Paper nostalgia: Retro photo booths in South Korea explode in popularity

Despite having grown up with digital photography, young people love to preserve special moments on printed photographs

Fotomatones Corea del Sur
Jinyoung poses with her cousins as they show off their printouts from the photo booth.Isabel Rubio
Isabel Rubio

Socks with images of the BTS K-pop band, handmade fans, and Squid Game masks are some of the accessories you can buy in the shops that line the narrow streets of Insadong, a colorful neighborhood in downtown Seoul. In one of these stores, a few girls giggle as they try on glasses and headbands with little ears. They’re about to enter one of the self-service photo booths that are exploding in popularity among young people in South Korea and going viral on Instagram and TikTok.

One of the most well-known photo booth chains is Life4Cuts, which has 315 locations in South Korea with around 10,000 photo booths. The company estimates that 22 million people use their booths every year. With over 1.1 million Life4Cuts hashtagged posts in Korean, as well as dedicated pages for photo pose tutorials, Instagram is a popular platform for showcasing this new fad. Meanwhile, videos demonstrating photo booth features have racked up thousands of views on TikTok. To capitalize on this craze, Life4Cuts has expanded into the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

At the Insadong photobooth, Jimin, a 30-year-old woman visiting South Korea’s capital, stares into the mirror and restlessly runs her hands through her hair while waiting for her friend. “When I hang out with my friends in Seoul, we always take pictures. It’s a way to preserve these shared moments,” she said.

Behind Jimin is a wall adorned with dozens of photos – a canvas of memories. Some show people posing alone, while others feature up to 10 people wearing all sorts of accessories – sunglasses, Minnie Mouse bows, flower tiaras, police hats, birthday cake headbands, and even giant dinosaur and animal hats. All these accessories are available to wear for free.

Elena chooses a headband before entering a booth.
Elena chooses a headband before entering a booth.Isabel Rubio

This location has three pink booths that offer a variety of photo styles. Jimin loves that she can even customize the frame. She can choose a color and maybe a Disney character, like Lilo & Stitch, Dumbo, and Beauty and the Beast. Or she can choose a design for special events like birthdays, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

After selecting the number of photos (one, two, three, four, six, or eight), customers pay 5,000 Korean won (about $3.85 or €3.60) and take a seat on a bench under two powerful spotlights. Every 10 seconds, the camera snaps a picture and displays it on a screen. Most people take four pictures, says Jimin.

Two copies of each photo are printed. “That way a couple can each have one,” said Elena, who works as a Korean interpreter and uses a photo booth every few weeks. Elena beams with pride as she shows off photos she took with her partner. The prints can be put on display at home or kept in a photo album, and also downloaded by scanning a QR code, says Elena.

Elena poses in a photo booth.
Elena poses in a photo booth.Isabel Rubio

Like hundreds of others, Jimin often shares her photo booth pictures on Instagram, with hashtags like #happybirthday. But others, like Jinyoung, simply want a memory they can hold in their hands. The young woman from Seoul goes to photo booths twice a month to capture moments shared with friends or sometimes alone. Today she’s with her two 20-year-old cousins who are visiting Seoul for a day of fun.”What we like most about taking pictures is that they capture times spent together. That’s the most precious part,” said Jinyoung, as she shyly covers her smile with her hand.

Jinyoung and her cousins are clearly experienced at posing in photo booths. They put on hats and other funny accessories, like the caps that make their faces look like mugs of beer. They pout and smile, stroke their chins and make finger hearts. Posing can be learned – the Life4Cuts website offers tips for solo and group photos, as well as couples. One video suggests that people line up by height. Many photos feature people forming heart shapes with their arms or hands (put your thumb and index finger together), a now ubiquitous pose popularized by K-pop stars. During BTS’ visit to the White House in 2022, they all made finger hearts in their photos with President Joe Biden.

Paper prints in a digital age

 Photos that several young people have pasted on the wall of the photo booth.
Photos that several young people have pasted on the wall of the photo booth.Isabel Rubio

Explore Seoul’s neighborhoods and you’ll stumble upon an array of photo booths. Most are unattended, while others have staff who offer extras like hair straighteners for customers to primp before saying “Cheese!” In this digital age, why are photo booths all the rage?

Samy Lee, a 35-year-old interpreter from Barcelona who has lived in Seoul for almost a decade, says that picture-taking has always been popular in South Korea. “Koreans love selfies. They even have special places to take them at tourist sites,” she said. Now photo booths are popping up around tourist sites like Namsan Tower (better known as N Seoul Tower), where thousands of colorful padlocks with messages in Korean adorn the railings and gardens. There’s a pink photo booth there with a sign that says, “Take a photo.” Several tourists pull back the curtain and enter.

Junho Jeong shows off the photo booth pictures he took with his daughter.
Junho Jeong shows off the photo booth pictures he took with his daughter.Isabel Rubio

While these photo booths are now going viral on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram, they’re not new, says Junho Jeong. Now in his early forties, he says he used to go to photo booths with his friends about 15 years ago. He remembers that back then, the machines used to print small stickers to exchange with friends.

Jeong says he felt a bit nostalgic when he visited one of these new photo booths with his 13-year-old daughter recently. He’s not sure if their success is due to social media or because retro is trendy these days. “My generation grew up with printed photos and then we got used to smartphones. We never print photos anymore, not even family pictures. My daughter, on the other hand, has grown up with smartphones and sees these photos as a way to have tangible memories of her friends and family.”

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