I have no doubt that Kim Ok Sun can take solid, deliberate, well-composed photographs with proper exposure. However, I am very suspicious of her methods in “No Direction Home,” a portrait book of Jeju’s foreigners released on Feb. 27. Instead of providing a window into foreign life and personalities, Kim’s photographs further fetishize and mystify foreignhood, transforming people who may otherwise be light and airy into static monuments of ennui.
For “No Direction Home,” Kim employed a fairly simple formula: photograph the models in their homes or places familiar to them, pose them, and direct them to, according to Kim Seungkon’s accompanying essay, “avoid artificial facial expressions and fake smiles.” The models do not look natural though. As a whole they appear to be hyper-controlled, out of their element, and blank. Their facades, while not miming happiness, are no less masks. How is a frown or an emotionless stare from a sitting model different than a smile? Who is to say that the models are not finding some space between a perceived artificiality (by Ok Sun) and their “true selves” (which they might not be aware of in any case)? It is just that in these photos we see the opposite end of the spectrum. Many of the model’s environments are sparsely decorated, and Kim Seungkon tells us that “It is crucial to read the subtle moves within their inner minds through such extremely limited evidence.” But where there is no evidence, there can be no conclusion. As critic Abigail Solomon-Godeau said, “The camera cannot penetrate what is simply, stupidly there.”
Perhaps Kim Ok Sun wants to show foreigners as free spirits liberated from material goods, and that adds to the meaning of her photographs. Maybe empty walls and anonymous spaces accomplish her goal. That seems to be the idea. From the essay: “Ok Sun Kim’s photographs suggest to us the liberalized soul of borderless people who search for new meanings to their life as they escape from the spaces to which they previously belonged ... Simple household goods portray indoor and liberal lifestyles freed from traditional forms ... ” But I see no such liberation. Instead, these photo-graphs catapult foreigners further into the realm of otherness, acquiring them almost as specimens. There is no triumph as seen in George Rodger’s pictures of African ethnic groups, no pathos of Eugene Smith’s photos of the marginalized victims of mercury poisoning. By putting her subjects in similar environments, she gives them equal weight in Korean society. The backgrounds are bland. The foreigners have little to no facial expression. Is foreignness the only thing that remains, their only important trait? It seems to be the only thing photographed, and the underlying effect, no doubt unintended, is to say that foreigners are all the same. That is, they do not belong.
Kim can take good photographs though. The ones in this book are by and large well-framed, well-composed, and well-exposed. Her deliberateness comes through, and were the intention different or the models more natural, the book would be better. A few striking examples stick out as nice pieces in their own right. Of the three pictures not of foreigners, two are worth mention. One of a tree covered in vines is reminiscent of Jackson Pollock. Another, a snapshot-style photo of Jeju airport, proves that Kim Ok Sun is versatile. There is no doubt that she is capable of very good photographic work.
If this book were about all kinds of people and not just foreigners it might be a different story. Still, it seems that Ok Sun has placed her subjects in highly-controlled situations and then expected their inner beings to somehow show through. Such a constructed vision cannot be natural, and the added dimension of the models’ commonality leads the viewer to strange and sometimes false conclusions. I say this as a foreigner living on Jeju and someone who knows some of the models personally. Unless irony is intended, claims to the sublime should not be taken seriously. The execution is good, the premise lacking.
▲ Photos courtesy Kim Ok Sun
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