2020 has been simultaneously one of the longest and shortest I can remember. While moments seemed to drag on forever, weeks and months flew by. I am extremely lucky that I have had work during this time and am thankful to everyone who has chosen to use my services over the course of this year. I have a complete look at the year in my business over at WelkinLight Photography. This year, however, I thought I would also restart my review of my personal favourites on this site as well.
This year has been an interesting one with plenty of down-time, but I have made as much effort as I could to get out and continue photographing the world in the way I see it. So, in no particular order, here are 20 of my favourite images that I have made over the course of this year. Accompanying each is a short story, some annecdotal, some technical, and some just about a feeling. I hope you’ll enjoy the ride.
Opening this year is my portrait of Naraen, a Tanshan man from the Naga Self-Administered Zone in Myanmar. At the beginning of the year, I was lucky enough to travel before the pandemic hit and even luckier to be welcomed into the home of Naraen to listen to his story. In his younger years, he was called to defend his village from an attack by a neighbouring village and successfully defeated an enemy. Returning to the village with the enemy’s head entitled Naraen to his “necklace” tattoo. You can read more about tribal tattooing in Asia over on my Tattoos of Asia Project minisite.
The mountain temple of Hongryeongsa is a location I’ve been meaning to get to for years. I finally had the opportunity this year in the middle of monsoon season and braved torrential rains to get there. The mountains were shrouded in fog and the rain was relentless. For most people, this might not sound like a great day to go out, but for Roy Cruz and I, it was perfect. The best photographs are often made in the worst conditions and we got soaked to the bone in the effort of getting our respective images. For me, this kind of weather gets me into an almost meditative state and I wanted to express the calm I felt rather than the wildness of the weather. Hence, I chose a long shutter speed to blur the waterfall and lessen the appearance of the pouring rain.
While this image might not be technically or artistically the most impressive frame of Mt Fuji we’ve ever seen, it is my image of Mt Fuji. In January of this year, I had the opportunity to hop on a bus one afternoon and make the journey out to Kawaguchiko. I’ve been to Japan no fewer than 10 times, but I had never taken the journey out to see the mountain until now. It was a boyhood dream of mine to stand there and see it with my own eyes and I finally had the chance to do so. I’m not ashamed to say that there was a (frozen) tear in my eye. With the winter winds blowing, it was somewhat chilly and sunrise and I hope you’ll be able to feel those things from this image.
Every year in Korea, we have a monsoon season of varying intensity. This year, it was completely relentless. We had dozens of rainy days and several typhoons to fortify those stormy days. We saw our rivers break their banks and flood our cities. People lost their homes and possessions, and some unlucky people even lost family members. It was an extremely dramatic time of the year. In between the rainfall and stifling heat, I made a point to get out and photograph the beauty of the skies during this time. One of my favourite images is this simple one of the ridgelines of Dobongsan shrouded in clouds. It was a pleasure to watch these clouds twist their way across the peaks with the of the mountain.
Changdeokgung in Snow
Snow, especially the kind that settles, is not as common in Seoul as the tourism board might have you believe. We typically get snowfall when the temperature is just dipping below zero. By the time the population starts to move around the city, it all just turns to brown slush and the beauty is gone in an instant. So, it really pays to watch the weather and be ready to move as soon as you see the snowfall start. I woke up early on this December morning as it was said to snow all night. I looked out the window and immediately threw on some warm clothes. I was headed to the palace district to get some early morning images before the snow disappeared. I got to the palace just as it was opening and grabbed one of the first tickets. As I walked in, I shuffled quickly to the main thoroughfare before anyone else and managed to capture this frame of the staff sweeping the paths while the snow was still falling. I got about an hour of photography in before the snowfall started to slow and the foot traffic turned it to mush. It’s times like these that I’m glad I live close enough to be able to photograph these things.
At the end of October this year, I rode my bicycle from Seoul to Busan as a bit of a personal challenge. More about that experience can be found in my full post. On day 3, I stopped in a small town outside of Sangju for the night and when I awoke, I could see the frost on the rooftops and the fog rising from the river. I quickly devoured the gorgeous soontubu stew my hosts had prepared for breakfast and headed down to the riverside. As the sun rose, the cool morning air was offset by the warm tone of the early morning light and I was able to make one of my favourite images of the year. This simple image summed up the southern half of the ride for me. I was surrounded by reeds, fog, and beautiful sunrises for this section. This made for an exceptionally enjoyable finish to the ride.
Equipment: Fujifilm X-T3, XF 50mm f/1
In April, I had the opportunity to interview a man I have long admired, Apro Lee. It was great to be able to talk with him about his thoughts on tattoo culture past, present, and future. We had a long conversation, which I’ve distilled into a blog post here. For this particular portrait, I wanted to dismiss all the notions of what is right and wrong in terms of lens choice and composition. I deliberately gave him more presence in the frame with a wide-angle lens that slightly distorted the proportions of the image and allowed for this messy and imperfect composition. I felt that this described better the conversation we’d had and his views on the state of the tattoo industry.
Ringing the Bell
This image was taken at a local temple as the monk rang the evening bell. The image itself was made just before the monk invited my wife and I back to his quarters for a cup of coffee and a conversation. He was curious as to what had brought us to the small temple and wanted to share with us whatever wisdom he could. We discussed the nature of struggle and how any of us can improve ourselves. It was truly empowering to hear that even a monk, who has dedicated his life to self-improvement, still finds struggle in his desires. He noted that we probably hadn’t met too many monks who enjoy drip coffee.
Equipment: Fujifilm X100V
As I cycled my local stream countless times this year, I watched the ducks and egrets catching their feed and warming themselves in the sun. Only recently did I stop to make a few photographs of them. We often joke in Seoul that the only living things aside from humans are the mosquitoes, so it has certainly been great seeing the wild birds as I ride. Next year, I hope to extend this into a collection of the various birds we see. Close to sunset during winter, we get some beautiful angular light that gives great contrast for images like this.
Here is another portrait from my visit to Myanmar for the Tattoos of Asia project. This is Thiam, a Khiamniungan woman who was tattooed as a child at the behest of her parents. While it was normal in her time, she says that she sometimes feels shy now as she’s one of the only ladies left with the marks of her people. What I loved most about this image was the simple and honest way she looked at my camera. There wasn’t really much that I needed to do for this portrait but press the button. She held her gaze and let me know that this was who she was. Her story and portrait will certainly take centre stage in the final book of this project.
East Coast Rocks
Korea’s east coast is dotted with white sandy coast and rocky outcrops that draw photographers as often as beachgoers. Spending time in the little towns along this coast is something I love to do and recently had another chance to experience. I love the feeling of long-exposure images over the ocean and when the waves are strong enough, it’s possible to give an almost foggy appearance to the water like in this image. The feeling it evokes for me is like mountain peaks rising out of the fog, much like Korea’s soomookhwa paintings.
One of the goals I set myself as 2020 began to nosedive was to look for more positive things to photograph. Over the course of the year, I’ve given a lot of thought to the things that make me happy. One of those is certainly water. I love oceans, rivers, and rain. I spent quite a while photographing this gentleman as he pulled in his lines, rebaited them, and cast back into the water. All the while, I finessed my composition and waited for the right moment. I feel like this moment here best expressed the care he was taking to set his lines.
Equipment: Fujifilm X100V
This is one of those images I wish I could have predicted and prepared better for. I set out from home because the clouds were looking amazingly dramatic and I wanted to photograph the palace with those clouds before the rain, which wasn’t forecast for another few hours, set in and made things difficult for photography. So, I packed a small kit and jumped on my bicycle. Just as I was crossing the road to the palace, the skies opened up and some of the heaviest rain I have ever been caught in anywhere in the world came down. I ducked under the gates to keep relatively dry and maybe get a few images of others, like myself, dashing through the rain. Then I saw it, the unicorn; a lightning bolt in Seoul. I quickly set up in the hope that maybe, just maybe, I’d catch another bolt if one happened to strike and happened to strike within my composition. I hedged my bets by setting the intervalometer to automatically make an image every second and went about photographing other things with my X-T3 and XF 50-140mm f/2.8 while I waited. It wasn’t until I got home that I saw I’d got lucky. I’d only seen two more flashes of lightning and I’d caught one of them!
Yangon Train Station
This might be one of my favourite locations in the world. No matter how many times I visit Yangon, I always find time to photograph the central station. At sunrise, like this, it is a hive of activity and the light streams in from one side. On this trip, I spent two mornings and change walking the platforms in search of compositions. This frame was one I worked hard on. Getting the right character without others around and having the foot-fall be just right required a little extra patience. In the end, it was worth it!
Equipment: Fujifilm X100F
Dongmyo Market Morning
Dongmyo Flea Market and the surrounding streets are a hive of activity and a gathering place for the city’s elderly. Overpriced retro goods, bargain second-hand clothing, and soju by the cup are just a few of the things that can be purchased at the market. However, it is the mornings and evenings before and after it opens and closes that are truly intriguing. The layers of old and new, the market folk going about their own business, and of course, the textures of the buildings that allow the trade to take place, are all unincumbered. This image has so many small details that I love about Seoul in it.
Equipment: Fujifilm X100F
Temple and Nun
In another trip with my good friend Roy Cruz during the monsoon, we made our way to the Haeinsa Temple complex in Gayasan National Park. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of the Tripitaka Koreana, but when we learned that it had been closed off to the public, we spent our time exploring some of the smaller temples around the main complex. This is certainly an area I will come back to and photograph again, but I got some images that I’m really happy with this time around, as well. It is so rare to be able to find a peaceful temple with no bustling tourism or loudspeakers playing pre-recorded chants in the north of the country, so it was refreshing to be able to spend time photographing an empty temple with a single nun walking the grounds.
Equipment: Fujifilm X100V
When I heard that I’d be getting to use Fujifilm’s GFX 100 for a couple of days, I immediately began searching for subjects to continue my ongoing project about Korea’s artisans. Getting people to agree to a photo session at the beginning of the pandemic was not easy, but I finally found Im Soongook. As a maker of Korea’s traditional stringed instruments, he was the perfect subject for my project. We ended up spending far more time together than we’d originally planned as he walked me through every step of creating his geomungo and gayageum. Below is a simple portrait we made to wrap up the session.
Sunrise over East Coast
I mentioned above how much I love water. Watching it drag itself over the rocks in a whitewash on the way in and then in beautiful lines on the way out was mesmerising. Even though I had a harbour to my left, fishing boats on the horizon, and a breakwater with crashing waves to my right, it was the simplicity of the waves touching the shore that held my attention this morning. I hope that this photograph can convey what it was like to watch that repetition.
Equipment: Fujifilm X100V
To finish this series of my favourite images of 2020, I wanted to share another image from my visit to the small temple where I spent time with the monk. One of the things I was curious about was what people pray for. Praying to the Buddha has always seemed a little at odds with Buddhism to me and I wanted to understand what it is that drives people. He chuckled and said that it can be just about anything. People come selfishly wishing for wealth or fame, the come in the hope that someone can heal their loved ones, and at times, they just need someone to hear their pain in the hope that it will dimish if it is said aloud. I wondered to myself what it was that this woman, masked and alone, was hoping for as she made her prayers.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this small collection of images that I made over the course of 2020. Have a great start to the new year and I wish you health and happiness throughout. Until next time, thanks for joining me here.