Björn Steinz

Top 10 South Korea in 10 compelling images

© Björn Steinz

South Korea stands as a fascinating nation, a compelling juxtaposition of almost unrivaled hyper-modernity intertwined with ancient traditions. 

─── by Elizabeth Kahn, January 23, 2024
  • Its rapid evolution has engendered a sense of contradiction: a country navigating the convergence of tradition and progress amidst which it is emerging as a global cultural powerhouse, one that has inspired a wealth of captivating imagery.

    Photo of a girl with her brother on her back, walking past a stalled M-26 tank, at Haengju, Korea. on June 9, 1951. During the Korean civil war. R.V. Spencer / U.S. Navy 
    © R.V. Spencer / U.S. Navy 

    1. With her brother on her back, a war-weary Korean girl trudges by a stalled M-26 tank, at Haengju, Korea. June 9, 1951 – R.V. Spencer / U.S. Navy 

    The Korean Civil War fought between the North and South from 1950 to 1953, stands as the most pivotal event in modern Korean history, shaping the distinct identities of the two countries as we know them today.

    During the post-World War II era, photojournalism thrived, with some of its most famous exponents making their mark amid this period. Yet, one of the most iconic depictions of the Korean War was not captured by one of the renowned photojournalists of the time, but rather by a US Major by the name of RV Spencer. The young siblings that his haunting image portrays, were likely refugees or displaced evacuees, with an estimated between six and eight million people forcibly uprooted during this tumultuous time. It is an image that serves as a poignant symbol of a war that shattered countless lives and which continues to loom large in the collective consciousness of current generations.

    night aerial landscape photo of Seoul - South Korea by Rico X
    © Rico X

    2. Seoul. From the series”Who left the bloody lights on” – Rico X (Editor’s Pick, Landscape Award. March 2022)

    London photographer and pilot Rico X captures a striking aerial view of the South Korean capital. Home to approximately 26 million people within its metropolitan area, Seoul stands as one of the world’s largest cities by population and also ranks among the most technologically advanced. Captured from the cockpit of the Boeing passenger plane that he pilots, Rico’s image artfully conveys the city’s essence: seen from above the myriad streets resemble a web of shimmering lights: a captivating testament to Seoul’s vibrancy and modernity.

    Portrait of a Korean war veteran from Seoul with a medal by Donghyun Lee
    © Donghyun Lee

    3. “Oldman with badge” – Donghyun Lee (Editor’s Pick, Emerging talent Award. September 2023)

    Donghyun Lee’s poignant portrait was captured in Seoul’s Tapgol Park, known as a gathering space for elderly individuals who in the photographer’s words, have”nothing to do,” and thus meet to socialize and, at times, indulge in drinks. Lee recognizes them as integral to shaping South Korea into the thriving nation it is today, yet many among them have been marginalized, grappling to find their footing in an ever-evolving society defined by rapid modernization.

    The individual captured in this image, like many elderly citizens, is a veteran of the Korean War (highlighted by the proud display of a golden badge on his chest). Lee’s perceptive and sensitive lens captures his quiet sense of honor. The impeccably pressed suit, the meticulously combed hair, and the knotted tie encapsulate the quiet dignity, strength and resilience that define this generation of remarkable Koreans.

    Photo by Björn Steinz of a woman in traditional Korean clothes looking over the Seoul skyline
    © Björn Steinz

    4. Woman in traditional Korean clothes watching the Seoul skyline at “The 63 Building”, a skyscraper on Yeouido island, overlooking the Han River in Seoul, South Korea – Björn Steinz

    In 2009, German-born photographer and lecturer Björn Steinz secured a position as an Assistant Professor of Photography at Keimyung University in Daegu, a city located approximately 250 km from Seoul. During his two-year tenure, he dedicated his spare time to traversing the country and capturing everyday life, culminating in the project, ‘A Beautiful Strange Dream.’

    As an outsider with no prior experience living in Asia and possessing only a rudimentary grasp of the Korean language, Steinz approached his new environment through the lens of an outsider, seeking to make sense of a captivating yet often isolating world that intrigued him deeply.

    This striking image perhaps encapsulates some of Steinz’ own sentiments. While the woman in the photograph is likely Korean, the portrayal suggests a potential sense of displacement shared by many elderly individuals in Seoul and the country’s other major cities. The rapid and seismic modernization, epitomized by the endless skyline of skyscrapers that she gazes upon, for some, evokes a feeling of being adrift within their own home.

    Portrait photograph of a mother and her daughter, 3rd prize of the People Competition
    © Heun Jung Kim

    5. “Tae Jung and Ha Ru” – Heun Jung Kim (3rd Prize Winner, People Award. October 2020)

    Heun Jung Kim’s image portrays a mother and daughter during a traditional Korean “Baek-il” celebration—a centuries-old custom observed in many Korean households to mark the significant milestone that is a child’s 100th day after birth (which originated due to high infant mortality rates from the 18th century until the Korean War in the 1950s).

    Kim’s exquisite portrait demonstrates remarkable sensitivity and insight, coupled with a masterful grasp of light and form, impeccably capturing the intricate, textured beauty of the subjects’ vibrant ‘Hanbok’ attire, whilst conveying the mother’s silent yet palpable maternal pride and resilience. This tender portrayal not only embodies Korea’s enduring cultural heritage but also serves as a poignant symbol of hope amid the upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which it was captured.

    B&W photo of a street in Seoul, South Korea, 1958 by Han Youngsoo
    © Han Youngsoo

    6. Meongdong, Seoul, 1958 – Han Youngsoo / Han Youngsoo Foundation

    Despite gaining little recognition until after he died in 1999, Han Youngsoo was a remarkably perceptive and talented artist, whose portrayals of everyday life in Seoul during the decades following the Korean War are as compelling as many of the works of his more iconic Western contemporaries. Born in 1933, Youngsoo fought for South Korea during the war, before returning to Seoul where he encountered a city ravaged and impoverished by conflict. Embracing photography, he chronicled everyday life on the city streets, documenting Seoul as it emerged from the shadows of post-war depression into a burgeoning, modern metropolis. His images, rooted in humanism and marked by a keen eye for composition, evoke those of Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, or Marc Riboud, and today, serve as important touchstones of that era.

    People & Photography - B&W photo of a woman in diving outfit, South Korea
    © Alain Schroeder

    7. “Sea Women 1” – Alain Schroeder (2nd Prize Winner, Portrait Award. May 2018)

    Selected as the second prize winner of our 2018 Portrait award by judge Jimmy Nelson, this captivating monochrome portrait is part of a series showcasing the Haenyeo women, known as the ‘Women of the Sea,’ who preserve the age-old tradition of freediving for ocean delicacies on South Korea’s Jeju Island.

    His imagery adeptly captures the remarkable endurance and strength of these divers in striking monochromatic tones that underscore both the timeless essence of the portrait, and the enduring legacy of this tradition (acknowledged on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage). This image may one day stand as a memorial to a bygone tradition, yet, despite concerns about its future in a society deeply focused on education, efforts to promote this ecological and sustainable lifestyle have sparked renewed interest among young people, who, disenchanted with urban life, seek a return to their roots.

    Photo of the North and South Korean presidents shaking hands in 2018
    © AP

    8. South Korean president Moon Jae-in, right, effusively welcomes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un –  AP

    This iconic image captures the landmark 2018 meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea which signalled their commitment to end the formal state of war that had persisted between their nations for nearly 70 years. During the summit, decades of hostility and mistrust were momentarily set aside as Kim Jong Un became the first North Korean leader to visit the South, and was warmly welcomed by his counterpart Moon Jae-in, marking the culmination of a remarkable four months in which the two nations transitioned from the brink of conflict to peace talks.

    Black & White Photography - Editors Picks - young Hwanghaedo shaman is calling the spirits for the first time at her initiation ritual. South Korea
    © Dirk Schlottmann

    9. “Spirit possession” – Dirk Schlottmann (Editor’s Pick, Black & White Award. November 2019)

    Selected as an editor’s pick for our 2019 Black & White award (Judged by Magnum photographer Jacob Aue Sobol), this captivating image depicts a young Hwanghaedo shaman invoking spirits during her initiation ritual. Originating from North Korea, the Hwanghaedo tradition was brought to South Korea by shamans who sought refuge after the Korean War. Despite modernisation, various regional shamanic practices still endure in South Korea, and the Hwanghaedo version is renowned for preserving the mystical and religious elements intrinsic to such beliefs and practices, something the photographer has skillfully captured using a slow shutter speed and flash to highlight the subject’s unique and esoteric movements.

    Portrait photograph of a tattooed person, Winner of the People Competition
    © Marcin Jozefiak

    10. ‘Muil’. From the series ‘Not for everyone’. Seoul, Korea 2020 – Marcin Jozefiak (1st Prize Winner, People Award. October 2020)

    Marcin Jozefiak’s arresting image stands as the centerpiece of the Polish-born photographer’s ‘Not for Everyone’ series. The project delves into the complexities of gender, sexuality, gaze, and identity within the diverse subcultures of South Korea, a nation grappling with the preservation of deep-rooted traditions amid rapid modernization. Despite the country’s evolution in recent decades, tattooing remains officially illegal and is often associated with criminality by the older generation. In this intimate portrait, delicately crafted with sensitivity, the subject exudes vulnerability and tenderness—an embodiment of the country’s youth who are frequently at odds with the values of their parents.


    All images © their respective owners