“Documenting the past for the future”: Emanuel Hahn on his new photobook Koreatown Dreaming

In the publication, the photographer explores the effects of Covid-19 on the small businesses run by Los Angeles’ Korean immigrant community.

10 February 2022

When Emanuel Hahn first moved to Los Angeles in October 2020, pretty much everything was closed. Upon visiting Koreatown and being taken aback by the emptiness of the usually bustling streets, the photographer was compelled to explore how the loss of custom was affecting the area's small businesses. Speaking to the business owners who “would inevitably share their life stories with me”, he began asking to take their portrait. Sharing the images on Instagram, the response, Emanuel tells us, was “effusive”, leading him in his decision to document the portraits and stories in a book.

Taking around 10 months to complete the photography process, Emanuel applied a regimented approach: “interviewing them for one-two hours, photographing them for one-two hours, dropping the film off at the lab, making edits and colour-grading, writing the story, and then sharing the story online. Multiply that by 40 times”. Aesthetically, the photographer wanted to capture each subject at their workplace and to include in-store details “that gave a sense of their personality and profession”. And, throughout the project, Emanuel paid close attention to his materials and equipment. With most of the photos being taken in plazas “dimly lit with fluorescent lighting”, he carried a Profoto B10 light with him at all times, and beginning to shoot with Portra 800, he later switched to the more malleable Portra 400. But, it is perhaps his choice of camera which had the most powerful stylistic effect: “shooting on the Pentax 67, which was manufactured throughout the 80s, seemed to make sense to capture the sense of time and feel of when many of them immigrated”.

GalleryEmanuel Hahn: Koreatown Dreaming (Copyright © Emanuel Hahn, 2021)

Being raised in multiple places throughout his childhood, including South Korea, Singapore and Cambodia, Emanuel has always “naturally gravitated toward subject matters of people’s cultural identity and practises”. But his love of photography hasn't always been so central. Despite shooting for fun and being the ‘designated photographer’ amongst his friends at university, Emanuel never took the hobby too seriously. Majoring in finance at NYU and working in tech for a couple of years afterward, his first real dream was to start his own tech company. It wasn't until he paid off his student debts after “working like crazy”, that Emanuel took a step back and decided to pursue a creative career. “I gave my two weeks notice and I emailed about 50 of my friends and told them I was now a photographer and to please hire me. I think I had about $1,500 in my bank account total.” Almost instantly beginning to focus on stories of diaspora communities, in 2017 Emanuel covered a community of Chinese Americans that had lived on the Mississippi Delta for over 100 years which eventually ran in The New York Times.

It appears to be these unheard and untold stories that most motivates Emanuel. Discussing some of the compelling people featured in Koreatown Dreaming, the photographer explained how the owner of Wiltshire Photo Studio – himself a former photojournalist – told him all about Koreatown’s history, his capturing of the 1992 LA Riots and the “heydays of film photography”, when he would photograph weddings on his Hasselblad 500. One of the most “profound” experiences Emanuel details, is his interaction with the owner of Kwak’s Antique Furniture store. Telling the photographer about all of the antiques in his shop for four hours, Emanuel was moved by the significance and histories embedded within the objects: “he had a record player from the 1920s and when the music came on, I felt transported to another era. It was a really profound experience, and it underscored the importance of documenting the past for the future.”

Moving away from his documentary approach but staying with his focus on the Korean diaspora, Emanuel is currently working on a project that includes “a series of staged narratives that are a slightly more embellished and fantastical version of the Korean immigrant experience.” “In the 1970s in South Korea, there was this thing called “America Fever”, a reference to how feverishly people wanted to immigrate to the United States for a better life. Now, I want to explore the metaphor of a fever to reflect on the Korean immigrant experience.” In the meantime, Koreatown Dreaming is set to be available for purchase in mid-March of this year.

GalleryEmanuel Hahn: Koreatown Dreaming (Copyright © Emanuel Hahn, 2021)

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Emanuel Hahn: Koreatown Dreaming (Copyright © Emanuel Hahn, 2021)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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