Seung-woo Yang is a Korean born photographer who lives in Japan. How he came to be here is a rather unusual story.I have known him only a few years, and find him a gentle and warm person, very reserved and modest, but the more I get to know him I find he has a tremendous inner confidence.
As a teenager he seems to have been expelled from high school at least twice, not just to another school, but to another school in another city. The friends of those days became Yakuza bosses. This could have been Yang's destiny, if not for certain acts of fate.The Korean Yakuza are the main subject of Yang's book and latest exhibition at Zen Foto Gallery: "The Best Days", in reference to the excitement of those youthful days, when they were exploring the forbidden, but had not become Yakuza or adults with a sense of responsibility or guilt for what they may be involved with.
As the saying goes, a series of tragic events - what depths are concealed by that phrase - ledYang to a decision to leave Korea. The reasons for this are deep and very private. I will leave the details for those who are interested to ask Yang directly. Suffice it to say that 15 years ago Yang decided to leave Korea to learn Japanese in Japan, and the reason was to avoid the inevitability of becoming a full-fledged Yakuza if he stayed in Korea. After learning Japanese for two years he was due to return to Korea. Again he realised that return would mean renewed involvement in that underground world. Faced with a choice between becoming a cook and learning photography, he chose the latter. And so our lives take interesting turns on the decisions of a moment.
Yang has many interesting series, but the subject of this book and exhibition is his former life and the lives of his friends who remained and rose to seniority in the Korean underworld.
In this picture the wages of the prostitutes are being counted. I made a rough reckoning and guessed there were 100,000,000 Korean Won in this pile. The wages are paid roughly every two weeks. A rough estimate of the annual wage bill would be 2,500,000,000 Korean Won. Or about 2.5 million US Dollars.
A wedding is taking place in a hotel. The senior members of the gang are behind us, as Yang is standing with them taking this picture. Here we see the brooding presence of sub-bosses and bodyguards. Yakuza are particularly careful to dress smartly in line with latest fashion.
When Yang returned, he was allocated a girl. He says she was not particularly pretty.
The cheapest type of brothel has a set menu - a bottle of beer and a session in the next room for a fixed price of 5,000 Korean Won.
One of Yang's closest teenage friends shares a meal.
Illegal gambling is another significant source of revenue.
Yang bows in front of the grave of a dead friend. The friend had murdered a rival, then served a decade in prison. A year or so after being freed he committed suicide. The reasons seem complex, but having been put away for so long, he had become junior to others who had been rising in the ranks, and suffered beatings and humiliation from them. It makes Goodfellas seem romantic. In the Korean underworld physical strength is vital, rather than loyalty and age-related seniority.
The photographs tell a an unusual story from an unusual point of view - there cannot be many who have had such access to the world of active gangsters. Those few other examples have been outsiders who managed to secure permission, presumably showing what the protagonists agreed to show. Yang has shown this world from a true insider's perspective. Apart from the overall picture, the individual photographs are very powerful, telling a story related to a major element of the underworld life, and this seems to be a life that is reduced to essentials: to money, to power, to sex, to love, to life and to death.
Exhibition in Third District Gallery, Tokyo, Japan (Japanese):