“Want to go take a Life Four Cuts?”
When hanging with friends in Korea, someone in the group is bound to randomly say this phrase, and soon you will probably find yourself wearing funny wigs or sunglasses inside a photo booth.
For those wondering what “Life Four Cuts” is, simply put, it refers to booths where people can dress up to take a four-image photo strip for just 4,000 won ($2.80).
It is one of Korea’s biggest and most popular photo machine franchises, and because taking photo strips has become so common, Life Four Cuts has become the generic name, similar to Band-Aid and Post-it.
The franchise started out small, with a single unmanned booth on the streets of Daegu in 2017. Since then, however, Life Four Cuts has seen immense success, branching out all across Korea. As of October 2022 it has almost 400 stores nationwide.
The brand revealed last year that it also launched booths overseas in the United States, Canada, Guatemala, the Philippines, Vietnam, New Zealand and Japan.
While Life Four Cuts was arguably the first to kickstart the popularity of photo booths, there are now dozens of other brands, like Photoism, Selpix and Haru Film, scattered all over the nation.
Why are these photo booths so popular?
More than meets the eye
While these photo strips may look simple, it is the experience of creating them that attracts the younger generation.
It can be likened to a number of activities that have gained popularity in recent years, like wearing uniforms to amusement parks or wearing hanbok (Korean traditional dress) when touring Gyeongbok Palace, both of which are based in the desire to take aesthetic pictures for Instagram.
Photo booth photography is the same.
“You can’t afford to miss out on it,” said Kim Ye-jin, a 24-year-old who lives in Ansan, Gyeonggi.
“I think the biggest advantage of these photo strips is that you don’t have to spend too much time and money at a studio and are able to conveniently capture memories with your friends,” said Kim.
Because photo strips can record any moment in a convenient and cheap manner, they have become a form of entertainment, says Suh Yong-gu, a business management professor at Sookmyung Women’s University.
“We can become, say, the prince of Saudi Arabia or whatever you want, when you go inside the photo booth to take a snap,” Prof. Suh told the Korea JoongAng Daily. “It’s cheap, and even the stores are unmanned. People want to do exciting things like travel, but reality is holding them back, which is why they are turning to these opportunities to apply makeup or transform into other things like a cowboy with hats on display. This is something we call ‘instant gratification’ — when you buy or do something on impulse, your dopamine level rises. Anyone would surely enjoy spending 4,000 won to curate a whole new persona.”
Even though smartphones easily allow us to take photographs anytime, anywhere, they are unable to match the “perfect lighting and makeup filters” the photo booths provide, Prof. Suh added.
Before smartphones started taking over the camera world, there were far fewer opportunities to pose for the camera, thus the perception of taking pictures for entertainment only came about after instant photography became popular.
Until the 1990’s, getting your picture taken in Korea was perceived to be something formal and somewhat serious.
“Before [instant photography], most pictures were taken out of obligation in a solemn and stiff manner,” professional photographer Kang Hong-goo wrote in an article for the weekly magazine SisaIN in 2019.
As most photos were taken in professional studios, it was expensive and time-consuming. Such shoots usually took place to celebrate big events such as birthdays, graduation ceremonies, or weddings.
“People would take photos, print them, and put them in albums to remember the specific event,” Kang explained, which would basically be all there is to it, as opposed to instant photography nowadays that are taken practically anytime and anyplace.
The need for nostalgia
The recent surge of Y2K nostalgia is considered to be another factor in the growing popularity of photo booths.
Twenty-four-year-old Kim says that the “basic analog mood” the photo strips offer are what keep her going back to the photo booths for more. The fact that they are printable — in the standard 2- (5.08 centimeter) by 6-inch sized frame — also adds to the appeal.
“I feel like there’s nothing left to reminisce on when you take pictures on your smartphones. It does a fantastic job at recording things on the spot but there’s no physical output, because they are only viewable on your phone, which I sometimes find a bummer,” said Kim.
“So what would be more memorable — having unlimited access to loads of pictures on your smartphone that you forget about immediately afterward, or a limited number of printed photographs that only you and your friends share forever?”
Park Yoon-seo, a 22-year-old from Suwon, Gyeonggi, makes sure to go the extra step to keep the polaroid images that she took with friends in a photo album.
Stores both online and offline sell a wide variety of albums with specific slots to fit photo strips.
Park enjoys watching YouTube videos or reading online blog posts about how to decorate her albums with stickers.
“These photo strips are also usable as interior decor. I bought wooden clothespins to hang them on the walls of my room, or even simpler: I just keep them on my desk or drawers because they look pretty even just like that,” she said.
Social media trendsetter
While many social media trends tend to march on forward with the metaverse or virtual reality, others are backtracking to remind people of the good old days.
Because a Life Four Cuts photo strip has space for four different pictures, social media users have been scurrying online to give each other tips for the best poses.
On Instagram, there are over 48,000 posts with the hashtag “Life Four Cuts Poses” (translated), with various suggestions according to the number of people you are planning to take snaps with.
Pororo, Korea’s beloved animated penguin popular with kids, posted on its official account in early October how it would pose for a Life Four Cuts along with fellow dinosaur character Crong. Other accounts have also uploaded Sailor Moon-inspired poses or Spongebob-inspired ones, garnering thousands of likes.
“It’s hard to figure out which pose to do in just a matter of seconds before the shutter goes off,” said Park. “And when you’re with a group of friends, you want the pictures to turn out nicely and in harmony. Lately, poses like the ‘gyaru [the Japanese pronunciation for ‘gal’] peace sign’ and the ‘cheek heart pose’ have been really popular.”
Social media also provides ideas for what types of frames to use on the photo strips, which people can create themselves on apps. Photo booth brands often offer special edition frames according to the season or holidays for a limited time.
Park says that one routine she strictly adheres to is taking a Boomerang video — a burst of photos that play back and forth to create a video that continuously replays on a loop — on her phone when the booth is printing the photo strips.
“It may not be that important if you just want to be finished with the final picture, but for me, it’s like a small ritual to take a Boomerang,” Park said. “Because in the end, it’s having fun that really matters, isn’t it?”
Are photo booths here to stay?
This isn’t the first time instant photography has seen a surge in popularity in Korea — back in the 2000’s, photo stickers were all the rage.
They are what the name infers — stamp-sized, adhesive pictures with beauty filters that notoriously enlarge the eyes and enhance the skin.
Originating from Japan, where they are called “purikura” — a shortened Japanese pronunciation of the words for “print club” — photo stickers were highly sought after until the early 2010’s. Now, however, it’s practically impossible to find a photo sticker store.
Purikura is still popular in Japan, but why did they dwindle away in Korea?
Some say they started to feel discomfort in the way photo stickers created an unnatural sculpted look.
“There’s this old-style mood in photo stickers that make them too artificial. They make the eyes abnormally huge or sharpen the chin way too much,” said Choi Min-seong, a 25-year-old student living in Songpa District, southern Seoul.
“Ten years ago, the trends actually favored this look, and since we didn’t have smartphones back then and it was too expensive to take pictures at a studio frequently, people opted for photo stickers. But as time passed, I think it became a bit too much — I like to see myself appear natural in a photograph, and not look like I have bulging eyes with a triangular, pointy chin.”
It was around 2017 when photo booths made a return to mainstream popularity with the brands we see today, which offer photos that boast a natural look with higher resolution.
These images also include a QR code that will lead to a mobile downloadable version and a stop-motion clip of you and your friends posing for the camera.
Like any other trend, and as seen with photo stickers, there is a chance that one day, people will stop taking gathering their friends to make memories in the photo booths scattered across the country. But for now, they are continuing to pose and say, “Kimchi!”
BY SHIN MIN-HEE [firstname.lastname@example.org]