The past few months have marked some of the most dramatic moments in South Korea’s recent political history—and Korean-American photographer Argus Paul Estabrook was there to document the upheavals with his award-winning series “Losing Face,” a visual record of the remarkable ousting of South Korean (ex-) President Park Geun-hye.
The former president’s crimes first came to light in October 2016 after investigations into her relationship with a “shadowy advisor from a shaman-esque cult” revealed acts of extortion and significant corruption. South Koreans were outraged. Soon, furious citizens were demonstrating every weekend. Estabrook described the scene: “Flooding the streets while they marched towards the presidential grounds, protesters filled the night air chanting in unison, ‘Come down and go to jail!’ Effigies and satirical street art continuously sprang up around the capital, especially so in Gwanghwamun Square. There was a charge in the air, an engulfing unified energy from the public that couldn’t be ignored. Huge groups of people, sometimes in the millions, showed up every Saturday at the plaza to express that the president no longer represented them.” More scandals were soon revealed: massive bribes, accusations of coercion and corruption. In the end, the former president didn’t stand a chance.
Estabrook grew up in rural Virginia and completed a MFA at James Madison University before moving back to his maternal homeland, South Korea, six years ago. “I hoped to gain a better understanding of my mother’s culture,” he says, “and my life has been richer for it.” When asked how his ties to two very different countries have affected his life and photographic vision, he says, “I see myself as a kind of ‘half-eye.’ Some might call this having one foot in each world, but as a Korean-American photographer, it feels more like having an eye into two different worlds that I consider home. I can’t help but feel my perspective is that of a mixed insider/outsider. I also think that my camera takes that feeling a step further in practice, because it proves to be an active interface between my outward observations and inward thoughts.”
Asked specifically about the origin of this striking series, he says, “I remember hearing about the first anti-Park Geun-hye protest on an airplane flight back to Seoul. I immediately knew that I’d be on the street documenting it.”
The distinctive visual style of “Losing Face” earned Estabrook recognition in this year’s Magnum Photography Awards. Many of his high-contrast black-and-white images were made with longer exposures, resulting in a dizzying blurred effect that speaks to the frenzy of shooting amid the clamor and heat of a protest. His compositions are bold and unapologetic—in one image, a protester wears a paper mask with the former president’s face stretched eerily across it, leering at the camera from behind bars.
Despite the fever of his series, Estabrook’s explanation of his process is evocative and yet also poetic: “Photography for me is like hearing live music—but instead of notes, I’m acknowledging visual symbols in the landscape. Sometimes these notes are buried in layers of the moment, so I unearth them a bit to better ‘hear’ what my experience is telling me. If the resulting image resonates with others in the same way it does for me, then I feel my approach was successful.”
Combining aesthetic punch with his own personal perspective offered him a unique angle from which to document the recent upheavals in South Korea. Some of his long-held observations about the country came into play as he saw Koreans of all ages and backgrounds rise up against the (at that time) incumbent president. “In South Korean society, losing face is the worst thing that can happen to a person. The damage of having one’s identity lost to shame is so ruinous that it can completely destroy a person’s social standing and authority…and that’s exactly what happened to Park Geun-hye.”
But what likely stood out to Estabrook more than anything were the protests’ consistently peaceful nature and successful outcome: “No matter how many police were there to confront them, the protesters remained undeterred without resorting to violence. They did this for five months and in the end, showed the world that resistance and change is possible through peaceful means. It was an incredible historic feat, and something I’ll never forget.”
Editors’ note: Estabrook’s work was selected as a Series Winner in the Street Category of the Magnum Photography Awards 2017. Discover more inspiring work from all 41 of the winners, finalists, jurors’ picks and student spotlights.