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Humans of Seoul shows off the city’s characters

June 13,2019
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Photos of people that Humans of Seoul members met randomly in the city, including a man in his 60s following his childhood dream of becoming an artist, left, a man wearing a dress, center, and Kim Jong-wook, far right, an aspiring fashion model. [HUMANS OF SEOUL]
One of the biggest challenges of running the street portrait blog Humans of Seoul is getting people to talk, said Park Ki-hun, director of the project.

“On some days, I would try 20 times and get rejected 20 times,” Park told the JoongAng Ilbo. “That’s when I fall apart.”

Park created Humans of Seoul, a blog inspired by Humans of New York, six years ago with his friend Jeong Seong-kyoon. The crew has grown to 27 people, including eight interviewers, four photographers and 11 translators. They have shared the stories of 1,514 people they met on the streets of Seoul since November 2013.

“Getting the people to talk to us is still the hard part,” Park said. “They say they’re too busy, or that they’re late for a meeting, and some have even been openly angry with us, calling our questions useless.”

Park’s comment is not surprising, as this was also the hardest part of the job, according to Brandon Stanton, the founder of Humans of New York.

Humans of Seoul posts one to three stories a day in Korean and English on social media platforms including Instagram and Facebook, which are read by some 300,000 people per week, according to the group. Half of the readers are foreigners, Park said.

“We continued the project for all these years because we believe that every single person has a special story to tell,” Park said. “And we want the rest of the world to hear these stories in their raw form.”

The crew has a set of rules to follow. One of them is that the subjects must be selected randomly.

“We believe that we can uncover stories that speak to people universally only when we meet the people randomly on the streets,” the group says on its website.

Park said that they had to dismiss one interviewer for bending this rule and trying to interview an acquaintance.

The group, however, runs themed interview series occasionally, such as a firefighter series it ran in April 2018.

Among the hundreds of random people he’s met through the project, Park said some of them linger in his memory longer than others, including an elderly man who was roaming the streets while wearing a bright yellow dress.

“He said he started to dress like a woman after his wife left him and his children when they were still young,” Park said. “He did it so that the children would still feel like their mother was around. You really can’t judge people by their outside appearance. Only after hearing their side of the story can you come to understand them.”

The story that stuck with Jeong Doo-hyeon, an interviewer for Humans of Seoul, was that of 23-year-old Kim Jong-wook.

“I met Kim at a Seoul Fashion Week event at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza,” Jeong said. “Kim is trying to become the first Korean model with a physical impairment. I wasn’t sure if he’d be willing to tell me his story but he was more than happy to and the conversation is still very much alive in my memory.”

The interviews last from as short as five minutes to up to 50 minutes, Park said. The interviewers ask the interviewees to share their name, age, job or contact information at the end of the interview if they are willing to do so.

Editing the stories and photographs takes about three weeks, Park said.

None of the staff members are paid.

“It’s not easy for them to do this in addition to their everyday jobs,” Park said. “But the project continues because we’re not doing it for the money.”

Park recently introduced the project at the opening of the Seoul Metropolitan Archives at Seoul Innovation Park in northern Seoul on May 15.

In response to a question on where Humans of Seoul is headed from here, Park said, “Well, when all of us got together in one setting a while ago, we said, wouldn’t it be nice to meet every single person in Seoul?”

“So we will, one day.”

BY KIM TAE-HO, ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]