What is in Human

사진마을 2017. 09. 29
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Finding Human Problems in Everyday Life

[The life and works of a photographer] -Kim Moon-Ho

kmh.jpg » Kim Moon-ho

Photographer Kim Moon-Ho(64) first started his work in the early 1980s. He had his own dark room and did all his development and printing himself. Projects he has worked on thus far include “One the Road,” “Wasteland” and “In the City.” He is also a translator. It so happened that he landed photo-related projects by the dozens and so photography became his speciality of a sorts, but originally he specialized in translating humanities books like Kalindi’s <Vinoba Bhave>, Sidney Mintz’s <Sweetness and Power> and Keith W. Whitelam’s <The Invention of Ancient Israel>. The very first book Kim worked on was Gustavo Gutierrez’s <We Drink from Our Own Wells> which he translated in 1986, and considered to be the classic of liberation theology. He has now translated upwards of 50 books. Kim is a slow and long runner - during his 30 year-long photographer‘s career, he has held 5 solo exhibits and no more. 

 Our interview on the 14th was the first round of “The Life and Works of a Photographer.” 

 Kim first learned to photograph around 1981~82, when he after graduating university was working as a temp at a small publishing company. There he was influenced by one of his colleagues whose hobby was photography. Even then, it never occurred to Kim to photograph sceneries or flowers. He would carry a camera inside his lunch bag and take pictures of people on the streets - someone making kimchi, and another simply walking down the road. kmh.jpg

 - You are quite unique; most people seem to start by taking pictures of the scenery. Is there a reason why you came to photograph people mainly?

 “I come from a long line of devout Christians and ended up in a seminary. I managed to graduate somehow but did not want to become a priest. Being a priest requires your compliance to a certain dogma and my defiant nature made that impossible. But I do believe that my interest in the human has its roots in theology. 

 When I first started with photography and was taking pictures of everything and anything, I came across this one exhibition hosted by The Dong-a Ilbo in 1986. I went to check it out. Choi Min-sik had been holding the exhibit ”Human“ at the French Cultural Center. Choi was there. His works were shocking - very stark indeed. He told me to ”come visit me in Busan“ and so I did, and I brought some of my photos with me. I had many questions for him but he was not one to answer questions. He is the kind of person who would just say what he wanted, at length. So I visited him several times and listened.

 - Your first solo exhibit was in 1989. What was it about? What was the reaction from your acquaintances?

 ”In 1985, my younger sister was a member of this theater company for a while. She said that the company needed someone to take pictures for them. So I did. That was on The Yeonwoo, when they were showing works like <Mr Han’chronicle> and <Chil-su And Man-su>. I remember the likes of Moon Sung-geun and Kang Shin-il working as actors there. That’s where I met Kim Min-Ki, with whom I worked on a still movie project called <(Korean) National Anthem>. Back in those days whenever you went to the cinema the national anthem would play and the moviegoers had to stand up and watch the president or the traditional fan dance. Kim Min-ki and I collected photos of the national flag flowing during the independence struggle or the Gwangju Massacre, turned them into a still movie and played them before the show would start. I also worked on this book <Talchum>. Chae Hee-wan, who belongs to first generation Talchum (Korean traditional masked dance) movement wrote the script and I took the pictures. The point is that there were many people in the cultural scene - art, music, play, you name it - around me, and by their suggestion, I held a solo exhibit at this place called ‘Grim-Madang Min’ in 1989. The photos showed ordinary citizens, workers and children. It was given a short introduction by the newspaper Hankyoreh and they had called it a “People‘s Exhibition.” Those who had come to the exhibit after reading the newspaper asked why a “People’s Exhibition” did not touch issues like north-south reunification or labor. What could I do but smile and say nothing?

- The 80s was such an intense period - which must have been reflected on the expectations of those close to you. Did you get to photograph the pro-democracy movement?

 “How could I be disinterested in democratization during that time? I was, however, not interested in documenting pro-democracy or pro-labor movements. I did photograph Sookmyung Women‘s University students’ protest as my office happened to be located in Cheongpa-dong, but it was not necessarily the theme I went for. I did not feel the duty to document democratization; I thought that the reporters would take care of that. My interest lay in the human himself. I was looking for the Human Problems in everyday life, and so I photographed the streets or markets. Around that time something called ”Sajin Jibdan Sasil“ was founded by Choi Min-sik‘s initiative, and I was active there. In 1990s they held a founding exhibit and I had submitted everyday photos. The other members showed pro-labor movement photos. We had two more group exhibtions in 1993 and 1996, after which the member went their separate ways. 

kmh002.jpg » In the <On the road> Kim moon-ho kmh003.jpg » From <Shadow> by the Kim moon-ho kmh004.jpg » From <In the City> by the Kim moon-ho kmh006.jpg » From <Wasteland> by Kim Moon-ho kmh07.jpg » From <On the road> by the Kim moon-ho kmh08.jpg » From <On the road> by the Kim moon-ho kmh10.jpg » From <On the road> by the Kim moon-ho kmh044.jpg » From <Shadow> by the Kim moon-ho

Divers don’t stay underwater every second of their lives

 - Then tell me more about your philosophy in photography and your main theme, the Human Problems.

 ”In the end, I‘m just a man who wants to take photos. The very act of taking pictures is equal to my voicing my thoughts and emotions. Photograph is Expression rather than Description. Choi Min-sik often spoke of photographers like Eugene Smith and Dorothea Lange, so I began studying foreign photos with books written in English. That’s how I came across Robert Frank‘s <The Americans>, something that was unbeknownst to us who did not study abroad. I often read books that studied <The Americans> and one of them read: “iconic images of our ages, our culture.” To qualify as a documentary, the photograph must be a symbolic image that can speak for the entirety of the era. Every photo is taken off of a material, and everyone would prefer ’unique‘ materials, be it female divers (called haenyeo), miners or the division of the North and South Koreas. From these unique materials, however, we must find the essence of humanity. Even in Josef Koudelka’s photos of flour dough or flowers on a tattered table I could feel that essence. I went to see Ha Ji-kwon‘s exhibit and this photo of a 90-something monk was staring into the air, completely expressionless. I thought: “yes, this is human.” A photo makes you think about the human, about himself, and introspect. A photo must show dailiness. A haenyeo, as unique as her job may be, does not stay underwater every second of her life. She raises children and goes on walks. I want these stories of lives to come together. We could call it human depth - something that the viewer can communicate with. Photos are not kaleidoscopes. “Wow, that’s cool. Wow, that‘s pretty. Wow, how do you take photos like these?” is not the reaction you want. “I too have had difficulties like this. I too have been happy like this.” That is it. 

- Then what should a photographer aim to do?

 “Those who work with documentary photography should read a lot. Gunpo, where I live, is called ”The Book-nation“ and ”The City that Reads.“ 80% of the population is registered at a library. I believe this is rare worldwide. Be it photography, painting, poetry or drama, the point is not for a genius to captivate the audience with novel sentiments. The point is to truly understand the subjects of photography. That understanding is philosophy and his view of humanity, from which he can derive his view of the world. What photographers of the present should look at is issues like ”Hell Joseon (a self-deprecating term for ’hellish Korea‘)“. You can’t do it alone. I wish photographers would form a group and handle issues concerning the youth and senior citizens. I wish documentary photographers would speak of such matters when they meet. It‘s not easy. That is why photographers tend to try and score easy wins. I am not proud to say this, but it took me 20 years to hold my second solo exhibit ”On the Road“ since my first in 1989.


 You water the pot and the water just drains right away - yet the plant grows

 - What sort of photos did you work with after ”On the Road“?

 ”After the 2009 exhibit, I no longer wanted to look at my work. I have seen more than enough on the streets the past 20 years - it made me wonder if I really had to do something similar, again. I explored other areas. It felt as if I had been placed in vacuum. And that is when I read Shin Hyung-ceol’s review collection <Downfall of Ethica>. I was captivated by German expressionist art and studied it fiercely. I looked into perceptions of society and megalopolis. I studied Otto Dix and Edvard Munch and read a lot. Something was trying to get out of me even then. One day I took a photo of something at an underground passage - it was indeed human but looked like this black lump, and it was just walking by. I was shocked. People, buildings, cars, all shuddering and shattering... But I could not explain it. From late 2009 and 2013 I took tens of thousands of photos and a select few made it into the 2013 exhibit “Shadow,” based on which I also published a collection. My photos form a less than optimistic picture of the society. In “On the Road” those images formed a detailed novel, while in “Shadow” they formed a lump; it did not look as if it were clean-cut with a knife but hit with a blunt object. Only afterwards did I realize that I had gotten rid of a lot of “lumps” inside of me. Back in 1989, a reporter said that my photos were “a message of human salvation.” Nonsense, I thought. But now I get it - it could have been a salvation, if only for myself.

 - What do you photograph now? What have you learned to do other than photography?

 I wanted to work with colors after “Shadow,” but they never felt like my own. The stuff felt vulgar. Cheap. I worked on “Wasteland” and “In the City” - landscapes of ages and civilizations. I photograph both detailed and shaken images. 

 Other than photography? In late 1980s I went to Wonju to see Muwuidang Jang Il-soon together with Kim Min-ki, and Jang shared me a lot of useful things. When I moved where Iive now I realized that Lee Young-hee lived here too. Jang and Lee were friends. Lee also shared a lot. In 1990s I started learning Chinese poetry. The Minyechong (The Korean People Artist Federation) started a Chinese poetry class and the lecturer was Rohchon Lee Gu-young. He went to prison in 1958 and was only released in 1980 - a long-term inmate, indeed. He was an excellent scholar in Chinese literature. He started LeeMunHakHoi and taught classical Chinese. Even when the Minyechong (The Korean People Artist Federation)  class was complete I went to learn Chinese poetry regularly. I studied it for 20 years and nothing came from it. We would study for 1.5 hours and after the class was over we would go and drink for 5 hours. You water the pot and the water just drains right away. Yet the plant grows. I wonder if I too would have grown, even if just a little?


By Kwak Yoon-sup staff reporter kwak1027@hani.co.kr

Translation to English by Ha Young Lee (Trainee/3rd year Politics student at the University of Cambridge) 


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