Michael Hurt ’90 is a street photographer and academic based in Seoul, South Korea. Using his camera to build connections, access communities, and investigate subcultures, he often engages with his subjects from the standpoint of a “participant-practitioner,” someone who is active in the communities he researches.
“The only way to figure out what’s going on in that community is to actually participate in it… I become an actor in their field, as opposed to someone who’s an outsider. It’s a way of making yourself a practical insider for a while,” said Hurt.
Although his interest in photography stemmed from his childhood, Hurt first focused on street photography in Korea while conducting research for his dissertation in 2002. According to Hurt, cultural differences between the U.S. and Korea fostered his interest in Korean street photography.
“[Korea] was a much better environment to be doing photography in than the U.S. [In America], I know the culture. I’m an insider. I’m an American citizen. I’m familiar with the culture, so it’s not that interesting to me. But if I’m an outsider, everything, like going to the bathroom, is interesting to me. I had a flame, and the gasoline is everything in Korea,” said Hurt.
Hurt recalled that while growing up Korean and Black in Ohio, Americans did not engage deeply with Korean culture. As a student researching ethnic studies in the ’90s, he struggled to study Korea in an Asian studies landscape that centered on China and Japan. However, Hurt’s research and photography eventually went on to coincide with the global rise of Korean culture in the 2010s.
“While I was away in Korea, Korea became hot and cool and became a legitimate place to look at. By the time I’m doing my photography and fitting all that together in 2014, I was like, ‘I’ve been doing all this academic research on subcultures and communities. Why not plug that in?’… In the time I was here, Korea got cool, and suddenly there are things for me to do that fit in academically,” said Hurt.
On the streets of Seoul, Hurt shoots with wide-angle shots and lower angles. He also uses digital photo editing to capture the “hyper-modern” Korean aesthetic.
“I try to make my output on Instagram match the hyper-modern society that I find myself in, so I’ve been calling Korea the first truly hyper-modern society, and I try to make my photography a hyper-modern art practice. I’m not afraid of digital. I use digital to enhance reality, and I think that’s the reality people experience here and are comfortable with… Korea has embraced artifice as its own aesthetic,” said Hurt.
For Andover students interested in pursuing photography, Hurt had a simple piece of advice: just try it. He emphasized the importance of learning with hands-on practice rather than getting tangled in theory and technicalities.
Hurt said, “Getting photographic authority to call yourself a photographer if you walk out and pull the shutter button is the toughest thing to do… The best way to establish that kind of authority to be doing what you’re doing. The best way to do it is to do it internally, by going to start and doing it.”