Protest, Park Seung-hwa

My last visit to Seoul came at an interesting time. My own country had just elected an orange-hued charlatan (but much loved by some, apparently) to its highest office, sparking immediate protests. Seoul was in the midst of weekly and growing protests each Saturday against an expanding presidential scandal. And multiple elections were approaching in Europe with right-wing parties gaining ground in polls. There are many people marching in the streets lately who want to see change. With all of this as a background, I came across Park Seung-hwa’s Protest published by Listen to the City in The Book Society’s stacks.

At first blush Protest appears to be straight documentary photography of the protests wracking Korea in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They have all of the gritty hallmarks of documentary and journalistic photography. However, its narrative is diffuse. It begins in the middle, goes on relentlessly for 200 pages and ends without resolution.

The photographs run the gamut from dramatic confrontation to quiet determination. There are individuals acting alone and huge crowds of people acting in concert. We are shown moments of grace and moments of violence. On one page protesters look down from a rooftop at the police below. On the next page it is the police who are on the roofs looking down on the people below. The one constant is a sense of confrontation and anger, at turns explosive and subdued. The content of the photographs is mirrored by the divided compositions in contrasty and grainy yet richly rendered black and white.

Park draws from his own work as well as the work of the four other photographers who formed the National Photography Research Society (민족사진연구회). These five photographers, Kwon San-Ki, Park Seung-hwa, Song Hyeok, Lee Sohye, Lim Seok Hyun, came together photographing the protests. They gathered around an older photographer, Park Yong-su. Their efforts, specifically as culminated in the publication ofProtest, are a kind of extension of Park Yong-su’s 1989 book The Road of the People (민중의 길), in which he documented the events between the 1985 sit-in demonstration at the American Cultural Center in Seoul and Chun Doo-hwan’s going to Baekdamsa in 1988. Despite this added context, a straight documentary reading remains problematic.

Park’s introduction to Protest is helpful in reframing these photographs. He reveals that the contemporary making of the book, was an effort to “uncover [his] faded passion and shell of belief” represented by photographs made over two decades earlier. These photographs are personal. They project “a kind of political intention” and come from a “‘biased’ point of view.” The photographs are at once “records, commemorations and, in a way, propaganda.”

Park goes on:

Some people may not want to see them out of remorse and others may want to put the pieces of their memories put together[sic]. The fierce days of youth in the field of photography are forgotten now as they become sly oldies. Some of them have already lost their convictions. Even though they were politically pure in the beginning but now they are being misunderstood politically and contaminated non-politically. It was the time of immaturity and of glamour. It was, nevertheless, our past.

Protest then is a lament or reckoning rather than a dry documentation. It is a sober reconsideration of that time and where the flow of time has ultimately led. Despite having “walked so far away from the days of the photos…the day [Park] has dreamed of during those old days has yet to come.” He asks that the there be no mention of a “legendary saga” when reading these photos and notes that “the past [is] often glorified under the astute compromise.” We all, in order to live our lives in some measure of comfort, make compromises in our beliefs and actions; Park subtly suggests that if we are honest with ourselves, perhaps our compromises are really betrayals of our convictions.

In a similar vein, the book presents a kind of critique of photo-journalism and documentary photography. Park defines photographs as a “record of facts.” And yet he goes on to say that a myriad of photos can be created of a single scene. “These photos are all based on facts but far away from the truth.” Park does not claim to be publishing any kind of definitive view of these events. He goes so far as to call attention to the other photographers who were photographing these same events and whose photographs, if they could have been included in the book, would have made for “a finer and richer record.”

These photographs and Park’s view of their creation and value are appropriate to consider here in America in light of the protests happening in the present day. As may be self evident but certainly worth reiterating: protest in and of itself won’t bring about change. Those bodies in the streets lifting their voices may create the changes they seek or may simply gratify their desire to speak their piece. In order to effect change there must be concrete political action being taken before and after the marches, protests and demonstrations. Desiring change does not necessarily create change. It requires long years of hard work. It is equally likely that in thirty years we will look back and wonder where it all got them. Compromises for our own comfort will leave us “wandering around, or rather drifting away.”

싸움 Protest
Photographers: 민사연 (Kwon San-ki, Park Seung-hwa, Song Hyeok, Lee Sohye, Lim Seok Hyun)
Photo Editor: Park Seung-hwa
Introduction: Park Seung-hwa
Essay: Han Hong-gu
Publisher: Listen to the City
2016

Design Notes:
Protest is at once austere and lavish in its production. The cover is a matte black hardcover with paper wrapped boards; the title and publisher are embossed on its spine in white while the cover has only the years covered by the photographs, again embossed in white. This simple cover is wrapped in a asymmetrically folded dust jacket that folds out to a modestly sized poster with the cover imaging echoing outwards on the recto and an index of the book’s photographs on its verso. Within, the design gives structure for the images without calling undue attention to itself. The printing is richly done on a moderately heavy paper stock.

New posts coming

I am obviously behind on this blog. And now I’m more behind: I brought back a pile of books from my trip to Seoul back in November of last year (1, 2, 3). So there’ll be new content here soon.

In particular, I plan to write about Listen to the City’s Protest as I think it presents a number of useful things to think about in the current political climate. A number of the things I wanted to write about have already come to pass–major protests here in the US and considerations of how to maintain political action in order to effectively affect change rather than simply channel anger or disappointment.

And there are some fluffier books that are more fun to talk about.

And a new conversation about considerations when building a library for an academic institution. It’s been conducted, I’ve just got to find time to transcribe it…

Something for everyone.

Good stuff.

Slightly OT: Measuring North Korea’s Nuclear Progress from One Photograph

This piece at the NYTimes is a fascinating look at the practical intelligence value of closely read photographs. Max Fisher and Jugal K. Patel take us step by step through what experts have deduced about North Korea’s nuclear program by closely examining one photograph. They outline the way in which information is subtly coded into photographs like this one so that they can be read in this way.

To bring it somewhat on topic for the blog, the article calls to mind Seung Woo Back’s Utopia / Blow Up. As I wrote originally, “Back is looking to find truths that are hidden in plain sight and to question what is presented in an image.” To be clear, Back is circumventing limitations presented by clear prescriptions for what North Korea does and doesn’t want communicated. These limitations are imposed, obviously, by North Korea. Back is forced to lay the information between the lines. As readers of his photographs we must deduce the bigger meaning from what scraps of information he presents to us. He is as interested in photograph’s potential to communicate information as he is in actually communicating that information.

North Korea’s propaganda machine is interested only in its geopolitical machinations. It is not worried about the degree to which photography is truthful or untruthful. Its goal is to communicate information while maintaining deniability. The information it communicates is hidden such that only specific people will be able to find it. It is a kind of back door channel of communication. That it is possible to gather this much information from one photograph, albeit in relation to a larger set of photographs taken over time and in relation to existing knowledge, is quite impressive.

Another aspect of this that is worth noting is the continued acceptance by both the North Korea government and Western intelligence organizations of the informational value of photographs. Photographs retain a relation to facts in the real world. They continue to depict things in the real world that are true and that have meaning. While there is clearly much interpretation of the meaning of these facts, the photographs are valuable as information.

On a lighter note, the Times article also makes me wonder if perhaps not all is what it seems at Kim Jong Un Looking At Things. I’ve always read the Tumblr as a kind of absurdist theater–though who has that many photographs of Kim Jong-Un (and Kim Jong-Il before) except the North Korean government? (By all means, if you know who does, please let me know in the comments. I’ve always wondered.) I get a creeping suspicion that the irony hides an attempt to humanize the Dear Leader with youth in the West or at least minimize the perception that he is a scary, crazy dictator.

Han Youngsoo Exhibit at ICP @ Mana in Jersey City

Han Youngsoo photograph, Seoul, Korea 1956-63

Via Tumblr I saw that the International Center of Photograph is exhibiting Han Youngsoo’s photographs. The show is at ICP @ Mana through June.

Han’s photography has been discussed on this blog in relation to his photographs in Traces of Life. Kyusang Lee described Traces of Life as essential to understanding the development of photography in Korea. By extension, Han’s work is foundational in Korean photography.

Great to see it getting attention here in the States.

Seoul Lunar Photo happening now!

If you’re in Seoul this week, check out the Seoul Lunar Photo festival events. Wish I could get there for it. Best of luck to the organizers and participating artists!

Here’s what it’s all about:

Seoul Lunar Photo Fest is an event that brings to life the meeting place between people and photography. In an era of the advent of smartphones and the diffusion of hundreds of thousands of photos a day, it was inevitable that concerns over the way in which we encounter photos and discern good images would arise. Moving beyond the exhibition space of uniformly hung frames, it’s only natural that the demands of the contemporary world would expand the definition of images include music and other video media. Centered on the Seochon(West Village) area, Seoul Lunar Photo Fest seeks to convey the beauty of these new channels of images through experimental, free-form displays. Diverse work will be explored through collaborative efforts by photographers, musicians, sound creators and visual artists.

via.

OT: Photography of China

Marine Cabos runs the website Photography of China. For those interested in photography practice across Asia, it will certainly be of interest. The site covers the full gamut from contemporary practitioners to historical figures and includes a mix of galleries, interviews and video. Check it out.

And stay tuned here because KPB isn’t gone, just buried with the commercial projects that keep the train on the tracks.

Life’s been busy; the blog’s been quiet

To any regular readers who feared KPB had disappeared, it hasn’t. My professional life has been busy the last couple of months, and I’ve not been able to carve out enough time to efficiently produce reviews on the schedule I’d like to be. Case in point: The review of Red House has been in progress for three weeks now.

At any rate, we’re still here. There are numerous reviews in the pipeline. The blog schedule remains every other week for a new review. Given my schedule the next couple of weeks, it might end up being monthly, though.

Please stay tuned.

Red House, Noh Suntag

In a recent New York Times Magazine On Photography column, Teju Cole wrote, “the apparent neutrality of photographs can conceal as much as it reveals–especially when the subject is violence or prejudice.” Cole’s column explores the layers of opportunity for misrepresentation through photographs due to their supposed “facticity”. Noh Suntag’s Red House examines exactly this dynamic in photographic representation using North Korea as a foil.

The Korea Artist Prize describes Noh as producing “photographs that detail real-life situations directly related to the division of Korea” and showing “how deeply the division has permeated the daily lives of the Korean people and has thus distorted the entire society.” Red House explores these themes from a subject’s presentation to the act of representing that subject with the camera through the use and consumption of the resulting photographs. Further, Noh’s photographs (and more specifically his text) acknowledge that this distortion is personal–his use of the camera in relation towards his subjects functions as a kind of mirror of his own biases.

North Korea is a particular subject that amplifies Noh’s themes. Despite the obviousness of the statement, it is necessary to note that there are few if any other places in the world where two countries’ identities are so intertwined with such fraught political, cultural and historical push and pull. Furthermore, the North’s near obsession with image and the way it presents itself to the South and the larger outside world is similarly unique. This exaggerated manipulation of its own image leads outsiders to a particular kind of fascination and creates an intense need to record what is seen. These three ideas form the basis for the three chapters in Red House.

Everyone has seen the kinds of photographs that comprise the book’s first chapter: the masses of people participating in the DPRK’s Arirang Festival events. Any reader will almost certainly have an image of thousands of people in synchronized motion come into their mind’s eye. Most of these images are interchangeable because the subject has been designed to present a particular message to do so by being seen by the camera. The scenes are an elaborate propaganda construction. Noh’s color photographs of the brightly colored Arirang Festival in 2005 are, on first glance, as interchangeable as a typical tourist’s photograph or a photojournalist’s photograph. As one flips through Noh’s photographs one becomes aware of a modulation of push and pull between overarching vistas of hundreds of people and relatively intimate tight shots of a dozen people. Within the small groups one can see variations in the individual participants’ movements. Looking back to the broad vistas these variations remain in one’s mind and the intended view is broken. Noh makes the underlying construction of the spectacle apparent. This opening set of photographs recalls Seung Woo Back’s series Utopia and Blow Up. Like Back, Noh is seeking interstitial truths within tightly controlled state spin.

With the subject as construction firmly argued, Noh moves next to the thought or thoughtlessness that occurs in the recording of this scene. Despite the almost certain knowledge that this careful grooming of particular scenes–even mundane scenes, shapes what they see, foreigners nonetheless are eager to record these scenes and their trespass into them. In this chapter Noh switches to a stark black and white reportage style which is often exaggerated through the use of an on camera flash. Noh wants us to see that he is now looking critically at the spectacle of the spectator turned witting or unwitting collaborator. The black and white is a visual marker that he is looking in a way that is significantly different than the tourists with their point and shoots that he is photographing. For him it is the almost desperate desire to record the experience of being here in North Korea that is of interest. The scene that elicits this desire is secondary.

In the final chapter of Red House, Noh turns his attention to South Korea and the way that the North becomes manifest within the South. The North becomes a straw man, a bogey man, a savior. Its role and meaning shift depending upon who is invoking it. In this way the North becomes a mirror for a range of opinions and viewpoints in the South. The one failing in this set of photographs is the need for extensive caption information to know what one is being shown; without the captions, which are often interpretive, many of the images are oblique. The upside to these captions is that Noh’s own biases are suggested. The reader is faced with having to revisit all that he has seen to this point to consider the manipulation inherent in all of the preceding images.

Throughout Red House, Noh has shown that photographs are slippery. As he says at the start of the second chapter, “I know about North Korea. However I do not know what I know about it.” His photographs show a great many views of and toward North Korea–and yet how definitive or true any one of them is remains questionable. This is intentional. How can one trust a photograph when it has been manipulated since before it was even made? Everyone manipulates the photograph: the subject, the photographer, the publisher and the viewer. At no time is the meaning of the photograph fixed. In a situation like exists between North Korea and South Korea this manipulation is highly political. Yet, as Noh’s photographs of amateur shutterbugs and political protestors show, this process can be equally apparent in the personal realm.

Red House
Noh Suntag
Publisher: Jung Jongho
Design: Avec_ Noh Younghyun
Translation: Kang-Baek Hyosu
Publishing Co.: Chungaram Media Ltd.
2007

[Sidebar: Nearly ten years after Red House was published, photography as a driver of social media has shown that this manipulation is pursued no less aggressively by individuals than by rogue regimes. Manipulation of our recorded lives in photographs intended for sharing on social media is commonplace. Wanting to show our best selves, we push the bounds of truth.]