Johan Chomet is a French photographer born in Paris. In 2013, he set out on The Long Journey, a series of travels that led him overland through Europe, Russia, Mongolia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and Nepal. Most recently, Chomet’s journey took him to Seoul, South Korea, where he captured a series of images that present his perspective of the city. Chomet tells Neocha more about his work and his travels below.
Neocha: What’s your process for planning your travels?
Chomet: I never have a plan or route. I don’t try to organize anything in advance. I usually get transportation and visa sorted to my first destination and then take it from there. It gives me a lot more freedom as I don’t have to be somewhere at any specific time and can change my plans at the last minute if I feel like it. I also try not to have any time constraints.
Traveling overland is a totally different experience. You have to endure every kilometer of your trip, you have to find your way, and you have to deal with uneasy, sometimes unpleasant, situations. But you also get to live and share so much more. You see the landscapes changing and get to meet people along the way. To me, travel means freedom. It means adventures, meeting people, seeing things from a different perspective, and obviously photography! Travel and photography can hardly be separated for me.
Neocha: How did your trip to Seoul come about?
Chomet: I really had no idea about what to expect when I decided to go to Seoul. I had been in Japan for a few months and my visa was expiring, meaning that I had to leave the country for a while. South Korea had always been on my list, and I was really looking forward to seeing it for myself, as for some reason I never got to see many images of the country. When I got to Seoul, it took me about 24 hours and a lot of walking around the city to take my first photo. Things were a lot less accessible and obvious than in Japan, and it felt like I had to soak it all in before I could start taking any photographs.
Neocha: What were some of your first impressions of the city?
Chomet: Seoul had been very confusing for me at first, as I could see very little related to its past and history, and what I could see did not always feel coherent. Architecture in many parts of the city made me feel like I was in some sort of communist country with all these identical concrete buildings shaping the landscape, and just a few kilometers away you’d find yourself walking on huge avenues filled with hundreds of high-end shops, and you’d be reminded that you were in a country that’s embraced capitalism like no other.
Another thing that struck me was the overabundance of churches everywhere. Every direction you look, you’d see them – red neon crosses that have invaded Seoul’s skyline. Talking about neon, it’s something I’ve been shooting a lot of lately. I love the light and the atmosphere that it creates. Neon definitely feels a little bit retro, but at the same time, it keeps us fantasizing about these futuristic vertical metropolises.
Neocha: As a film photographer, what are your thoughts on the film versus digital debate?
Chomet: There shouldn’t be any final conclusion about film or digital – they both have their pros and cons. Digital is easy to use, convenient, accessible to everyone, and gives flawless results. Unlike film, the processing is instantaneous, costless, and allows for endless post-processing modification. As always, industries deliver what consumers are asking for.
Film is expensive and frustrating. There’s no insane post-processing to make dull images look great in the end. You can’t take hundreds of photos in a day, hoping to have a good one in the end or take the same photo over and over again until it looks good on-screen. You have to get it right the first time, and this is without a doubt the best way to learn. Shooting mechanical cameras and film gives me the feeling that I’m part of the process, that I’m in control, and that I’m actually making the photo. Working with film, I realized that I was spending a lot more time on framing and working on composition, and more importantly, I would not rely solely on the camera for the result. If your photos are not good enough, you can’t blame the autofocus or justify it by the fact that you didn’t have the money for that ISO 204800 camera. If your photos aren’t good, it’s simply because you’re not a good photographer. Technology in photography doesn’t make things better. It just makes things more convenient.
Neocha: How would you summarize your approach to photography, and what are some recurring themes in your work?
Chomet: I used to take a lot of photos of people in busy places, mostly cities, of people in motion, people that would catch my attention. I’ve never tried to make any specific statement with my photos. I just want my photographs to be a reflection of a time and place. They’re just snapshots. I usually go out walking with a camera in my hand and take photos of the things that I react to. I don’t believe photography should be too cerebral, and I try not to overthink my shots. I like spontaneous things.
As I mentioned, film photography changed my approach a little. It forced me to take my time. It helped me to be more patient, and so I started to photograph things differently – more still images, pictures with no people, empty spaces. I also started paying more attention to colors and geometry. When I’m traveling, things are also a bit different. I try to build a series rather than taking a bunch of candid shots without any specific theme.
Neocha: Are there any particular themes or lasting impressions from your series in Seoul?
Chomet: Culturally, It feels like there’s this huge gap with massive differences of interests and lifestyle between generations. South Korea, and Seoul probably even more, has been changing so much and in such a short period of time. Because so many younger generations of South Koreans are able to travel and study abroad, I guess many came back with a different idea of what they wanted for their country and for their lives. South Korea has been heavily impacted by Western culture, but it feels like its people managed to adapt and blend it to their own culture, making it theirs. I definitely want to go back to South Korea and focus more on the youth next time.
Neocha: What is your personal philosophy towards photography? What does photography mean to you?
Chomet: To me, photography is about accurately remembering and capturing real life for future generations. Photographers are witnesses of time, documenting life. Some photographers are talented enough to add emotions and beauty to their images, to get reactions out of their viewers. I hope that people can see my photographs in 30, 40, 50 years in a different context. Who knows what will have become of photography and the world in general by then.
My relation to photography is very personal – it’s almost a kind of therapy for me. Walking with a camera in my hands is one of the rare moments when I manage to completely focus my mind on what I’m doing. It forces me to be in the moment, and it stimulates me. It keeps me curious and gives me the motivation to make new projects, or even just to simply go outside and do something.