I met Nick Luongo my junior(ish) year of college. He lived across the hall from me in the basement of a college dorm building. Aside from helping me deal with the vermin infested halls of our dorm, Nick and I would go on burger dates where we’d go out and eat three pounds of red meat. After I left D.C. and returned to Qatar, Nick and I would meet up at halfway points around the world. One spring we met up in a bizarre Belgian college town, Ghent. He brought a 35mm film camera with him which, I didn’t think about too much until I finally saw the developed film (I’ve done the same before and all it’s amounted to were Vertigo shots of nothingness).
The photos were beautiful and surreal with an undertone of sadness. It’s been years since, and Nick’s photography has gotten better in a technical sense while holding onto that rawness and desolate undertone. For the last seven months or so Nick has been in Jeonju, South Korea where he’s teaching English at an all boys school as part of his Fulbright program. After months of freaking out over his photos I thought they deserved a platform bigger than Instagram or our email exchanges.
Nick’s photos are quiet, lonely and absurd. His eye catches things in a way that makes life look like a movie set. Nothing is real, nothing is permanent and nothing is what it seems. Below are some of my favorite photos from Nick’s time in South Korea as well as some words by Nick on his photography.
Why did you choose to apply for and accept a Fulbright in South Korea?
I know that after grad school I will be up to my ears in debt and a lot of opportunities will be unavailable for a while. So I wanted to do something fun, something that might not be possible for me in a few years. Fulbright looked like a great option because I love working with kids, and it is a pretty well-established program. I chose South Korea for more complicated reasons. My mother was born here to an American soldier and a Korean woman. So I am one-quarter Korean. Growing up, the label of Korean-American was ascribed to me, but didn’t really mean much — I was more concerned with Pokémon and digging up worms. I only became interested in that aspect of my identity when I was older. I came here largely to explore that part of my heritage, to learn what it means to be Korean-American.
What’s teaching at an all boys school been like?
They are really high-energy, which contradicts the stereotype we have in America. They study extremely hard – harder than I ever did but they are also rambunctious and funny and really, really kind. The students spend all their time at school so the class begins to feel like a lot like a family. It is an immense privilege to be part of that. And the fact that its an all-boys school is great for me, because I have a lot of opportunities to bond with my students, mainly playing soccer together after lunch or showing off how many pull-ups I can do [laughs].
A lot of these images are surreal — is this what everyday life looks in Korea?
Well, yes and no. I don’t stage or edit any shots, so to that extent, yes, this is South Korea. A lot of the surreal aspect comes from the colors. I see contrast between the drabness of rapid post-war construction and the brilliant colors that clearly came later. Advertisements and neon signs stick like kaleidoscopic barnacles to the surface of otherwise uniform and colorless buildings. Augmenting this is a really strong sense of society and history and culture. As a result, there are a lot of parades and festivals, and the costumes and performances are sometimes dreamlike. At the same time, I would not say without qualification that this is how everyday life looks in Korea. For instance, I think that the pictures of my students are a lot closer to everyday life. And I live with a host-family on a farm a bit outside the city, so I have a lot of pictures of kimchi-making and family meals, which depict everyday life in another sense.
Your Korean heritage is complicated, do you think your gaze is of an insider or an outsider?
I was a bit naïve when I first arrived, and I thought that Korea would feel like a homecoming. I learned quickly how much I stand out, since I obviously look foreign. So it is difficult to take pictures without being noticed — I probably look like a tourist. For most intents and purposes, my host-family notwithstanding, I am an outsider.
Are you fluent in Korean? If not do you think that this language barrier and isolation has defined or influenced your camera’s eye?
I’m far from fluent. For a long time if food wasn’t spicy or delicious, I didn’t have the vocabulary to say anything about it. I think there is something aggressive to taking someone’s picture on the street. To ease this in the past I’ve always tried to start conversations with people I want to shoot, and to ask their permission. In the US, for instance, I took a lot of photos of homeless people and people in wheel chairs. Those are difficult positions to be in, and I never want to treat them as objects, rather than a subjects. With the language barrier, it is more challenging. I smile widely and give a lot of thumbs up and give simple compliments in my broken Korean. But still I’m not sure I can always make my subject feel comfortable, and I don’t always feel comfortable taking drive-by snaps. This has affected my choice of subject. I tend to make portraits of either my students or my host-family, with whom I am very comfortable; and I probably take more photos of the environment, rather than people.
What are some of the starkest contrasts between everyday life in South Korea and the states?
A lot of the adjustments are to things you would expect, like the amount of rice I eat and so forth. But one big thing is learning to be okay with not being in control, and with not understanding a given situation. Yesterday at a grocery store I tried to buy some cheese-flavored potato chips to send home to my brothers, and the woman at the checkout refused to let me buy them, insisting for reasons unknown that I instead purchase six green tea chocolate bars. So now I have six green tea chocolate bars and no cheese-flavored potato chips, and I’m okay with that. Humor has been huge in situations like this– being able to laugh at things that so baffle me. A lot of my pictures are things I find funny, and it’s how I make an adjustment that others might find stressful.
Follow Nick on Instagram to see more of his work.