The gangster is a well-documented subject in pop culture. They feature in films, books and video games, often depicted as 1920s cigar-smoking, fedora-wearing, Al Capone-style men. You know the ones, you’ve seen them in Martin Scorsese films wielding blazing machine guns, delivering quippy one-liners and generally looking quite grumpy. Nowadays, nearly a century since Al Capone’s heyday, the gangster’s image has evolved far beyond its original connotations of organised crime and has, for most people, lost its sense of menace. The image has become a caricature of itself, the main reason being because we feel the threat isn’t real.
On the other side of the world, however, a far cry from this black-suit-wearing caricature, the gangsters of east Asia have a very different get-up. And for Korean photographer Seung-Woo Yang, their threat is altogether real.
Born in Jeongeup City, Seung-Woo has, over the past few decades, cemented his name in contemporary photography for his striking and unashamed photographs of the Korean and Japanese underground. Having grown up in the rural countryside, he saw some classmates eventually rise up through the ranks of the Korean mafia and, as they remained close friends into adulthood, Seung-Woo was granted access to their lifestyle of money, status, power and sex. The resulting images offer a glimpse into life as a real gangster, in a sordid and morally dubious underworld, and they create a photographic series that is at times difficult to view.
In 1997, Seung-Woo emigrated to Japan, finding his birth country “too small” in several respects. “I randomly chose a school in Japan in order to get a visa,” the photographer tells It’s Nice That, “and it just happened to be an art school.” Consequently enrolling at Tokyo’s Nippon Photography Institute, Seung-Woo originally considered studying film. “But to study film production, one needs to work as a team and I’m too self-centred to belong in a team. With photography, however, I am responsible for everything, including my choice of subject, and that is perfect for someone like me.”
It was around this time that Seung-Woo first picked up a camera and in the years to follow, he captured the world around him in candid monochromatic snapshots that would later become his signature, critically acclaimed aesthetic. In his seminal photographic debut Shinjuku Lost Child, Seung-Woo took to the streets of Kabukicho in the Japanese capital between 1998 and 2006. He captured the red-light district, famous for its adult entertainment. He also photographed the local children, the Yakuza (who he came to know well) and the sex industry, sometimes sleeping on flattened cardboard under the buzzing neon lights in order to become fully immersed in the nocturnal hubbub.
The series helped him establish a unique point of view that is, in short, free of inhibition; it has garnered international praise, including the prestigious Domon Ken Award. In a new photobook, published earlier this year by Zen Foto Gallery, Seung-Woo re-released a lesser-known but equally striking series titled The Best Days. Originally published in 2012, the series is an extensive body of work that records the photographer’s life between 1999 and 2006. Seung-Woo leads the viewer through underground scenes both in Japan and his native Korea across a series of 138 images. It’s an alternative glimpse into the darker side of the two countries, a world away from the stereotypically colourful and futuristic societies that are often fetishised by the Western gaze.
Earlier this year, Seung-Woo declared that this will be the last time he publicly releases The Best Days until his infant daughter turns 20. When asked about this decision, he bluntly replies: “If you were me, would you want to show your daughter these photographs?” Even though Seung-Woo is aware that, one day, his daughter could very easily search for her father’s name on the internet and find a torrent of graphic images, he’s still keen to protect her from his former life. “20 is just an approximate age,” he continues, “but I think it will be better for her to see the work once she’s older and is more understanding. I don’t want her to become traumatised. Life isn’t just about me anymore.”
Anyone who’s seen the explicit series would struggle to dispute his decision. In one photograph, Seung-Woo photographs a sex worker and her client “after they are done”. Like much of his work, the camera lens is almost uncomfortably close to its subjects. It’s difficult to imagine being present in several of the intimate situations that Seung-Woo documents, let alone on the other side of the post-coital camera flash. Consistently honest but near monosyllabic in his responses, Seung-Woo proceeds to curtly disclose the events of several ambiguous images. In one displaying a lavish hall, 36 suited bodyguards stand around quietly. “It was the boss’ wedding day,” he says of the eerily quiet composition.
Seung-Woo Yang: The Best Days, courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery
Seung-Woo Yang: The Best Days, courtesy of Zen Foto Gallery
In another, Seung-Woo himself is photographed in a bathtub, his dragon tattoo snaking out of the water and over his shoulder. In Korea, the dragon symbolises royalty or high status and the popular illustration “is a way to pretend to be tough”. The photograph was taken at an adult entertainment shop owned by Seung-Woo’s friend. There are slices of cucumber on his face. “People say they look like bacon slices,” says Seung-Woo, before offering up, with characteristic bluntness: “You can imagine what came next…”
Prior to this way of life, before the Korean mafia, the Yakuza and the sex industry, as a boy growing up in Korea’s North Jeolla Province, community was key in Seung-Woo’s village. He recalls his strongest memory from his childhood, taking us back to the time he was five years old, pranking the bees that were drinking nectar from flowers. He recalls how the villagers laughed “so hard” at him after he peed on the bees and they stung his penis.
Some years later, when Seung-Woo and his peers grew up, some went on to become gangsters while others became policemen. But “no matter what they became, friends are always friends,” he says, adding that “people from the same hometown stay very close together in Korea.” One friend in particular greatly impacted on Seung-Woo’s life and his future outlook. “When we were in high school, we hung out every day,” he says. He grew up in an ordinary family, but because of his surrounding environment, “he ended up getting involved with bad friends.”
Seung-Woo doesn’t quite remember when the momentous incident occurred. It might have been before or after their graduation from high school, but while the young photographer was in Japan, his friend accidentally killed someone in a fight and, as a result, was charged with murder and jailed. “He couldn’t stand the difference between human relationships on the inside, compared with the outside, so he chose to die,” says Seung-Woo.
The photographer didn’t find out until three months later. Reliving the moment, Seung-Woo explains how his friend’s death changed him in more ways than he knew at the time: “Even if I wanted to remember his face, I couldn’t… I didn’t have a photograph of him. People would forget about him as time goes by, and I didn’t want that to happen to me.” His death triggered a monumental shift in Seung-Woo’s mentality. Feeling “empty about life and existence”, he started recording everything with his camera, “no matter how nonsensical it may seem”. A sex worker’s uncomfortable expression, a chubby baby held by tattoo-covered arms, children mid-bath; from then on, he documented it all.
Up until that point, he’d never taken photographs of himself. But with a new definition of photography, Seung-Woo used The Best Days to not only offer a secret glimpse into the underground workings of two cultures, but also to express his understanding of the importance of the medium. “I just wanted to document moments in life that are ephemeral and may be forgotten,” he says. Some may justifiably find the resulting work brazenly offensive (not least because of the highly provocative title, which sets up this moment of youth as a kind of pinnacle of experience). Yet, all in all, it is undeniably an honest depiction of Seung-Woo’s lifestyle at that point in time.
“Those days I spent wasting time were the best days of my life,” says the photographer. Despite many of the images being evidently problematic, he is without regret. “I am sure we see it from different perspectives,” he goes on, “but in my opinion, there is no point only speaking about the past.” While some photography aims to leave an uplifting moral impression on its viewer, for Seung-Woo, The Best Days tries to do nothing of the sort. “I am not really in a position to teach anyone anything,” he says. “But I would like to remind people that you can never take back the present. I suggest everyone takes photographs of, or with, those who are important to them. I have decided to regret nothing about my life. Those times belong to where they belong, I leave them as they are.”
About the Author
Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.