people seeing this and think it's stupid or not to their taste. That's fine and I don't care, because I think it's awesome. I made these pictures for myself. If you like them too, that's an added bonus.
Go ahead, post every picture that you're passionate about on social media. You'll have lovers and haters. Disregard the haters and also take the lovers with a grain of salt though. It's easy to press like or let a bot do that for them. Hopefully you'll also have people who comment something thoughtful and some that give you constructive criticism. Those people are your best friends in photography. Listen and take from them that what you think will improve your photography.
5. Know what to throw away and when it's time to quit.
Have I dragged this project out in the hope to find more photo opportunities? I guess I did. Not long ago I was at Olympic Bridge and I caught myself taking similar pictures as I already had taken numerous times at different bridges. It left me unsatisfied and I knew it was time to move on. Maybe I'll set a time or picture limit on my next project to counter this.
I am also left with a lot of pictures that I am dissatisfied with, which I didn't use in this project. That's totally ok because those failures led to the pictures I do like. I'll just throw the failures away. Some pictures I did post on social media, but didn't put in this post because it was just more of the same. At the next project I have to be harder on myself to kill more of my "darlings."
So there you have it, I have rambled on long enough. Thanks for sticking it out for so long. I hope this post was helpful and hopefully you'll come back when I have finished my new project (whatever that may be).