Seoul Adventures

I’d had a wonderful morning touring Cheondukkung Palace and was walking a new route from the palace to Bukchon Village to see an artist friend. It was hot, very muggy and I was getting hungry.

knife sharpener, Seoul, South Korea
Knife sharpener, Seoul, Korea

I looked ahead and saw a man sharpening knives on the next corner. He was sitting in a shady spot on the curb near his supplies cart. You don’t see these men on every street corner in Seoul, at least I don’t in all my meanderings. The last time I saw a knife sharpener was about 15 years ago. I’d wanted his picture. But, I don’t take pictures of people because I’m too afraid.

knife sharpener, working, Seoul, South Korea
Knife sharpener at work, Seoul

When I was in college taking a basic psychology course, we were assigned an experiment to do something for a week that was typically against cultural norms; e.g. standing close to someone in an elevator or talking very loudly, etc. I chose to walk around with my camera and a long lens and pretend to take pictures of people…in an elevator or the school dining hall. This was in the 80’s when cameras were not so common. What did I learn by this experiment? People don’t like cameras pointed their way, they turn away, they react angrily, etc. How did I apply that lesson for the past decades of my life as a photographer? Don’t take people’s pictures because it bothers them and they don’t like it. I was a good student to apply my lessons!

I saw my first knife sharpener in another district of Seoul as I was showing some people around the area. He was sitting on a small stool doing his work next to a wall. I liked the simplicity of the task, the “old worldness” of it, the fact that the man was willing to ply his trade anywhere and the novelty of the job as something we don’t see in America. But being with others, being too afraid to stop and ask him, I simply walked by, turned to look at him again and, with regret, kept going. That “scene-that-got-away” haunts me often as I’m in a city photographing.

I had not seen another knife sharpener until this day. I took a long distance shot of the knife sharpener which seemed unfair and sneaky. When I reached him I stopped to watch, smiled, said hi, looked at his cart and hoped that seeing the 2 cameras dangling on my shoulders might prompt him to invite me to snap a picture or 2! But, being too afraid of a negative reaction to ask him to take pictures, I turned and, with regret, kept going.

About 20 yards into my journey, I paused on the sidewalk and had a little debate with myself about stretching beyond my comfort zone. I snapped a photo of something else that intrigued me (not people!) trying to convince myself that this is what I wanted. I thought about the knife sharpener from the past and the one I just passed. I walked a few more steps. “The only answer is ‘no’ if you don’t ask” flashed in my mind. What if he does say yes-do I have the skills to capture him and his job? How do I do this? Can I do this? Surprisingly, even with my fear of people shots and limited Korean language skills, I do know how to ask to take someone’s photo in addition to the universal sign language of a smile and holding up your camera. I made some camera adjustments, took a deep breath and went back.

He agreed that I could take his picture! So, I crouched as near as I dared and took about a dozen shots as he worked-though I hardly moved because of my fear of imposing. Then I used my phone to catch a video as he worked. I wanted to take more pictures of him, his work, his fascinating cart and all the details of it but I believed I had bothered him enough-that’s my own perception not from any indications from him. I told him thank you and to work well (more of my Korean vocabulary) and, this time with a big song in my heart, retraced my steps.

I needed mia kali thea (“a good view”) for myself to rewrite old psychology class lessons.

I needed a new, good view for myself for my city photography. Could I have done better with composition, etc? Yes, I let some fear and adrenaline rush and paralyze me. Will I now start talking to people and taking their pictures? We’ll see but I now have a bit more confidence and less fear about the idea of it!

Just beyond my previous turn around point, I stopped in a small cafe for lunch. About 5 minutes after I arrived, the knife sharpener came to the restaurant to deliver sharp knives to the chef. I had just watched him work on the knives for this restaurant! Before I left, I showed the video of him to the chef and the waitress and they smiled.

The whole collusion of events seems to complete a little circle in my mind-and definitely in my heart. I only have mental snapshots of the knife sharpener from long ago but, with this opportunity, I overcame a mental roadblock, stepped past some old fears, expanded my view and connected with someone along the way.

As we say on this site: “Everyone needs “a good view”; where will you find Mia Kali Thea today?”

Where did I find Mia Kali Thea that day?

knife sharpener, portrait, Seoul, South Korea
Portrait of the knife sharpener, Seoul

-on a hot though shaded street corner in Seoul through the generosity of a knife sharpener.

p.s. I’d like to find him the next time I visit; maybe this time I’ll get some close-ups of his cart!

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