Never let photos in the way of a good story, I say. Ask anyone who’d read Thubron or Robb, writers of books without as much as a picture, and ask them if they hadn’t seen the Banguê restaurant, or Mount Kailash. Good writing is as powerful as any set of Hasselblad lenses and, one would argue, a lot cheaper.
Why this post, then? Why Bible-thumping against photography and then stick one in that’s all about them?
Well, I’m neither a man of virtue nor a good writer.
A few days ago, I felt as if I’d said everything about my visit to Seoul; yet, I still had some photos. Much like those characters in a Pirandello’s play whose title I butchered for this post, they were in search of something. Pirandello’s characters were looking for an Author; my pictures, bless them, already had one – whether they wanted that one is another story – but what they were missing was a story.
I suppose I could’ve left them behind; somehow, though, I knew I couldn’t. Irrational as it might sound, I thought I owed them something. Then I decided, as so often I do, to part ways with my own convictions and let these pictures be the story. Here they come.
First night in Seoul. I was at last, after many false starts, on my way to the Noryangjin fish market: I had been on the cusp of leaving my hotel room for a good hour before it finally happened. Something – be it an email, or a document to check online – would pop up and distract me. As I eventually slipped in the lift, I started nagging my memory for the title of a book, written by Italo Calvino, where the protagonist – a reader – had the same issue I experienced: he wants to read a novel, but despite his best intentions he keeps on being sidetracked. By the time I was on the kerb my brain had spat out the answer. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. And, right at that moment, I saw the young couple walking into the cone of light of the kiosk, much like I’d imagined the traveller. Click.
Incheon, a rainy Sunday morning at the pompously-named International Business District. We’d seized on the chance of a pause in the procession of squalls of rain and gusts of wind that were lashing our hotel when – surprise surprise – it started again. Surprised by the downpour, a man used his puffer jacket as he walked towards his car. His sense of urgency didn’t seem to be mirrored by any of his, better insulated, companions.
Morning had barely passed the baton to afternoon and these four sprightly gents were well into what I assume was their first round of beers, sitting outside the neighbourhood Mini-Stop market. The way they were laughing, and the generous humour that I could feel, brought me back to Italy: everywhere in the North of the country, perhaps not outside a grocery store but in bars, their peers would be sitting and laughing hard as well, maybe with small glasses of white instead of beers. And a non-stop stream of profanity in dialect, of course.
In these days of Instagram, a number of enterprising ventures have popped up, in and around the historic district of Bukchon, offering the ultimate selfie experience to the social media crowd. For a – fairly substantial, I imagine – amount of won punters can be issued with traditional dresses to wear for the duration of their stroll around the Hanok village. But what happens when the Instagramming is done and all that remains is to sit down and marvel at the number of likes piling up? Well, one could do as these ladies and opt for eating fried fish balls at a shop embellished by two hand-drawn adverts featuring Maggie and Bart.
Bukchon village is peppered with signs – hanging from walls or held by yellow-clad volunteers – pleading visitors to keep quiet, for the sake of the locals. It felt all a bit over the top given the traditional politeness and respect that is the mainstay of this corner of Asia. Besides, even if I were inclined to indulge in some Mediterranean fracas, how could I not obey to the cutest admonition ever?
Yes, I said 6 photos and with these two we’d be at 7. But… which one would you use when you inadvertently play with your camera’s focus? The Oriental bishop or the lady? Ah, choices. Let’s have both, shall we? After all I said I wasn’t a man of virtue.