It wasn’t until he moved to Seoul, South Korea, in 2013 that South African-born Lindsay Ryklief could live his life as freely and creatively as he wanted to. Relieved from a weight off his shoulders – the society he grew up in –, he started experimenting with photography, DJing and promoting LGBTQ+ parties, something he still does excellently to these days – among others, he’s founded events like Femme or Shade, which create safe spaces for queer and non-binary identifying folks. But one of his most renowned, striking projects is Boys of Seoul, through which he captures male vulnerability, alternative Korean beauty and the closeness of interpersonal relationships between men.
“I hope to offer people a complex yet simple, alternative view into the Asian male form, a view that is often underrepresented in mainstream media apart from K-pop,” he says in this interview. “The purpose of Boys of Seoul is to redefine the way people view Asian masculinity and beauty. I wanted to create a sense of fragility and vulnerability while exploring relationships that exist between friends on a platonic level.” Directing his lens towards underrepresented communities or even outcasts in Korean society – for example, guys covered in tattoos, something punished socially and almost legally –, he’s achieving this goal through extremely beautiful, poetic and intimate portraits of models, artists, musicians or any other guy who wants to pose for him. Today, we speak with Lindsay about the life-changing event of moving to Seoul, the friends he’s made there, and how he’s contributing to improving the society he’s living in.
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Lindsay, you’re a photographer as well as a DJ and a promoter. But what came first and which one followed? Have you always been a creative person and pursued a career in the arts, or were you interested in other fields growing up?
Interesting question. Promoting club events came first. I co-promoted Seoul’s first underground club queer event, called v.o.g.u.e – basically an introduction to ballroom culture. DJing felt organically like the next step, which I pursued with the help from other DJ friends. Looking back at my childhood, I was definitely a creative kid, but I struggled to find the outlet that best suited me.
Another concern – or more of an insecurity – is that I always linked creativity to sexuality while dealing with issues of often being misgendered or my sexuality constantly being questioned by others. I felt like I couldn’t fully express myself creatively, there were too many preconceived ideas, expectations and pressures that I felt I needed to live up to. However, I would go to the library and spend afternoons drawing fashion figures (which I hid from most people).
School projects, notes, essays… they were all decorative, always beyond what was expected. After high school, I went on to study Economics and Organizational Psychology at university while working at a designer clothing store, which I guess stimulated my creativity. It was definitely a place that made me think more creatively as well as challenge myself. I had a few friends I would run my creative ideas by, but nothing really developed from there. Until South Korea…
Let’s get into that. Originally from South Africa, you relocated to South Korea in 2013, where you started teaching English before devoting to club culture and photography. What made you move from Cape Town to Seoul, and what’s made you stay there?
When I graduated, I was very unsure about what exactly I wanted to pursue. One of my best friends encouraged me to try teaching English in South Korea, I was very apprehensive at first but I had nothing to lose and I wanted to explore the opportunities another country had to offer. I saw it as a chance to reinvent myself without the pressures of the society I grew up in. My first year, I met some of the most amazing people, it was and still is an exciting city to live. I was able to be myself unapologetically, especially with the people I chose to surround myself with. That network of interesting people continues to grow and it’s one of the reasons I’m still here.
One of your better-known projects is Boys of Seoul, where you portray a wide range of Korean guys to display different types of beauty and masculinity within the country. But how did it all start, and how has it evolved to what it is now?
It started with an attraction to the concept of Korean beauty, which I was not really exposed to in South Africa – or maybe just unaware of. I was curious about the closeness almost romantic yet platonic relationships that exists between friends, it’s something I was not accustomed to back in South Africa. I wanted to share that experience through my project. I started shooting Seoul Fashion Week and that’s how I initially started finding people to shoot. The purpose of Boys of Seoul is to redefine the way people view Asian masculinity and beauty. I wanted to create a sense of fragility and vulnerability while exploring relationships that exist between friends on a platonic level.
I hope to offer people a complex yet simple, alternative view into the Asian male form, a view that is often underrepresented in mainstream media apart from K-pop. The project has grown tremendously, with a wide variety of models, locations, and themes. It shows each subject’s individuality, form, spirit and diversity of the Korean male form while still retaining that sense of vulnerability of each character. The project continues to blur the lines between the depiction of men’s strength, beauty and character, resulting in a surreal narrative of each model’s persona, of the modern standard idea of what masculinity means.
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Despite meeting your subjects at clubs, on social media or from word-of-mouth, you usually choose those who’re in the fringes of Korean society: guys with tattoos – something punished socially and almost legally –, people from the LGBTQ+ community, etc. Why this interest in portraying the outcasts, those in the margins of mainstream society?
This is what I find myself drawn to. I wanted to steer away from conventional beauty yet also represent various individual Korean characteristics of the Korean male form. To be honest, it’s this feeling, like a spark that goes off when you meet or see someone, you start to see them through the viewfinder of your camera and you’ve already created your setting and mood in your head – a mood somewhere between the reality of dreaming and the surrealism of dreams. That’s what I work with, intuition and feeling, which leads me to storytelling.
Outcasts are interesting since they are usually not accepted by society or viewed differently. I wanted to tell that story too since it’s part of Korean society as well. I wanted to break the typical stereotypes of guys covered in tattoos by photographing the tough exterior (and sometimes tough personality too) while creating a sense of vulnerability from my subject. My project also makes many guys uncomfortable – it could be nudity, the styling, the interaction with other models, or certain poses. Here’s where it becomes very important to create a safe and comfortable environment, notably be sure to establish what the model is comfortable with.
I’d like to know more about your shoots then. How do you prepare them? Do you meet your subjects beforehand to create a trusting relationship before shooting them, or they just come to the studio or wherever you’re shooting them?
I basically keep multiple notebooks – electronic and physical – and I write down in them any idea, thought, location or object, and think about how I can visualize them in a shoot. I don’t meet my subjects before shooting them unless we’ve met while out around Seoul. They usually show up at my studio and we have a coffee and chat about the process of shooting, what they are comfortable with, basically trying to build rapport.
Generally, I need a mood, so I have a playlist for my shoots. It gets me into the zone and it creates the perfect mood for my models and helps them get a little more comfortable. All the boys I’ve shot thus far, I try to maintain good relationships with. One of my closest friends was one of the first ‘boys of Seoul’, and we’ve been friends since then.
Also, do you have a team, or does it depend on the situation?
I’m starting to build a small team – videographer, assistant, make-up artist, and stylist. I will say that I’m still learning how to manage a team and stick to deadlines. Some photoshoots don’t require a full team but an assistant is always helpful.
“I hope to offer people a complex yet simple, alternative view into the Asian male form, a view that is often underrepresented in mainstream media apart from K-pop.”
Your portraits show an intimate, delicate and vulnerable side of your subjects, qualities that are often more linked to femininity rather than masculinity. Do you feel you’re contributing to shaping new ways of understanding what ‘being a man’ or being ‘masculine’ means? What does masculinity mean to you personally?
Exactly, I’m trying to blur the lines between the two; they both can coexist in all genders – masculinity and femininity. I want my subjects to explore different sides to what they know and see that masculinity is genderless, it’s a strength within, a strong sense of self. I get asked this question very often and I always refer to this quote by Susan Sontag since it perfectly describes what I want to achieve with this project: “What is most beautiful in virile men is something feminine; what is most beautiful in feminine women is something masculine.”
As a straight guy (I think you are from what I’ve read and seen, sorry if I’m mistaken), it’s great to see you’re an ally to the LGBTQ+ community in a country that’s not very open-minded when it comes to sexuality. In addition to photographing queer people, you also organize parties to create safe spaces for them. How were you first introduced to this sort of positive fight? Were you also an LGBTQ+ advocate in South Africa, where homophobia is still deeply rooted despite same-sex marriage has been legal since 2006?
Definitely not straight (laughs). My first introduction to LGBTQ+ culture was ballroom culture through Paris is Burning – my boyfriend at the time was a vogue dancer and he introduced me to the culture. Given that I came out much later than most, he was a mentor and a role model to me. Notably my advocacy for LGBTQ+ culture was birthed in Seoul.
In my third year here, I founded Shade. Shade is a collective of DJs, promoters and creatives dedicated to bringing together the spirit of the underground music scene and LGBTQ+ culture through parties and events. Shade was launched at Cakeshop Seoul with the intent to push the boundaries of the LGBTQ+ scene further, ensuring a safe, welcoming, creative space for the Seoul community and beyond.
Following Shade’s success, Femme was created focused on female/non-binary and queer-identifying artists, while creating a safe space platform for all. I have hopes to be more active around the world, but also in South Africa as an advocate of queer/LGBTQ+ culture and artists. I feel that this is something I wish I had access to growing up as a gay boy with a creative side in hiding.
South Korea is widely known for its cosmetic and beauty industries, which can be perceived as radical to some – plastic surgery is almost ‘a must’ as I understand. How does your project defy those beauty norms and standards?
I try to show diversity within my subjects with a strong focus on natural beauty and strong Korean features. With that said, I do not use Photoshop on my models, what you see is what you get. Colouring and light are the basic changes. I try to portray my models away from typical beauty standards and norms, or portray ‘outcasts’ in such a way that it challenges beauty norms. However, plastic surgery is a norm and I think it’s important to also display that in a project like this since it is part of the society and beauty culture.
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After living in Seoul for over six/seven years, what’s your point of view on how society is evolving regarding those beauty standards? Since terms like ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’ have been steadily appearing more and more in the media, do you feel that there’s a sort of paradigm change?
Korea is a very homogenous society in general, but I definitely see and feel that there are those who are breaking away from the idea of the accepted beauty standard and embracing diversity and owning their individuality. But of course, these things will take time, but living in a society on the cusp of change is inspiring.
Half the planet is quarantined due to Covid-19; South Korea was severely affected but quickly turned the situation around and is currently doing pretty fine. How’s your experience been like in self-isolation? How are you overcoming the situation?
Self-isolation has been good, it has given me time to think and plan a bit the future, which I definitely think is a privilege that one has to acknowledge. It’s given me time to sleep, which is something I don’t often do. I haven’t been DJing but I’ve been working on mix sets and fooling around with producing. Since I’m not at the club and trying my best to keep social distancing, I’ve been focusing on my photoshoots and working on future collaborations.
Things are rather uncertain at this point, but still, I’d like to ask about your future plans. Any other projects in the making? Any dreams and goals you’d like to accomplish soon?
I have so many, that at times it’s hard to focus on one. However, self-isolation has given me some time to prioritize. Currently, there are at the top of my list a solo exhibition in Seoul and some European cities, publish my first photography book, work with some brands, work with other creatives on projects and grow my portfolio creatively.
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