Seoul photographer Cho Gi Seok captures a new age of Korean cool
One of the most in-demand young photographers discusses celebrating diversity within Korean identity.
This story originally appeared on i-D Korea.
Ask anyone in the know for a list of rising stars in the Korean fashion scene and they’ll mention Cho Gi-Seok. With over 300k people — including magazine editors, stylists, celebrities, and luxury brand designers — currently following the photographer’s every move on Instagram, it is clear that his reach extends way beyond Korean borders. Another border the 29-year-old artist freely crosses is the one between art and commerce. Consistently creating original, boundary-pushing work, Cho continues to be a unique reference for others in the industry too. Yet, he is far from complacent.
“I am a curious person,” he tells us. “I’m broadening my field of work beyond photography to graphic design, set design, art direction, video and such. It’s part of why I started my brand Kusikohc. Without it, it would have been difficult to take on projects outside of photography. Whenever I get stuck or lost while working on a photography project, I look for fun and inspiration at Kusikohc. I feel like visual art creates for the eye, while fashion design also creates for the touch. They’re fun in each of their ways.”
When planning this shoot with i-D Korea, Cho was eager to be involved in casting and expressing i-D’s original identity. He ended up selecting nine subjects. “I wanted to show diversity and uniqueness within the Korean identity,” he explains. “They all have different looks, different personalities and different occupations. I came up with two concepts for the images: one where all the models are in school uniforms, and one where each model is showing their own personality. Uniforms tend to hide the individual, but they stay stylish even after a long time: a classic. The school uniform image is an extension of my personal series as well.”
Items from Kusikohc’s SS22 collection helped accentuate each model’s unique characteristics. Among them were a black coat with a slit, a biker jacket with a burn, a knit with a signature pattern, and an oversize bomber jacket with eyelets — all a natural fit with the fresh faces of Korean youth culture. “i-D has always taken interest, not just in fashion, but in youth subcultures as a whole, and commented on contemporary society,” Cho says. “I wanted to capture that spirit in this collaboration for the newly launched i-D Korea as well.”
Kusikohc -- Cho’s name spelled backwards -- is now a 5-year-old brand, with items so far introduced on a project by project basis. For SS22, he refreshed the brand and brought back the original slogan, ‘Right to Fail’. “I believe that it is always meaningful to try new things, big or small,” he says. “Even if you fail, trying is what makes a difference. If you are hesitating whether or not to start something new, Kusikohc will remind you that you have a ‘Right to Fail’.” Practising what they preach, the brand is about to present a capsule drop as well as a number of new, smaller projects on top of its regular collections. The upcoming season’s fashion buying is almost done, meaning that from next year, you can expect to see Kusikohc’s new season in stores worldwide.
But let’s return to his photography. Would it be right to say that his work is inherently ‘Korean’ or ‘Asian’? In some images, Cho has certainly used objects that embody Asian cultures, such as Hanbok (Korean traditional attire), Tal (Korean performative masks), Yu-Gi-Oh cards (Japanese collectibles), as well as various decorative items that evoke Chinese New Year festivities. “In the past, I shied away from directly displaying cultural motifs in my work,” he says. “But now, I think of Asia as one of the core themes, just like how Western photographers take inspiration from European mythology. We say that the world is now hyper-connected but as a Korean artist, by showing more of these cultures that are familiar to me, I could be giving my audience something new through my work.” His principle aim for composing each image, on the other hand, is quite simple: “I focus on the subject. Does it look beautiful to the naked eye, without any artificial lights? That’s what I look for.”
Self-taught, Cho did not follow the traditional path of most photographers. Nonetheless, he has achieved a high degree of perfection, both in his craft and vision, and now works with acclaimed fashion magazines while shooting global campaigns for luxury brands. “I started when I was 21, so it’s been nine years. I firmly believe that the only thing you can count on, after years and years, is your own talent. That is why I strive to hone my talent and try to believe in my own experience.”
The very first professional title Cho held was as the editor of an independent magazine. Since then, Cho has strived to stay true to his identity while taking on projects as varied as album covers, set designs, art direction, campaigns, a solo exhibit at Stolkholm’s Fotografiska, and numerous cover stories. He credits failures along the way as having helped him grow.
I have known Cho personally for years, but have yet to see him stop or slow down. Like a train that needs no fuel, he continues to advance. Even on days with no shoots, he works on personal projects with like-minded members of his staff, or works on Kusikohc, or studies the work of other photographers. His work and life seem one and the same. When I ask this hardworking artist what drives his relentless creativity, his response surprises me: “A sense of inferiority I used to feel back when I didn’t do what I love. It’s why I try hard to grab onto that initial feeling of excitement when I first started this line of work. Doing the work I love for the rest of my life would be my ultimate happiness."
Creative direction Songin
Photography Giseok Cho
Writer Hyunji Nam
Translator Keith S. Kim
Make up Seongseok Oh
Hair Gabe Sin
Models Sunmean, Xenher, Jiyoung, Sukyung, Damo, Seungjin, Junhyun, Sangyoon, Sooa