This is the story behind my Han River project. Boredom helped me to become creative, develop a vision and a style. It also made me start my first photo project. If you’re struggling with starting your own photo project or developing your own vision and style, this blog post might be of help to you.
Seoul is a magnificent city to photograph. You can climb the surrounding mountains to shoot cityscapes, wander its neon-lit streets to do street photography, or play the tourist and photograph its palaces, temples or beautiful cafes. Being crazy about photography and having a lot of time on my hands, I was doing all of them.
I liked photographing all the amazing touristic places in Seoul for my travel blog, I really did, but after a while, I started to feel that I was making the same rounds as every travel blogger in Korea. In other words, I got bored of photographing the same things in the same style as every waygookin with a blog. I wasn’t doing anything unique and it felt like I was failing (which I was, honestly).
Although, I wasn’t entirely doing exactly the same as every other travel blogger. I did find some unique places. I had noticed there weren’t many bloggers writing about the cafes along the big river running right through the heart of Seoul, so I visited them all and wrote about them. It was there that I took a picture that proved to be the starting point of this photo project.
I had taken this picture beneath one of the cafes on the Han River where there were these murals painted on the underside of the bridge. The murals by themselves were nice enough, but not that special for me to take a picture of. Then I noticed cyclists passing by, which gave me the idea that you see above. I waited for a bike to be exactly in the middle, snapped, and instantly knew I had struck gold. Back home I cleaned some things up with Photoshop, so the viewer wouldn’t be distracted from the main subject. The rest is authentic.
After I took that picture I continued some time with my blog as usual, but I wasn’t feeling it anymore. That picture triggered something in me. I couldn’t stop thinking about how it could be a great start for a photo project along the Han River. Not sure if it would be a good idea, I told some of my friends about my plan, but they didn’t think much of it. According to them the bridges on the river had been photographed so many times, that it wasn’t worth doing a photo project on them anymore.
Instead of being deterred, my friends’ opinions challenged me. For this project to become a success, it had to be more than just photographing bridges. What that exactly was, wasn’t clear to me yet. I didn’t have a clear plan on what to shoot (as you will probably notice when reading further), so I just took the picture above as a starting point, went ahead exploring along the river, and shot what I encountered. I gave myself a restriction though: no excessive Photoshopping. Removing or moving elements in a picture was allowed, but that was about it. I broke my rule once, as you will see when reading further.
Before I Found a Style
It wasn’t clear how I wanted to shoot, but by doing this project I have learned that if you just start shooting, the ideas will come to you. Gradually the pictures went from telling a story by themselves to telling a story together. However, I wasn’t anywhere near telling a story with a series of pictures while shooting the first few. I was still struggling to connect the dots and figure out what story I wanted to tell (as you can see in the upcoming pictures). Individually they had something to say but weren’t connected to each other at all.
Seeing the picture above, you may think I was going for the bridge/bike combo at this point, but it was a pure coincidence. The pedestrian road on the north side of Jamsil Bridge is quite high compared to the underside of the bridge, so you have to bend over to see under the bridge well enough to discover its potential. It’s also fenced off and there are steep steps right after the fence.
There wasn’t anyone present at the time, but I wasn’t entirely comfortable climbing over that fence either. I saw a way around the fence if I backtracked a bit, so I did. When I came back I saw this guy sitting and having a smoke. I quickly climbed the aforementioned stairs, turned around, and shot the picture you see above. If I just had climbed the fence this guy wouldn’t have been around, which would have resulted in an ok, but much less interesting picture. In other words, I got lucky. I haven’t altered a thing in Photoshop in this picture, by the way.
For this picture I used the same method as the ones before: I photographed without a plan. Although, not entirely. Fan Ho is one of my photographic inspirations and I think his passing was in the news not long before I took this picture. His work must have lingered somewhere in the back of my mind.
When I took this picture it was a perfect day for black and white photography; it was early afternoon and the sun was out strong, which resulted in harsh shadows. Pedestrians were walking along the river and I took a couple of shots before I finally saw the picture I wanted to take. I waited for the pedestrian to be right on the edge of the shadow of the bridge so that the shadows and the bridge make a frame of sorts. The person is being a part of the frame, but almost breaking free. I edited this in a way that the contrast is very high and also kept the strong highlights.
Another Fan Ho inspired shot, although this one I took earlier than the one above. I was just looking to do something different because I quickly figured out that shooting all the bridges in one-point-perspective would be too boring. Then I saw Seonyu Bridge, which is a pedestrian bridge leading to Seonyu Island. It’s vastly different from the other bridges of Seoul, in that it’s way slimmer and it is in an arch shape.
I zoomed in as far as I could to eliminate any distractions in the background and took this shot. I edited it in black and white because I liked the minimalistic feel and it would make that feeling stronger. The theme is still quite ordinary, but you can see I was already thinking of how to make my project different than just shooting some bridges in the same way.
Here I tried to play with light in an otherwise boring tunnel somewhere near Olympic Bridge. I saw a few people walking further away from me and I immediately saw the shot I wanted to take. I waited until they were at the end where they would be surrounded by the incoming light. I edited this in black and white because it gives more weight to the darkness in the tunnel and the silhouettes give an eerie feeling to the picture.
First Inspiration: My Daughter’s Fairytales
After taking a lot of similar shots of bridges, I got bored again and wanted something else. However, there isn’t a lot else you can do that would make a photo of a bridge interesting. I’ve seen other pictures of the bridges over the Han River and they all look similar; a one-point-perspective with a repeating pattern going all the way into the distance. It’s just the most interesting way to photograph them. It is also what my friends warned me about. Trying to solve this problem got me thinking. I figured that although you don’t always have control over your subject, you still have control over your style. I could photograph in some sort of a theme.
The first idea of a theme for my pictures was inspired by the bedtime stories I read to my daughter. She’s crazy about all kind of stories, but fairy tales are her favorite. Reading her all these stories about magic worlds with princesses, fairies, and monsters started to make me think if it could be the answer to make my photography project stand out.
In other words, I started to question if objects in this world could be imagined to be something else from another world. The picture above of Seongsu Bridge was my first attempt. I started to see the path that leads under the bridge to some sort of portal. I edited the colors to reflect this a bit, but I didn’t alter anything with Photoshop.
This picture is from the same location. I noticed Lotte Tower and I thought I maybe could do something with it. I’ve always thought that Lotte Tower resembled something of a modern Barad-dûr in shape, as well as the position a chaebol is in, within the Korean economy. I’m not the only one with this idea, because people have been Photoshopping the eye of Sauron on the tower. When I was scouting for angles, I noticed this view where the tower is perfectly framed by the pillars of the flyover. I edited it in black and white to subdue the feeling that it’s a modern world and maybe make it more believable that the viewer is looking at a modern Mordor. I removed a concrete block in the bottom right corner with Photoshop, because it was distracting from the image.
My daughter usually is obsessed with one story for a period of time, which results in me reading the same story over and over to her until I can dream the words. A lot of them feature dungeons (Beauty and the Beast, for instance) and that’s what I was thinking about when I was walking under the highway near Dongjak station.
When you walk here it doesn’t resemble a dungeon in the slightest. There are a bike path and stream on the left. Also, the pillars are too far apart from each other. However, a long focal length lens compresses the background, which creates the illusion that those pillars are actually very close to each other. Changing the color of the pillars from grey into brown adds to the illusion of it being a dungeon instead of pillars supporting a highway. I removed a bit of distracting light on the right, but otherwise no Photoshopping has been done.
This isn’t the first time I flipped a picture upside down to create the illusion that it’s a picture from another world, neither is it the last. I’ll go more into detail about how I came to this style at the next picture, which was the first time I had that epiphany. The illusion of stairs that disappear in the water above, gave me the inspiration that this was the entrance to Atlantis.
My daughter’s obsession with The Little Mermaid might also have had something to do with it. Having to watch the cartoon together, then listen to the songs, and then read the story at bedtime again, does something to your brain. I still think it’s an elaborate scheme for revenge from the universe, because of all the times I teased my sister during our childhood about watching that awful cartoon every day.
Before I wander off into a rant about mermaids, let me come back to this picture. This is the South side of Cheonho Bridge. I flipped the picture upside down and changed the color of the water and the “stairs” to give it a more off-worldly look. I didn’t touch anything in Photoshop, however.
My Own Inspiration: Sci-Fi/Space Station
I was increasingly feeling that the fairy tale theme wasn’t fitting to a lot of scenes I encountered, because Seoul is a modern city and the Han River is spanned by many concrete bridges. Being a sci-fi fan, I contemplated what a sci-fi theme could do to my photography. My first thought was that of a space station. Because space lacks a distinct up and down, it would open up creative possibilities.
I didn’t take the picture above upside down of course. It was right side up and although it was a bit different, it was still just a picture of a bridge. While being a bit bored and pondering what I should do, I pressed the rotate picture button in Lightroom a few times. That’s when it hit me. This picture is so much more interesting upside down because it creates an illusion of stairs going up, but when you’re at the end your brain starts to malfunction. It reminded me a bit of how one of my favorite illustrators Escher draws his mind-bending illustrations.
When I posted this on social media it blew up a bit (if you can call it that with the modest following I have). People were not sure what to make of it but thought it was very cool. The black and white edit is on purpose because having it in color doesn’t work as well. Your brain receives too much information and figures out what’s going on. The high contrast and blown out background emphasize the illusion. I Photoshopped a few small distracting things out, but otherwise it is unaltered.
The above picture resembles a fast transport system that gets you from one part to another. In the real world, it’s exactly that (well not exactly that, due to Seoul’s congested traffic), because it’s an elevated highway flipped upside down. I Photoshopped some buildings away and the lampposts that were sticking out in the middle. I used black and white to add to the illusion that it isn’t just a highway upside down.
Another elevated highway, but this time with V-shaped pillars. The curve and width of the highway give the illusion it’s going in a circle. Here I used the water and gave the light a dreamy look with filters in NIK software’s Color Efex Pro 4 to give the illusion that the whole place is underwater. I used this technique in some pictures below as well. I Photoshopped all the buildings out of the background.
This is actually the underside of Dangsan Railway Bridge. I photoshopped all the buildings away and made it monochrome to construct the illusion that it’s actually a landing platform. For some reason, it gives me a 2001: A Space Odyssey feel.
I sat in one of these V-shaped pillars while I took this picture. I noticed a group of pigeons flying around and I waited until they passed right between the support structure. That was easier said than done because they flew so fast that they already went past before I noticed them and could press the shutter. It took a lot of patience and several tries to get it right, and I’m still not entirely satisfied. Next time I’ll bring a pigeon handler.
I flipped this picture upside down, altered the colors, and photoshopped two benches out that were in front of the first V-shape, as well as some people on the top left corner. The last V-shape is a bit different than the others, which gives the illusion there’s a glass door at the end. I kept that part the original color to emphasize this.
This photo is taken on a path that leads you under Dongjak Station towards the river. I noticed all the pipes and I thought it would have potential for my series. I flipped the signs in Photoshop so it would help in the illusion that this is the right side up and I changed the color of the concrete a bit.
More Sci-Fi/Dystopian Future
I’m a huge fan of sci-fi movies and games where everything has gone to shit (not so much of a fan if it happened in real life though). Bladerunner, Fallout, The Matrix, and District 9, to name a few, are a huge inspiration to me. Although there are better places in Seoul to photograph a cyberpunk scene (Jongno-gu, Myeongdong, or anywhere with a lot of neon lighting), I confined myself to the river, so those were not an option for me. However, I still encountered places that could be transformed into a scene from those type of movies.
Above is the only picture in the series where I broke my own rules (well there is another, but I didn’t include that one in this post). The man in the picture is taken from one of my other pictures and photoshopped in. There were a few people walking behind the fence that you see to the right, but because they were behind the fence it was very time consuming to cut them out and move them. So I Photoshopped them out and put a man in from another picture because I felt this picture needed a person for context. It gives more weight to the illusion that this is the right side up. I also flipped the sign in the lower right corner to add to this illusion and that sign also became an inspiration for the title. In actuality, this is the entrance to the Dongjak subway station.
I saw the underside of Eungbong Bridge and got the idea to make it work like some kind of skyscraper, which houses something sinister in a sci-fi movie. I flipped the picture, removed two legs off the bridge and removed some buildings with Photoshop, and turned the picture black and white.
I’m proudest of this picture because it took a lot of patience to get it right. First I was photographing the opposite way, but I couldn’t get it right because there were too many distracting elements in my frame. So I walked forward a while and turned around, which gave me this view of the bridge. I knew I needed a person in the frame to make this picture special. Since it was the dead of winter and there was a very cold breeze, there weren’t that many people outside. When people did pass by they were either on a bicycle or walking their dog. It didn’t feel right for the dystopian theme I was aiming for.
I didn’t have a tripod with me so I was hand holding my camera. Meanwhile, my hands slowly froze from the ice-cold wind. I kept going at it for at least 30 minutes, after which I wanted to give up because I had almost lost the feeling in my hands. Suddenly the guy you see in the picture showed up and I knew he was perfect for the shot.
At home, I edited the colors so they were a bit warmer, and I removed two small distracting locks on the bottom of the picture. The simplicity of this scene makes it so perfect to me.
More Sci-Fi/Alien Ruins
When I put pictures of the underside of this highway on Instagram, I wrote in the description that they were ancient ruins. Obviously, I meant that’s what they represented in my artistic view, but someone mistook them for real and asked me what ruins they were and where they were located. I replied with a joke, which made them realize that they had been fooled and in embarrassment deleted their comment. I thought that was unfortunate, because that they thought it was real was actually a great compliment to my work. Also, one of my friends said it looked like some scene from the Alien franchise, which was of course also a great compliment for me.
In editing these I made the colors warmer than they were and also added a bit of a glow to give the illusion that it was underwater. I took a lot of pictures and just picked the best ones. Posting similar pictures repeatedly gets boring anyway.
Maybe you recognize this man from picture 17. (the police station), but he was originally in this shot. I moved him from the actual road you see above. It’s not the best Photoshop job, but it was my first time so please forgive me for that. One of my friends couldn’t figure it out what I had done, so my mission was a success.
I posted the above picture in between the upside down ones on social media. Someone commented that for an instance they were puzzled why there were benches on the ceiling, thinking that I flipped this picture as well. For me, it was proof that my thinking was right. Flipping a picture upside down for the sake of flipping it doesn’t work. It has to totally transform the scene in a believable way. It wouldn’t be believable if the benches were on the ceiling. Keeping the viewer guessing is much more rewarding anyway.
Being bored is a good thing. It makes you reassess what you have been doing before and gets you to a new place in your photography. Now when I have a period where I’m bored with what I shoot, I embrace it, because I now know something new is looming over the horizon. However, the most important lesson I learned is that photographic inspiration doesn’t come from only photography itself, but factors outside of photography are just as important.
Get inspiration from both inside and outside of photography and to be successful in executing that inspiration is to restrict yourself, otherwise the possibilities are endless and you won’t come to anything. Using these ingredients will most likely result in coming up with your own style and vision.
About the author: Emre Kanik is a travel photographer and blogger. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his website. This article was also published here.