It’s a new year, and EnVi has exciting content for you to discover in 2024! This January, we are spotlighting emerging talent from all across the Asian diaspora and beyond. From fresh music releases to silver screen debuts, check out some of our new favorite up-and-coming creatives to keep an eye on.

Haneul Lee is a photographer striving to show the complexities and diversity within the demographics of Asian society. From her first project “In The Room” to her ongoing series “Boomers,” Lee is dedicated to showcasing the individuality of people from these demographics. In an exclusive interview with EnVi, Lee unveiled the layers of her artistic journey, delving into her influences, inspirations, and the captivating stories behind her lens.

The Artistic Journey 

Lee’s journey into photography began during her childhood. She recalled her father constantly taking pictures of her and her family and she was intrigued by the art form. “I started to feel unfamiliar with myself in these photos. This was an interesting feeling to me and really shaped my belief that a person ‘exists at a certain time’ in a photograph from the moment it is captured,“ Lee reflected. This realization became the cornerstone of her artistic philosophy, shaping her belief in the power of frozen moments to convey the essence of an individual’s existence. 

Finding Inspiration

Lee credited her artistic development to the influence of photographers from across the globe, acknowledging the impact of visionaries like Yokomizo Shizuka in Japan, Katy Grannan in the U.S., and Rineke Dijkstra in the Netherlands. Each of these artists possesses a unique ability to capture the essence of individuals from their respective communities and cultures. Lee finds inspiration in their works, as they resonate with her aspiration to encapsulate the true essence of a person in a singular moment. 

Their collective impact has left an indelible mark on her work, guiding her toward a nuanced approach that draws inspiration from various sources. This dynamic perspective is a testament to Lee’s commitment to her craft, enriching her ability to convey the depth and authenticity of her subjects such as in her previous series, “Stranger,” which focused on women in their 20s.

Photos courtesy of Haneul Lee.

In a departure from traditional sources of inspiration, Haneul Lee has recently turned to novels as a wellspring of creativity. During her visit to Okinawa in October, Lee discovered the novel “Almost Transparent Blue” by Ryū Murakami. The novel offered a fresh lens through which she interpreted the culture and setting of the region. This interdisciplinary approach, blending literature with visual art, showcases Lee’s commitment to multifaceted storytelling.

Beyond Boomers: Redefining Korean Ahjussi

An elderly Korean man poses in front of bricked walls. He has a black T-shirt and light brown shorts on.
Image courtesy of Haneul Lee.

The term ahjussi is used in the Korean language to refer to middle-aged men who are older than the speaker. Today, most ahjussis belong to the baby boomer generation. Hence, the idea of an ahjussi is similar to a “boomer” in the Western world, and usually comes with a negative connotation. 

Younger generations often assume that ahjussis must have conservative views or poor fashion sense because of the social stigma associated with their age. Lee set out to redefine this label, capturing the unique and individualistic sides of ahjussis, presenting them beyond society’s generic stereotypes of older men in Asia. “We often look at people with habitually-learned stereotypes, and I hope that we can view them from a different perspective,” she mused.

An elderly man standing while holding a leather briefcase. He has a black newsboy cap on.
Image courtesy of Haneul Lee.

Lee fondly recalled finding her first subject for the “Boomer” series in the streets of Seoul. After a long day of searching for interesting subjects, Lee had almost given up when she noticed him. “I called him ‘Mario ahjussi’  because his hat resembled the popular character Mario,” she joked, “When I complimented him on his style, he told me that this was the reason he was really popular when he was 20 years old.” After this encounter, Lee knew the direction the series needed to go. She would capture ahjussis who embrace their unique style without worrying about the opinions of others and live in the present while staying true to the roots of their past.

An elderly Korean man standing. He has a mostly burgundy tweed outerwear on and matching trousers.
Image courtesy of Haneul Lee.

The “Boomers” series now has 56 installments and is ongoing. Upon reflection, Lee shared how this series has transformed her perception of these older men. “Before this series, I found it hard to approach [them] and there was really no reason to talk to them, but as I worked on this series, I can feel the stereotype being broken.” She declared, “These are often passers-by on the street or someone’s father.” The series aims to shift societal perspectives, urging viewers to see ahjussis through a different lens, beyond their stereotypes.

Memorable Encounters: Stories from the Streets of Seoul

An elderly Korean man holding two metallic buckets.
Image courtesy of Haneul Lee.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Haneul Lee’s process is her approach to selecting subjects for her photographs. Rather than adhering to a specific standard, she relies on capturing the instantaneous emotions arising from her encounters with subjects on the street. This method lends a raw authenticity to her work, allowing viewers to glimpse the untold stories and emotions of the ahjussis she portrays.

In a bustling bus terminal or on a subway platform, Haneul Lee has shared poignant moments with the ahjussis she photographs. From encounters with a man hurriedly running away from home to the enigmatic trio claiming to be “wanted men,” Lee’s lens captures the diversity and unpredictability of these unscripted interactions. The most captivating narratives often emerge when the subjects open up about their past, transporting both artist and audience to different eras and experiences.

An elderly Korean man holding a pumpkin on his left hand.
Image courtesy of Haneul Lee.

Future Visions: Navigating the Landscape of Possibilities

Looking ahead, Lee saw the overflowing information and possibilities surrounding AI and deep learning technologies. While the realm of virtual characters in portrait photography expands, Lee remains focused on the diversity and richness of real-life stories. Her commitment to observing and recording stories she finds interesting underscores her dedication to authenticity amidst technological innovation.

As she contemplated future projects, Haneul Lee expressed her desire to take a self-portrait of her future self as a middle-aged woman, an endeavor she finds both intriguing and intimidating. This revelation provides a glimpse into the artist’s self-awareness and willingness to explore new dimensions of her creativity.

Illuminating Unseen Narratives

Haneul Lee’s photography journey transcends capturing mere images; it encapsulates a commitment to unveiling the untold stories of individuals and challenging societal norms. Through her lens, she invites audiences to reassess preconceived notions and witness the diversity and individualism present in every fleeting moment. As she navigates the evolving landscape of photography, Lee’s work stands as a testament to the transformative power of art in fostering understanding and empathy in the world.

Visit Haneul Lee’s official site to view “Boomer” and “Strangers” in their entirety and learn more.

Interested in gaming as a gateway to cultural exploration? Read about Brian Pang’s work here!