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'I feel I work to understand the people'Jeju photographer and author Kim Ok Sun
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승인 2011.03.11  19:47:53
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▲ Photo courtesy Kim Ok Sun

Kim Ok Sun feels she is in the minority. She’s a Korean woman married to a non-Korean, and her passion for cameras and life experiences have spawned three photography books about foreigners.

She unveiled her latest published creation “No Direction Home” (2010) to many foreigners and a handful of Koreans at the Soam Calligraphy Museum in Seogwipo on Feb. 27.

Kim sat down with The Jeju Weekly between fielding questions and comments from the curious attendees, many of whom were models in the book, which showcases 37 portraits. All told, the latest undertaking was two-and-a-half years in the making.

“I feel I work to understand the people,” Kim explained of the three monographs. “The project ‘Happy Together’ [2006] is to understand my life of marriage and ‘Hamel’s Boat’ [2008] is to understand my husband and the foreigner’s life on Jeju, why they live and how they live.”

“Happy Together” chronicles Koreans in multicultural marriages, while “Hamel’s Boat” shows Jeju’s foreigners, typically intertwined with the island’s natural surroundings.

She added: “‘No Direction Home’ is similar to ‘Hamel’s Boat,’ an extended idea, for me to become more deeply engaged in the portrait.”

Tirelessly lugging around heavy suitcase-sized camera equipment to foreigner’s homes and a few other outdoor locations, Kim photographed more than 60 foreigners, taking about 15 to 20 photographs of each with her Linhof Technikardan 4x5 camera. She even suffered physical cuts made by falling on seashore rocks. Photos from that shoot did not make the final cut.

“I still like to use a film camera,” said Kim, who sends the film to Seoul to be developed. “My camera is strong and heavier.”

The artist purchased a Nikon FM2 camera, her first, in 1985 while attending Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul.

“My major was pedagogy and I wanted to have some kind of other activities of my own, so I picked a camera club,” Kim started. “The university was famous for this club, which I didn’t know, so I learned photography there and [the intricacies of the] camera. I found out it just fit with my character and I expressed myself.”

In 1996, she received an MA in Photographic Design from Hongik University, also in Seoul. Around the same time, her roots on Jeju began to take hold.

“My [German] husband and I were going to move, not in Seoul and not abroad,” Kim stated. “So it was kind of a compromise between us that we move to Jeju.”

“No Direction Home” was supported financially in part by the Jeju Culture & Art Foundation. Kim applied for and was later selected for their annual artist funding. She is quick to point out the difference between her previous work “Hamel’s Boat” – winner of the 6th Daum Prize and a hefty monetary award in the millions-of-won range – and the newest work.

“‘No Direction Home’ is dry. It’s for art people and art critics. Normal viewers prefer this work with nature, such as ‘Hamel’s Boat,’” Kim said. From the inception of “No Direction Home,” Kim elucidated she would, “stick to the portrait; stick to the concept.”

Digging deeper, Kim offered, “I excluded everything, all the private things. I wanted to have a viewer approach more directly what I want, just a photograph itself, so it was simple. Also, in making the selections, I liked the ones which are natural. I feel it’s their own. The moment where they open their mind, break down the wall between me.”

Now that the book is published with 600 copies in print, Kim is working out plans to have an exhibition this year in Seoul, hopefully in the summer. Although not fixed, and dependent on space, she predicts she will show about 20 photos, each about 150 by 180 centimeters (60 to 70 inches). After, she said, she will probably have an exhibition on Jeju.

Kim’s future direction is guided. For much of the last decade she has had myriads of grants, awards, solo and selected group exhibitions, and been a part of various museum collections around Korea and abroad, including Japan, the United States, Taiwan, China, France, Argentina and Chile.

“I will try to have a chance to show this latest work abroad and make it possible,” Kim said. “And then I will start a new project, something different. I have already three works [concerning foreigners]. The next step will probably be related to Jeju landscape or Jeju people.”

The title of “No Direction Home” comes from the lyrics of American singer Bob Dylan’s legendary song, “Like a Rolling Stone.”

“Many of his songs, about life, hanging around, give me an impression,” explained Kim, who found a connection with her project of documenting foreigners in their temporary homes and Dylan's message of non-permanence.

Kim chose a tall drink of water for the cover photo, a friend whose larger-than-life photo has been displayed in several different art galleries prior to the release of the book.

“Melanie is one of the early works for the project,” Kim said. “It was a rainy season, so it was a really gloomy day; I like the sky outdoor and indoor and the contrast between the indoor and outdoor and I liked her expression.”

With her camera, Kim details a different life in a different land.

“Koreans are usually settled and usually connected with their homes so those people are, I feel, simple,” Kim said. Contrasting to her portrait models’ way of life, she revealed, “They are more open minded to move and they know what they are doing better in life. They can live differently.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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