JT White <em>Seoul</em> 2022, from the Megacities project, Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. This project is supported by the Orloff Family Charitable Trust, and Barry Janes and Paul Cross, 2022. Courtesy of the artist<br/>
© JT White

Moving, working, flowing

JT White

One of a series of essays featuring the answers to questions posed to artists participating in the Megacities project of NGV Triennial 2023

In this third decade of the twenty-first century, the megacity – a city with a population of more than 10 million people – may become the dominant human habitat. The NGV Triennial project Megacities is an ambitious, immersive multimedia installation bringing the creative vision of ten leading street photographers into dialogue with the urban environment. These images offer a counterpoint to the myth of the megacity, an urban agglomeration often used as the antithesis of wealthy European and North American metropolis. Here, the megacity is shown through the lens and explained in the words of those that live there.

Can you describe your daily experience living and working in one of the largest cities on the planet?

My life is a pretty simple one. I wake up, play with my daughter, bring her to daycare, drive to work and come home. There’s nothing about my existence that is particularly interesting. I will say that it is in the night when living in a city such as this really feels different. I grew up in Canada, and around a certain hour everything shuts down. Nothing ever feels shut down in Seoul. It’s moving, working, flowing. I love the ebbs and flows.

How has this contemporary urban environment shaped your practice as a photographer and artist?

I think my life as a photographer was birthed from the ‘whom’ of this city. I left Canada to come here. I hid the fact I was here for a very long time. After I eventually came clean, so to speak, my parents were very interested in my life here. My photographic journey began with the photos I took to show them that life. Someone once told me my photos feel like a self-portrait of myself in this city. I think that was birthed from those origins.

Our understanding of cities has benefited from the development of GPS and mobile technology – does this impact your work? Has it changed the way that you work ‘on the street’, with the ubiquitous presence of mobile technologies?

It has not changed the way I work. It’s changed the amount I work. I photograph while moving and going. Some people read books or listen to music on the subway, but I take pictures. The easier transport and movement have gotten, the shorter the amount of time I’ve spent taking photos. I don’t get ‘lost’ like I used to. It’s a shame, really. That said, at least I’m more or less always on time now.

Environmental and social problems are often cited as negative outcomes of urbanisation on the megacity scale, but counterpoints include the development of innovative ways of living and employment opportunities. Negative or positive? Can you discuss your experiences and responses to the high-density urban environment?

In Seoul specifically I think there’s always been a rushed nature to how things happen here – the rush to be bigger, better, faster, stronger, richer. I could go on. It’s just how it is. The longer I’ve lived here the more this has supplanted my old disposition. I’ve become where I live. In terms of employment, it’s hard to say, everything’s a mess since 2020 everywhere, isn’t it?

Are you witnessing environmental transformation in the city you are working in?

Seoul is the fastest changing place I’ve ever seen. It’s shocking really. The turnover in development is so fast it makes my head spin. One day a building will be a cellphone shop and the next an academy. I’ve heard it’s been this way since the war. In terms of the environment itself, the urban jungle remains urban.

Beyond capturing the built environment, we asked you to consider a narrative arc within your images that explores the quality of life in a megacity, the experience of moving around the city, where and how people work and the impacts for community. With this in mind, what did your project reveal?

This was unclear to me at first. I was uncertain how to accomplish this in the work. The more I photographed the more I realised the ebbs and flows of the city mimicked its citizens. The flow of the city felt like a river making deposits. People get on the subway and get off in this cycle we call life. I photographed the river and its flow.

If we accept the premise that the megacity is an engine for cultural and social change, how do you see that reflected on the street?

This is a hard one for me, as I think much of any change had been halted by the pandemic. I think the megacity is a Petri dish for the part of the world it exists in – it’s always been so since the first ‘megacities’. Seoul is no different. If I’m speaking on personal hope, I hope Seoul becomes a more open-minded city going forward. While it is one of the more technologically advanced cities on the planet, it is traditional in a lot of ways. Too many ways.

JT WHITE | Seoul, South Korea.