From its music to its skyscrapers to its soju-fueled nightlife, Seoul is known for many things. Now one of its endearing quirks, the photo booth, is a nostalgic secret disappearing from the city's streets.
If there is a silver lining to this global pandemic, it’s how much extra time we were given at home during quarantine. Never would I have had the inclination to go through old photo albums and diaries if I hadn’t been on lockdown and kept away from my regular pursuits, such as going to the pub or spending hours next to strangers on public transportation.
The other day, I was going through old pictures when a couple strips of paper fell onto my lap. In an instant, I was transported back to a time before selfies and Instagram. Back to a time that predates the modern-day obsession with capturing the “perfect” picture or tapping into the latest silly pose. These photo strips had been taken in Seoul during a 2010 trip. Back then, going into a room filled with photo booths gave one a thrill that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the city: this was where memories were made.
Before we all discovered the power of a good “thirst trap” posed in a far-away setting, travel memories were physical affairs that took time to print out and lay out in photo albums. In 2010, my friend and I were probably too old to be arguing about how many glittery stars were acceptable in a picture, but it didn’t stop us from pretending to be Powerpuff Girls and falling over ourselves in fits of giggles as we tried–and discarded–the accessories provided in the photo booth arcades. The tiny bits of sticky paper that resulted from such “photoshoots” are now some of my favorite travel mementos, and it’s not a coincidence.
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Back then, tourists were not as prevalent as they are now in South Korea, and Seoul was a city in flux. Students crowded all-night coffee shops and brunch in Itaewon was still quite the affair. Endlessly shopping in Hongdae and singing Sex Pistols’ songs in karaoke rooms at 4 a.m. didn’t seem like a waste of time. It was Seoul, we were in our early twenties, and the city was our playground.
Memories were made every second of every day and yet, we didn’t take selfies to try and capture our daily lives. We strutted around Hongdae and stuffed our faces at barbecue restaurants, but you’d be hard-pressed to find actual proof that we did. What we have instead are the over-the-top pictures that represent snapshots of more carefree days when going to the cinema to watch Inception in Korean made sense, and spending an entire afternoon pretending to be models on the cover of K-Pop magazine, Bazaab, seemed like a good use of our time.
I’d first fallen in love with the memories that photo booths provide, as a teenager in Auckland, New Zealand. The imported Japanese machines randomly scattered around an arcade on Queen Street were a wonder that filled me and my friends with endless amusement. We’d hit on whatever button “looked” fun and hoped we selected something cool. In Seoul, I fell in love with photo booths all over again.
In 2016, I went back to Seoul, but the photo booths had all sadly disappeared. Replaced by everyone’s obsession with smartphones and selfies, the somewhat old-school pleasure was forgotten. South Korea had changed, tourists were everywhere, the language barrier was not as much of an issue anymore, and the photo booths had disappeared. Walking around Hongdae and Sinchon, I watched as students hung out at coffee shops, popped in and out of clothing and beauty stores, and plonked down for a meal at barbecue restaurants. Seoul had evolved, but it was still recognizable to me.
Today, travel memories are reduced to pixels on a screen and thousands of perfect snapshots we’ll rarely look back at once posted online. A selfie is not a photoshoot and no filter will ever replace the endless fun of customization once offered by Seoul’s photo booths. Their entire purpose was entertainment and the reality was that they provided so much more than that.
Holding my photos in hand, I looked everywhere for the photo booths I had fallen in love with. I went down small streets, entered random shops, and even asked people about them who looked at me as if I’d gone slightly mad. I eventually found a sad and forgotten photo booth where I went in and took some pictures with my mum, but it was not the same as I had remembered. Perhaps, having thousands of pictures readily accessible in our pockets, may have stolen the value once attached to a simple photo strip.
Physical pictures don’t equate to travel memories. A whiff of barbecue, the sound of a song, or the feel of a piece of clothing have the power to transport us back to someplace else. But I will always associate Seoul with photo booths and even now that they aren’t around anymore, I can’t help but think I’ll look for them next time I’m in South Korea. In the meantime, I’ll always have the photo strips from 2010 to look back on; and I will happily disagree with anyone who believes an air-dropped selfie is the same thing.