An Elvis Presley doppelgänger walks down a quiet street in Seoul. A postal envelope under his arm, the smart gentleman wears flared turquoise pants, a matching neckerchief, and a beaming smile. Elvis? South Korea?
Easily confused with an Asian version of the late Rock ’n’ Roll singer, this Elvis is an Ajoessi. In Korea, Ajoessis are middle-aged, married men whose sartorial choices show little to no interest in contemporary fashion trends. Their genuine, confident appearance is what drew photographer Florian Bong-Kil Grosse to make them the subjects of his photo series Ajoessi which he has pursued since 2015.
To the German photographer with Korean roots, Ajoessis embody a way of life, unbothered by international movements and out of touch with consumer trends—even in a place as trend-focused as the South Korean capital. To younger age groups, as Grosse has learned, Ajoessis often resemble images of authority with an outdated fashion sense, and are commonly known for their old-fashioned attitudes and irreconcilable stubbornness. To Grosse, they remain fascinating and mysterious. “While contemporary Korea shows such high sensibility for trends I was always attracted by the authenticity of these simple old men from the streets,” he explains. “The series is one of my documentary works where photography bears a contemporary witness of a vanishing phenomenon.”
Grosse vividly remembers his first sighting of Ajoessis. “One of my favorite places around Seoul is the old town in the Jogno district, and the narrow streets next to the historic site of Pagoda Park,” he begins. “It’s one of the few areas that has kept its original aspect—as if time has stood still. The streets are crowded with mostly elderly men. Day by day they come here to discuss politics, to gamble, or meet up with their female counterparts—the “Ajummas”—at one of the old-fashioned dance clubs.”
Over the course of two years, Grosse has documented their leisure activities, the shops and eateries they frequent, the streets they pass; Ajoessis visiting their trusted barbers, stocking up on shirts and ties, taking the subway, running errands, or socializing. Besides the traditional Pagoda Park, he catches them outside of Nakwon Music Mall—always in their Sunday best. “Surprisingly, among these elder generations of Koreans, men tend to dress up more elegantly than women in particular; sometimes even eccentrically,” explains Grosse. “As I witnessed them gather and occupy whole quarters I perceived them more as a subculture with its very own set of rules rather than simply grown-up people. In fact, within the borders of a society that strongly follows confucian ideas, age is a very important factor for every social relationship.”
“The series is one of my documentary works where photography bears a contemporary witness of a vanishing phenomenon.”
Grosse’s connection to South Korea is special; he’s much more than just a visiting photographer. Adopted from the peninsular country by a German family in 1977, he returned to his native country as an adult ten years ago. “If truth be told, I didn’t know more about Korea than it being my country of birth, because contemporary reports are so patchy that you could construct various different narratives from them.” Today, his simple and timeless aesthetic offers a unique perspective on an everyday Korea blurring traditions and contemporary life. Seoul’s Jogno district being a recurring location, Grosse embeds street scenes in soft palettes and minimal compositions, and continuously studies light in spatial realities.
The South Korea he describes is a place of contrasts: “When I first arrived I saw before all else overpopulated, hectic, and noisy cities as well as modest, traditional architecture side by side with the ubiquitous functional yet disconsolate prefabricated housing blocks,” Grosse remembers. He further describes Buddhist pagodas hemmed in by eight-lane traffic arteries, and minimally landscaped parks next to mazes of market stalls. Capturing Ajoessis in the context of this ever-evolving, vibrant place, Grosse delivers a picture that returns to a generation’s roots—much like the photographer returned to his own.
Florian Bong-Kil Grosse has documented his impressions of South Korea for about ten years, and has published the book Hanguk as a summary of his journey to his native country. To see more of his photography, visit his website or follow him on Instagram.