Category Archives: Military

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

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.

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.

[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.]


This review is being written to the clack of steel on steel as I ride Amtrak from Charlottesville, VA to New York City. My origin and destination stations today are practical rather than civic architecture. Train stations that proclaim civic greatness and interconnectedness such as Washington, DC’s Union Station or New York City’s former Pennsylvania Station (demolished in 1963) are from a past era. Today scant political weight is given to the civic value of this country’s physical plant. And yet, public buildings have not ceased to carry enormous cultural freight and communicate copious civic meaning.

Jumping geographic and cultural tracks: Though no longer functioning as a train station, as civic architecture the Old Seoul Station remains a politically and culturally potent structure. Designed by Tsukamoto Yasushi and finished in 1925, the station stood as both a product and a symbol of the Japanese occupation. While some civic buildings from this period were demolished, in 1947 the station was very practically renamed and continued to function as Seoul’s main rail hub until 2004 when Korail’s new Seoul Station* was completed. In 2011 the old station reopened as Culture Seoul Station 284, a cultural center with space for performances, exhibits and events. The name alludes to the station’s position as an intersection of historical, spatial, cultural and civic symbolism.

Corners (interview, review 1, 2), has undertaken a “Railway Library” of three books. The first book in this series is 경성역 (Gyeongseong Station). It is focused on a nuts and bolts representation of the Old Seoul Station. It begins with an essay, describing the physical building and the history of its construction and use, followed by a barebones timeline of the station from the construction of the first station building in 1900 through the renaming of the 1925 building in 1947. The blurb on Corner’s website describes using the railroad as a filter for critical cultural and historical examination.

The meat of the book is archival photographs of the station that detail the ostentatious grandeur and Western influence of its multitudinous architectural styles. The building is clearly a statement. Like any colonial architecture, the function of the building was as much cultural and political as practical. The same can be said of the photographs. It is telling that only a single train appears in any of the photographs and then only incidentally; nor are there any photographs of any of the functional aspects of the building: switches, signals, or other mechanical infrastructure. There are only two photographs showing the tracks of the station; these are, like the single train, incidental to the architectural view behind them. The importance of the building was not in its function as transportation infrastructure but in its function as a cultural and political symbol.

We are shown the station as a particular set of physical facts; we are not shown the base function of the building or the complex web of human interaction that sustains it. It is a grand, modern and industrial physical fact. We do not see any planning sessions nor a groundbreaking ceremony. We do not see workers constructing the building nor installing the interior decoration. We do not see people manning (nor patronizing) the barber’s chair. We do not see people sitting down to dinner in the restaurant nor anyone in the kitchen preparing meals. With exception of the first and last photographs in the book we see no people; in these we are shown two crowds. In the first we see a crowd facing away seated inside the main dining room during the dedication or opening ceremony. In the second we see the hoi polloi stretching to Namdaemun and facing us; the caption ambiguously describes “citizens” filling the street outside the station without describing the purpose or occasion of their doing so. The cultural implications of this representation were certainly as intentional as the architecture itself.

Photographs are not simple carriers of absolute fact. Photographers make a host of decisions about what to record and how to do so. These photographs are not the simple documents that they purport to be. They are as much a depiction of the colonial system of which they are a functional aspect as the station they show. The decisions of what is shown and how it is shown are made by editors and designers as well. The designer, Jo Hyo Joon, made a conscious decision to use these particular photographs and to present them in the way that he has. It is an interesting decision to choose to situate a process of reconciliation or reclamation on such contested ground. It is as though Jo is letting us know that every square inch of the conversation will be contested ground.

Corner’s continued use of the Risograph printing process is another interesting choice. Taken in the first half of the twentieth century, the photographs in this book appear to have been shot and printed with a variety of techniques. The clipped corners suggest dry plate negatives (dry plate materials were certainly used by the Japanese authorities at this time). The odd shapes of some images suggest albumen prints, and silver gelatin materials were almost certainly used for the later photographs. These photographic processes create richly beautiful objects. The Risograph printing eliminates the differences between these techniques’ visual styles. They become artifacts; their creation as functional government documents is emphasized.

경성역 is not so much a book of photography as a book of political and cultural critique that uses photography to make its argument. It is clear that these photographs are telling us something about the world but it is up to the reader to examine these facts critically in order to come to terms with the Old Seoul Station and its past, present and future meaning in the fabric of Korean culture and history. The stage is set for additional books in the Railway Library.

디자인 : 조효준
년도 : 2014
출판사 : 코우너스
크기 : 12 x 18.8 cm
인쇄 : 리소그라프
제본 : 실 가격

*The new Seoul Station represents a contemporary example of exactly the kind of civic-minded architecture discussed above.

Noonbit Collection of Korean Photographer’s Works

This isn’t a review of a single book but rather a first look at a publishing initiative. Noonbit has embarked on an ambitious project of releasing a broad series of affordably priced books that expand the audience for photo-books in Korea: Noonbit Collection of Korean Photographer’s Works. The intent is for these books to be accessible, approachable and readable in the same way that novels or books of poetry are. These are nice but not lavishly produced softcover volumes with straight forward design. In late 2014 they released the first set of ten books. These ten will be followed with additional sets of ten books.

The first series of ten books is:

  • 01 DMZ, Koo Bohnchang
  • 02 The Southern Line of East Coast, Kim Geum-Soon
  • 03 On the Road, Kim Moon-Ho
  • 04 The Reason of Affection for a Walk / Zoology, Kim Bien-hun
  • 05 Daily Reduced Special Rate, Kim Jeeyoun
  • 06 Snow, Min Byun Hun
  • 07 National Song Contest, Byun Soon-Cheol
  • 08 Beach Kamami in YeongGwang, Shin Eun-Kyung
  • 09 Pumgeolri in Soyangho (lake), Im Jay Cheon
  • 10 Hands, Jun Min Cho

As may be apparent from the titles and photographers chosen, this series goes beyond simply making photography accessible: it plants a flag for a certain kind of photography: straight documentary. It also lays out an over-arching examination of “Korean-ness.” The following Wright Morris quote opens an unrelated book on landscape photography I’ve just begun reading: “The camera eye is the one in the middle of our forehead, combining how we see with what there is to be seen.” Here we have ten Korean photographers documenting different locations or subjects throughout Korea; the “how we see” extending across these books is the publisher’s vision. At a meta level, the totality of this series is (or will be) is Noonbit’s vision of Korean-ness and Korean photography. (It will be interesting to see the overlaps and divergences with the Korean photography overview project that Suejin Shin is working on.)

In a way, this series is a product of the digital age. It can be seen as a traditional media outlet’s response to websites and blogs like Lenscratch, Feature Shoot, burn or 500 Photographers. These sites present an even more affordable (free) and accessible (online, immediate) selection of photography that reaches across cultures, borders and styles. One might wonder why Noonbit didn’t make its initiative in digital space. Why not make this a long-running digital property like 500 Photographers except focused on Korean photographers? Why not make this a blog like Conscientious that presents critical context for the work?

Noonbit offers photographers the status conferred by the lasting nature of a physical book. A blog post may live forever in the cloud, but it is ultimately ephemeral, replaced endlessly by new content. A thousand (or a million!) people may see a blog post, but only as part of a flow of content. A book is an artifact in the physical world; its journey may touch only a few people but it will be a continuing fact for those people. Its physical state makes its impact longer lasting.

Both the digital and the physical have their value and their uses. I believe that an opportunity may have been missed in not making this series a marriage between the two. What rich opportunities for interaction could have been presented between the physical book and an expansive digital mirror? What kind of a community might have grown around the books? What conversations might have been sparked? How many more people might have been reached and touched by these works? The likelihood of the physical books making it to the West is slim, but a multi-lingual web platform or an app presented in conjunction with the physical books could have reached outside Korea creating a richly interactive environment to explore these photographers, their works and the contexts within which they exist.

As they are, the books are a wonderful introduction to Korean photography, or at least a subset of Korean photography. It would be wonderful if a retailer like Photo-Eye, Dashwood or the ICP’s bookshop saw fit to bring them to the US.

I’ll be writing about some of these books individually in greater detail at a later date.

(This post will be updated with images.)

A Conversation with Suejin Shin

Michael N. Meyer: This is Michael Meyer, the publisher and writer of; I am sitting here with Suejin Shin, who is the Creative Director of the Ilwoo Foundation, and a Research Professor of Yonsei University.

Suejin Shin: Right.

Jimin Han: And a director of Lamp LAB, brand-new [laughter].

MNM: And also with me is Jimin Han, who is translating for me and interjecting follow up questions. Suejin, let’s start with your background. You have multiple degrees in photography and in psychology. How did you come to bring those two things together? How did you come to use psychology as a lens to understand and expand upon photography?

Suejin Shin, Lamp LAB, Seoul

Suejin Shin at Lamp LAB, November 2014

SJS: My first major was psychology, and my second major was photography. I then got a master’s degree in photography and a PHD in psychology. My studies of photography were primarily in photographic theory. I’ve never intended to be a professional photographer. In studying psychology my focus was on vision, or visual perception, and Cognitive Science. I simply followed my curiosity in studying the two; I wondered what kind of feelings or thoughts people have when they see photographic images. It’s about what people feel when they see images. It’s about feeling, or the process of thinking. In other words, when they see certain images, they come to have certain feelings or thoughts. My main interest lies in where they come from.

Generally, the background fields of art theory are commonly art histories or something similar; so, many people wonder how psychology can be applied to these fields. I’m interested in photographic images, but it is the audience I observe in order to realize my interest.
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Documentary 1985-2005, DongPhil Shin

This review is late. Not because it was supposed to be last week’s missed post (or yesterday’s for that matter) but because I had intended to write about this book back in June immediately after the post on On The Line. That post was published the weekend that Memorial Day was observed here in the United States. On the Line‘s examination of the lasting impact of the still simmering Korean War presented photographer’s observations of the political, social, cultural and personal effects that the war has had.

While it is important to acknowledge that military conflict has a role in shaping the world (in a larger sense if not an immediate personal sense) and to acknowledge those who form these militaries, it would be a mistake to forget that there are plenty of tumultuous non-military events, national, local and personal that have shaped the current state of the world and more locally of Korea. Not all of these events are military. Some, certainly, are tied to the branches that spread from military conflicts, but many more are tied to broad struggles for individual autonomy and opportunity within national and local politics and economic structures. Much of this struggle has been by ordinary people, united.

DongPhil Shin has traced the buds and branches of social upheaval that has marked Korea over the past decades. Documentary 1985-2005 brings together 5 discrete projects plus an overarching view of street protest in Korea in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Throughout these projects is a sense of the individual’s role in shaping larger narratives. At the root of any confrontation, social change or economic shift are individuals who march in the streets, pull lumps of rock from hillsides, maintain and affirm that “this is what I believe” or simply live their lives day by day.

Shin’s photographs are starkly documentary in form while constantly laying bare his own social and political views. At first glance they would appear to be pulled from newspaper or magazine articles (and indeed they may have first been published in these outlets). They are, however, more than simply journalistic images meant to feed a hungry and fickle press. Shin studied philosophy before studying photography. His photographs are intensely personal and mine a deeper emotional current that runs beneath their surface and of the social fabric which they depict.

Bong-Lim Choi, in the book’s introductory text, describes Shin’s photography as “evocations of the imperialism, capitalism and authorization [sic] rules that completely deprived the public of their individual life [sic].” His photographs are angry even when they are quiet. Taking the “suffocating age of oppression” as their subject, the photographs depict those under the boot of history taking defiantly to the street or maintaining a quiet quotidian dignity through their suffering.

On the flap of the dustjacket is a portrait of Shin. He gently cradles his Mamiya 7 with Metz flash against his chest. A Contax G2 hangs from his shoulder. He stares coolly out at the viewer. A two tone wall is behind him–though half of it dissolves to nothing. His face and clothing is covered in the soot of the street. The portrait perfectly encapsulates Choi’s closing thoughts from his introductory text: social engagement is critical to Shin’s sense of humanity and that his photographs adopt an ideological standpoint shared by, in his view, the majority of our society. Shin’s photographs are as much participants in the upheaval that they depict as they are a documentation.

The book begins and ends with photographs of street protests–both close and personal and pulled back to abstract crowds. These opening and closing images announce Shin’s intentions. The five projects book ended by these sets of street protest photographs bring into focus personal stories that lay bare the wounds inflicted by an imperfect world; it is this world that the protests are aiming to change for the better. (Nearly a decade on from the last image being made, there is a fair debate to be had on whether or not the improvements sought have been achieved and what opportunities, if any, were missed. This review will steer clear of making any such historical judgement.)

The five series are: People Who Didn’t Change Their Political Faith and Went Back to North Korea; A Coal Town; A School in Japan Run by the Pro-North Korean Residents’ League in Japan; Korean Victims of the Atomic Bomb; and The Korean Residents in Kyoto. One photograph from each:

People Who Didn’t Change Their Political Faith and Went Back to North Korea: A elderly man lays in bed en-robed in quilts, blankets and bedding. A pool of light, like a death mask, illuminates his face, catching on the gray hair at his temples and his white beard. His clothing has fallen off of his left shoulder, which is bare. He looks up and out of the frame. It is hard to read his emotion: disappointment? expectation? hope? stoic resignation? regret?

A Coal Town: A man sits eating lunch. He is shirtless. A yellow plastic miner’s helmet is perched on his head, its lamp illuminating his lunch. The flash of the camera separates him from the dark tunnel stretching out behind him. A pair of railroad tracks lead back into the gloom. This could be any ajashi anywhere in Korea taking a break for lunch save for the setting. The darkness is all encompassing except the pool of light the miner sits in.

A School in Japan Run by the Pro-North Korean Residents’ League in Japan: Four students sit at their desks besides windows. The windows have been blocked with newspapers to block the glare of sunlight (?). The students are bent over school work that they are writing out in notebooks. Their bags hang beside their desks. There is light outside the windows, but it is muted, grayed, and blocked by the newspapers’ printed text. The light is mediated. (On the following page three students look out an opened window. It is not blocked with newspapers. They all smile at the photographer. One girl pokes her head out of the window and into the light, wind sweeps through loose strands of her hair.)

Korean Victims of the Atomic Bomb: An older middle aged man sits cross legged on the floor; he faces to his right exposing his left side to the camera. Behind him is a wall papered with a floral pattern. A soft gray infuses the photograph; a light from the right illuminates a scar that runs down his side. The man’s hair is disheveled. His eyes look down and away. There is stubble on his face. His expression is not pained but shows the trace of pain long endured.

The Korean Residents in Kyoto 1987 – 2004: a man, his eyelids heavy and drooping, almost closed, sits on a pile of blankets. His face is in luminous shade. He is warming his hands over an electric hot plate or small gas grill. A suit and white shirt are hanging on the pull of an armoir behind him. Through the glass panes of the door we can see towels or blankets. Kitchen utensils clutter the left foreground. From the right a draped window casts a soft gray light across the scene.

The protest picture that closes the book: Night time; a large public square seen from above. We are looking down on a field of myriad light sources–candles most likely. Each is held by a person though we cannot see the people in the dark of the night except a few silhouettes or along the periphery of the crowd where it comes beside a major roadway’s street lights. What we see is the light that they bring: hope, determination, belief, willingness to action.

As the world seems to be fragmenting and falling apart today before our very eyes in the newspapers and on the news channels, Shin’s photographs remind of us two things: it is real people who bear the brunt of suffering and it is the union of individuals acting in concert that brings about change. In the photographs light becomes a halo or a salve for those who have been wronged and points like an arrow so that the viewer might see. Light, too, is held by the individual and in the massing of individuals it fills the frame with light. DongPhil Shin wields his camera like a torch; he is not so much recording light as directing it with a political eye towards illuminating the imperialist, capitalist and authoritarian wrongs that the State has brought to bear on individuals. Shin shows not only the wrongs that have been wrought but also offers a path of action for ameliorating these wrongs–at the center of both is the individual.

Photographer: DongPhil Shin
Essay: Bong-Lim Choi
Publisher: Cana Books
Copyright DongPhil Shin 2006

Collecting Side Note

While I usually shop for Korean photo books in Korea (obviously), I happened across this book in Alabaster Books, a small New York book shop on 4th Avenue. I was killing time between appointments and stopped into the shop on a whim. As I set down a collection of A.D. Coleman essays I noticed the Korean lettering on the spine of Documentary. I haggled a little with the proprietor on the price and then bought the book.

Flipping through the book later I came across a handful of details that lay out a provenance to the book that make it moderately interesting as a historical object, though they certainly don’t make it valuable.

Tucked into the title page is a shipping label. This copy of the book was sent by the photographer to the “Stefan Stux Gallery”. I assume the book was part of a submission by the photographer to the gallery.

Below the colophon is a stamp with a handwritten edition number (83/200) with a red stamp over this (it appears to be the photographer’s stamp). The quality of the printing suggests that the book was probably printed in a larger edition than 200 (though I could certainly be wrong), and I wonder if this book hadn’t originally accompanied a print as a sort of special edition.

At the back of the book, in the margin of the profile/C.V. of the photographer is a hand drawn self portrait of the photographer in ink.

It is discovering small details like this that make seeking and collecting fun.

On The Line, ed. Shin Suejin

Here in American it is Memorial Day Weekend. It is the official start of the summer driving season. BBQ grills are on overdrive, and nearly everyone is gathered around one. In Brooklyn the cyclists are out in droves, and the mood is festive. The skies are blue. And, oh by the way, the weekend is meant to provide an opportunity to memorialize those who have given everything to preserve this country in the many (military) struggles it has been engaged in and to reflect upon their sacrifice.

To extend this memorializing and reflection to another country and another culture is dangerous. To even broach the raw emotions of contemporary politics is more dangerous still (and rude). Well, so be it.
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Pla-Wars, GyooSik Kim

My childhood was filled with mock battles, computer games and half finished model making. I clearly remember several of the unfinished models: a WWII era US aircraft carrier, an FA-18 fighter jet, Kennedy’s PT-104 (a story that fascinated me) and an F-14 Tomcat. As a entered my teens, the first President Bush went to war with Iraq; it was an easy (and brief) transition from half-heartedly collecting baseball cards to half-heartedly collecting cards depicting the materiel of war. With all of that conditioning, it is a wonder that I never joined the military.

One might justify all of this as a benign means of engaging with history or learning engineering or strategy skills. Or, one might cynically suggest that our society, indeed most societies, are militaristic at their core and mold their youngest citizens accordingly. The Secret Machines, their album “Now Here is Nowhere” playing in the background while I was looking at the book, sang: “The road leads where it’s led.” When we make childhood into a simulacra of war, what life journey are we suggesting for individuals and what future for society at large?
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