South Korea’s young clubbers are raving for an inclusive and boundary-breaking society. The city’s vibrant nightlife best shows itself in Itaewon, a district in Seoul that continues to enjoy widespread popularity, and celebrates a growing mindset of openness. Through this safe haven, the nascent LGBTQIA+-community found a place for hedonism; a place where creativity and experimentation can thrive.
A prime example of this change is South Korea’s first ever LGBTQ+ drag parade, which local queer activists and expats hosted recently on May 26th. Beyond stirring conversations, the small yet very significant event was meant to focus on what drag is all about, and how it can subvert social stereotypes; and what better way to make a statement than holding this queer event in the culturally diverse streets of Itaewon. Taking notice that Seoul’s queer scene has been shrouded in secrecy far too long, Seoul-based award-winning documentary photographer Argus Paul Estabrook took matters in his own hands by capturing the mega-city’s first Pride Festival; an event that celebrates life, love, and equality.
Who introduced you to the world of drag?
Heezy Yang, the founder and organiser of the Seoul Drag Parade, who also is an activist-artist is a good friend of mine. I wanted to be at the pride march to show my support for solidarity. My interest in documenting the art of drag started a few years back when I got the chance to see Heezy doing his performance piece in Burlesque-style, which I thought was really admirable. Educating people and bringing them closer to the artistry of drag is his humble way of normalising the queer culture. That’s why, when I learned that there will be a pride march, I knew I had to be there.
What social impact do you think the parade and your photos will have in Korea?
Most queer spaces in Korea are concentrated and hidden in “Homo Hill”, a queer-friendly spot where clubs specifically cater to a genderqueer lifestyle. So it was amazing to see the queer community taking up space on the streets, without counter-protests, hateful signs, or even slurs hurled from passerby. There were many straight people who came to show their full support which is a big step towards creating visibility. Generally, the Korean society still has a long way to go in recognising queer rights, more so, in admitting that gender identities have evolved and are continuously evolving. I hope my photographs can somehow inspire the society to be more accepting and a little less divided.
What makes it so difficult for the queer and drag scenes to thrive in South Korea?
Being queer in South Korea may not seem like it would be a big deal, considering the country’s blossoming beauty industry and the glitzy world of K-pop known for its pretty-looking young men who wear androgynous make-up like it’s nothing. But being openly gay is another story. In the past, a famous celebrity named Hong Seok-chon was persecuted by the entertainment industry for coming out, and it took him almost a decade to bounce back. This cultural conservatism that we experience now is rooted in Confucian ideology: which is doing what is proper and conventional, like marriage and having kids. So, imagine how your life would be like in a country that will burn you at the stake—if only it were an option—the moment you’re revealed as queer.
But are people becoming more and more accepting of the queer scene now?
South Korea is becoming more neutral and adaptive to some extent when it comes to LGBTQ+ discussions. But while most Koreans are changing their perceptions of queer issues and same-sex marriage, they still represent a minority. In such dire times, the LGBTQ+-community has to slip back and operate in the shadow. Instead of embracing the queer lifestyle, they become closeted. There’s a club called ‘Trance’ up on Homo Hill where gay men hang out with their close knit friends, get wasted until the wee hours while enjoying drag performances. Then, they go home and crawl back to their world of make believe; facing their families and friends as heterosexuals. Now, with the music industry’s queer K-pop artist Holland as the latest offering, and the unapologetic queer artist-activist Heezy Yang, we’re definitely seeing a favorable shift. This is where I see my photography as a conduit to allow people see a different perspective and ease the negative and stereotypical image of being queer.
What makes it interesting for you to photograph the drag and queer scenes in South Korea?
It’s the remarkable aesthetic, individuality, and the whole culture itself that I find fascinating. I also admire their courage to explore non-binary identities, especially when this identity is challenged by the social structure. During the pride march, I’ve seen individuals in drag, others in cosplay, and many dressed casually—smiling ear to ear as if they’ve finally made a proper representation for their community.
How does your interest in street culture and photography relate to the queer community in Seoul?
My obsession with Korean street culture stems from the fact that I am continuously searching for my own identity. I’m a Korean-American who grew up in an area in the states where there is no Korean community available to me, so my primary reason for coming to Korea was to connect with my roots, culture and heritage, all of which I was devoid of my whole life. And ever since I got to Korea, I’ve searched high and low for interesting places and people. This was how I met Heezy and other members of the LGBTQ+-community who are highly revered. It was this community that showed me that drag is more than just slipping into a dress and applying thick make-up. It’s a form of entertainment, an art, and for some, a way of life.
How do you choose the subjects and the people you photograph? And how do you know if it’s the right story?
Choosing a subject or a story can be tricky because you have to look at the entirety, its meaning, and relevance. Once you find the right subject or story, you deconstruct the whole scene and in your head, you begin to envision how you’re going to present it to your audience in a way that everyone can appreciate it, no matter how ambiguous they look.
When you’re out in the streets, you have to learn how to compromise and make the best out of any situation; you just work with what you have. Some photos come out right, some don’t, but in those fleeting moments, one of them is bound to be the right one.
How important is it for you as a photographer to tell a truthful story, and what are the messages you would like this story to convey?
What separates documentary and street photography from other genres is that it focuses on capturing short-lived moments that are authentic and unrehearsed. The responsibility of putting together bits and pieces of information to form a cohesive visual story is dependent on the photographer.
In this day and age where everyone can literally take photos with their smartphones and instantly make them available online for the world to see, the line that separates superficial from something that can cause radical-change is blurred. That’s the reason why it’s not enough to just photograph the moment, you have to photograph real emotions as well. That’s how you make your photographs as truthful and as emotionally compelling as possible. And although the abstract approach of my photography may seem like I’m trying to convey a deeper meaning, that is not the intention. There’s much room for any kind of interpretation.
Photography by Argus Paul Estabrook