Capturing Seoul's evocative, angst-saturated streets

Going behind Park Sung Jin's wistful portrayal of his former teenage stomping ground

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Kid Nostalgia Park Sung Jin

Park Sung Jin’s Kid Nostalgia series was taken in Seoul over a period of nine years from 2001-2009. A strong sense of nostalgia kept the Seoul to New York City transplant revisiting his teenage haunts to photograph his subjects, who despite their outward toughness reflect the sadness and fragility of his own youth. The series is available in the book, Kid Nostalgia: Portraits of South Korean Youth released last week by Propaganda Press. 

Where did you grow up and how did you become interested in photography?

Park Sung Jin: I was born in Seoul, South Korea then I moved to New York City at the age of seventeen. In New York I studied art and photography. I thought I would be a painter then I saw Walker Evans when I was in college and that had a great impact on me. Being in the darkroom making B/&W prints was such a magical experience. I remember thinking I could do something very interesting with this medium. I still do all my developing and printing in my darkroom. Being in New York, you get tremendous exposure to great arts. In my student years, I saw exhibitions of August Sander and Diane Arbus. I still go back to their pictures. I don’t really go for contemporary photo shows.

What inspired you to do the Kid Nostalgia series?

Park Sung Jin: I don’t think there was specific inspiration. It sort of happened. I just found the subjects interesting and one thing led to another. It became almost 9 years of work. I was attracted to the styles and attitudes of the kids. They had this raw energy that really spoke to me. I don’t have the right word for it but it was like as if they were saying, “Take pictures of us.” I had no reason to avoid it. The more you get into it you get to learn where you need to go to meet the kids. I went to kids hangouts to meet the ones I find interesting. 

What do you know about the kids in your photos?

Park Sung Jin: I was never really interested in knowing them personally. I was interested in making pictures of them. Some of them were more interesting than others in the pictures. I hung out with them to make the pictures. In the process of it, I got to know some of them better. I was not really interested in making friends. Personally, I could say they were mostly good kids and fragile ones. I really thank them for being in my pictures.

“After all these years, I still feel for the kids and still feel like I am one of them.” - Park Sung Jin

Can you explain the concept of nostalgia in this series?

Park Sung Jin: I never really thought about the concept. I never thought that way. It was more like I just took pictures and the pictures took me along. I never had a blueprint for the series. The reason I called it Kid Nostalgia was because they remind me of myself.

In what way do they remind you of yourself?

Park Sung Jin: I was never an A student. I never really liked going to school like many of my friends. There were just too many students and too competitive. We were sort of forced into studying to go to college. It was like if we didn’t go to college, society looked at us as failures. We didn’t know what to do with the situation. We were fragile and depressed. It was certainly one of the hardest periods of my life. I was never happy and neither were many of my friends. We were just normal kids that were not so excellent at what society wanted from us at that time. I saw myself in these kids. After all these years, I still feel for the kids and still feel like I am one of them.

The series was shot over many years (from 2001-2009). Why did you stick with it for so long?

Park Sung Jin: I never really thought to stop. To me, 9 years didn’t feel like 9 years. I think I wasn’t talented enough to do it in a shorter period of time. I wanted to make good pictures. 9 years passed by while I was trying and I didn’t get bored. 

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