Argus Estabrook is a storyteller; an individual who has the eye for discerning the special in the mundane. He’s as good with finding poetry from the pages of discarded library books as he is with spotting and photographing compelling stories worth telling, may it be in the streets or in his own home. A Korean-American photographer currently based in Seoul, he often trains his lenses on images that are unique to the Korean culture. And he does not simply document them, he provides facts, insights, and personal musings to complete the stories he wishes to convey.
Argus was there when locals took to the streets to express their outrage at ousted South Korean President Park Geun-hye. He was there, too, at Danwon High School, preserving in the way he can best the memories of the 262 students and teachers that perished at sea. He often roams the streets of the city he now calls home, musing and in pursuit of his next photographic adventure that will also help him get to know his birth country more.
And in all these, Argus had demonstrated a marked sensitivity that allowed him to get close to his subjects and capture them at their most vulnerable state. As a photographer, he also makes sure every single visual technique that he uses, from exposure with slow shutter speeds or strobe work, isn’t without a purpose.
In the interview below, we spoke with Argus to understand his work process and how his experiences helped shape his craft.
Phoblographer: You always make it a point to tell a story or document a real-life happening in all your photo stories. How do you decide which stories to tackle? What kind of stories interest you?
Argus: My stories are often an interaction with the world and they develop organically through a process of discovery. I never set forth a plan to do a story or a project. Rather, when I find myself in a photographic situation that speaks to me, I begin making a record. People inform you of what’s happening and the photographs start building up. I often feel an obligation “to do right” by the experiences that life grants me and that means organizing my work so something can be learned from them. It’s a kind of self-education. I try to learn about other people’s lives in the hope I’ll know more about my own.
What’s wonderful is that because reproduction is integrally tied to photography, numerous dialogs and new understandings ripple forth by its sharing. When it comes down to it, I sense I’m searching for meaning and empathy. That’s the flashlight that shines upon all my interests and the stories I tell.
Phoblographer: How has your experience as a Korean-born American-raised man living in Seoul affected your work?
“I often feel an obligation “to do right” by the experiences that life grants me and that means organizing my work so something can be learned from them. It’s a kind of self-education. I try to learn about other people’s lives in the hope I’ll know more about my own.”
Argus: I guess it kind of affects everything. As a minority growing up in the USA, I learned quickly that there will always be people who’ll believe you aren’t “part of the club.” The same holds true in Korea if you are mixed race.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Korea and the States, but… I’ll always be an insider/outsider in these places I consider home. It used to upset me but I’ve learned in some ways this can be advantageous. Specifically, that I can use this unique perspective as a bridge between these two cultures. Now more than ever, I feel there is a need for voices that can both represent Korean identity and concerns, and also understand Western politics and culture. In all areas of our society, we need more bridges of understanding. And that’s where you’ll find me, trying to build them photographically. Obstacles are just stepping stones.
Phoblographer: With School Memories: The Loss in Danwon High, how was that experience for you as a photographer? It’s a touchy issue now, but presumably even more back when you did it. How did you go about tackling such a personal, sensitive matter?
What were some of your biggest challenges while doing that series, if you had any? And what were some of your biggest takeaways from it?
Argus: It was emotionally challenging and personally rewarding. That’s an example of a story evolving organically. I had no idea I was going to get involved with documenting those affected by the Sewol Ferry Tragedy. Instead, I was trying to figure out the location of a protest that was raising awareness of the tragedy.
I made contact with a volunteer who worked closely with the families who said she’d take me. But first, we paid our respects to those lost by going to the high school. There she asked me to do her a favor and take a few photographs of the memorialized classrooms for the parents she was friends with. And that began my education. Soon after I was introduced to family members and started documenting. You have to understand that for the community the classrooms were places to grieve and commune with their lost children. They were sacred spaces, and everything and everyone inside needed to be given the utmost respect.
The more I got to know their stories, the more my lens grew empathetic. I’m no stranger to sadness and simply wanted to do my best for them, to share what my heart was learning – stories that I felt weren’t being told or lost to an international audience. The School Memories project really drove home the fact that photography is a collaborative effort with the world — the time others share with us is a gift. And as a photographer, my job is to take care of that gift and nurture it so it can be re-shared with the rest of the world.
Phoblographer: Aside from School Memories, a couple of other personal series you did were Our Stage Four and Reflections Inside the Seoul Metro. How do you go about tackling difficult, sensitive, and often even deeply personal topics such as these?
How are you able to translate them into images?
“As a minority growing up in the USA, I learned quickly that there will always be people who’ll believe you aren’t “part of the club.” The same holds true in Korea if you are mixed race.”
Argus: The Reflection essay was something that I found myself doing naturally. Riding home on the metro, I’d stare at my own reflection as well as those of the Korean passengers. It was the act of looking at a “familiar otherness” and – as a gyopo – trying to see if there were parts of my own identity in them.
I was wondering: “Could this have been me if I my family hadn’t moved? Is that my future? Could she be my sister? Am I part of this family?” I saw it as a poetic exploration where the questions were more important than any answer.
For the Stage Four story… Well, honestly, sometimes I really didn’t know what I was doing. Everything was upside down and when you’re in “it” like that, time does strange things to the mind. Nothing seems real. Days become seconds and flash by and get muddled when trying to grasp what’s happening. I do know I was trying to stop time with my camera.
It also made my dad happy knowing I was preserving his last days, although there was no way to guess he’d be departing so very soon. I was on autopilot and I equate that camera work to a kind of instinctual muscle memory. Obviously, there’s more to it than that but I was just trying to exist with him in a way that would allow for his echo to reverberate. I gently worked in the layers of those echoes. To both be there and let him be.
After he passed, my family and I used the photos to talk about our shared trauma. We were all having a hard time. It was most difficult for my mom. I remembered what I had done for the families affected by the Sewol Ferry Tragedy and decided to ask my mom to also write her thoughts and feelings about dad.
The work, in essence, became an emotional map that shows how we navigated that horrible time in our lives – a time that feels tattooed inside the heart.
Phoblographer: Looking at your body of work, I think I can now easily determine a particular style of yours. Most of your photos are high contrast, bright, at times blurry to suggest motion, and in black and white.
Was this a deliberate move on your end? Kindly talk about your personal style. Why this? How do you achieve this?
Argus: Techniques, like exposure with slow shutter speeds or strobe work, are just tools I use to convey my state of mind when I’m encountering different things or situations. I’m also pretty conscious on how a possible image might look finalized – meaning, sometimes I get a sudden vision in my mind and my instinct takes over on how to create some kind of poetic representation of that on the camera’s sensor.
Often, my thoughts are preoccupied with the idea of time and how our sense of it is affected by emotional states. For example, if you see an image of mine that shows motion blur or multiple flash bursts, there’s a deliberate reason and it is probably to portray chaos or anxiety I experienced or witnessed in that environment. If the photograph is still, it might mean I didn’t want to breathe.
It’s about “emotionally syncing up” with life. That’s what really determines the choices I make in camera or when working in my digital darkroom.
Phoblographer: What’s one project you dream of taking on sometime in the future?
Argus: I’d like to do a project that shows joy and happiness are real and achievable. Life is hard and the world often seems to grow cold. It’d be a dream to be able to present those themes in earnest without cliché. People need to be reminded! I’d be all in and look forward to that day.
Phoblographer: What’s currently in the pipeline for you?
Argus: Aside from letting my camera divine where I happen to be, I’m going to invest my time self-publishing and creating zines. I’m really excited to continue exploring that format. The storyteller in me loves that there are so many creative possibilities. And the artist in me loves the punk rock DIY aesthetic.
In the near future, I’ll be creating one or two that features my recent street photography from Tokyo. With all the stuff that happened last year, I wanted to go somewhere new to me to refresh. But what I learned is our shadows are tricky things. If you like my work, stay tuned for sure.