K.S. Park, Professor, Korea University Law School
The creative world of Sonhyunjoo is unique in three ways, each of which has not been found equals at least in my modest amateur search. Firstly, her representative works are, rather than photographs, paintings using photographs. Drastic discoloration and frame manipulation capture never-before-seen facets of the object that are still imbued a sense of realism: the viewers can enjoy the works in comfortable conviction that the object as seen exists somewhere in the universe. Secondly, she goes all the way to the beautiful nature of Anmyeon Island but only to photograph the garbage strewn over it. Thirdly, after she takes pictures, she picks up the garbage. This action of dismantling the objects that the artist has just depicted is unheard of — as if her work is a piece of performance art. In Son’s eyes, garbage becomes of part of the cycles of nature, transcending the environment-human dichotomy while not forgiving destruction of nature, as evidenced by her hands picking it up.
Jettisoning of conservationism in favor of environmentalism was a correct step to establishing the anthropocentric conception of nature. However, to whom is it an environment? It is human beings. Global warming is to be feared by humans but not by fish that will have space to swim in. There is no natively poisonous substance but only destructive reaction between humans and that substance. You are not harmed by carcinogens safely locked in the cement walls within which you normally live. Environmental issues are about how rationally each individual reacts with the environment confronting them.
The island that Son uses as the background for her work has been damaged by the Hebei Spirit Oil Spill in 2007. The oil attacked all living things but the irony was that the oil was completely natural. What was destroyed was the environment for humans. One of the most important slogan for environmental justice is intergenerational justice but again these are human generations being referred to. Nine years have passed. Something must have changed in the ocean but the affected areas seem to have healed now.
Son, by showing the impressive effects of human waste set against a natural background, reminds us our responsibility. Reminds us how much waste is around us and how much waste is part of the living cycles of the universe, and reminds us that, if we want to live on, we are the only ones who can come to our rescue. I recommend all to come to see the pictures to experience the modest sensation of seeing the proverbial “universe even in a humble piece of” garbage.
Jo When people think of Hyunjoo Son, the things that come to mind first include a journalist for a major national daily newspaper for 20 years, wine columnist, food columnist, travel writer, culture event planner, etc. What a varied career! You have been working as a photographer since 2011, and it seems to me that you started a bit late.
Son I often use the expression “causality” to describe my photos. Photos are considered by many as an aggregation that pops up when clicking the shutter of a camera and reflect a person’s karma. To take photographs is not to simply capture visual images, but also to throw a bucket into a well of internal images that a person keeps in their heart and to bring them out of the well. I believe that the depth of the well determines the value of the person’s photos. All my karma has been interconnected with the past; they are passing me by now, and they are able to predict the future I could imagine. Even though I am behind in my career as a photographer, I venture to say, “My five-year-long thinking is fully reflected in my fifty-year-long reasoning.” I believe that my photos have become a humanistic link that connects all the values and work that I have pursued. The most important role of photos is to reflect what thoughts a photographer has had, and what she has done. I would like to say that even the short moment of pressing the shutter of a camera to take a photo contains her entire life’s causality.
Jo … You mean you have a long story.
Son Suppose that someone reads the Odyssey. If they read only the part of the story where Odysseus returns to his home, Ithaka, to rejoin his wife, Penelope, and takes back his country, and thus do not read his long journey, then can we say that they have read the epic poem properly?
I simply expected to hear a brief story, summarized by a few lines, but I was totally flustered by her non-procrastinating answer and shining eyes. The Odyssey… Isn’t the title of this exhibition “The Anmyeondo Odyssey”? If so, does it mean that Hyunjoo Son must be its Odysseus?
Furthermore, the Odyssey is an adventure story that Odysseus experiences on his way home, if I interpret her explanations correctly. Then isn’t “The Anmyeondo Odyssey” Hyunjoo Son’s adventure story? Oh, my! My heart is pounding with excitement. I decide to follow her adventure with eagerness.
Chapter 1: Anmyeondo, Sonhyunjoo’s Ithaka
Seongeun Jo (Hereafter referred to as Jo) What does Anmyeondo really mean to you?
Hyunjoo Son (Hereafter referred to as Son) It is my hometown. This island is the place where my ancestors have lived from generation to generation. However, most importantly, it has provided me with everything, such as energy to live on, passion, sensitivity, wrath, and so on, during the first nineteen years of my life, and it has made me who I am today. I have lived nibbling sensibilities, such as bitter-sweetness, softness, dampness or sogginess, formed from those early years.
Jo. Can you explain that a little bit more concretely?
Son I identify myself with the island, Anmyeondo. Island blood flows through my veins. My father has ceaselessly helped me internalize the island ever since my childhood. He was a scholar of Chinese literature. He especially loved me, his fourth child, and first daughter among his five children. I think that it was because I was his first daughter born after three sons. He told me endless stories ranging from villages and islands to his heroic exploits in the war and his personal history. He talked to me while we sat on the patio floor in the spring, or while making smoke from incense to drive away mosquitoes in the summer or sitting on the warm spot of the ondol floor in the winter. I used to fall into a deep slumber while listening to his legendary stories. Several novels on the island were already written in my mind at the time.
For instance, I often find a damaged ship floating on the sea when I take a walk along the seashore. It is on the verge of sinking, completely rusted and broken. When I gaze at it, it reminds me of the stories my father told me. I live in Jeongdangri. People in this village burn incense on June 4 of the lunar calendar each year. One time in their history, the villagers suffered from a tragic accident. Some of them went to Sangpearl, a sandy plain toward the Cheonsuman, to work, and then their ship capsized, causing twenty men to drown. Likewise, if I look at a particular objet, past stories are naturally connected.
Jo I hear that you have always been interested in painting.
Son I have painted since my second year in elementary school. I was always the last student
remaining in the classroom. I read books and drew imaginary pictures with crayons. The drawing papers were always full of stories. The sheets were spaces for building my adventure castle to explore a journey to an underwater kingdom or to an imaginary lunar world. My student record had a space for me to write my future career. Mine was always to be a painter for all of my twelve school years. I am so happy to reminisce on my old days. My parents used to collect and stack firewood for the winter, and I would make my own hideout inside the stack. From time to time, I climbed the hill at the back of my house to paint while sitting on a gap in the rocks... I don’t think that I drew anything after watching something. I guess that I needed to have my own space for imagination. The sensibilities had piled on top of each other, and then they became my story bag and sources of my works of art.
Jo I heard that you had tried, with difficulty, to leave this lovely island, and made up your mind never to come back when you left Anmyeondo.
Son The island is basically an isolated place. Since it is surrounded by the sea, it is natural for young people to feel confined. For instance, I read lots of books, wanted to do so many things, and wondered what the rest the world looked like. I was getting restless whenever I confronted a question on whether I wanted to do farming and stay in this small and limited space forever, like my parents. The teenager in me was really curious about everything about the outside world far beyond her own place. She had to escape.
By the time I graduated middle school, I had a golden opportunity to leave the island. I wanted to go to a high school in Daejeon. I went on a hunger strike for two days, and asked my father to allow me to leave. He was really conservative, and thus never allowed me to go. He had a firm objection towards it because I was a daughter, so he wanted me to stay with him under his protection. The opportunity was lost in the end, but I had to get another chance three years later.
The reason why I nagged him was because I wanted to show my firm determination: “I will never live like mom.” We had much farmland. My father served as a public servant for a while, so my mom was in charge of farming. My heart bled for her. I remember when I raised my voice to her at the time. I said, “I will never live here sitting in the furrow for the rest of my life!” Then she told me, “I agree. I don’t want you to live like me. So go and leave the island.” She never asked me to do farming, and never asked me to grasp a hoe.
Odysseus’s Ithaka was an ideal place where he as king spent many happy years with his beautiful wife, Penelope. Anmyeondo was such a place to young Hyunjoo Son too. However, when she was a teenager, Anmyeondo held a different meaning.
Wait! Then, is “The Anmyeondo Odyssey” not her journey to return to the island, but to escape from it? Furthermore, her comments, such as when she identifies herself with the island or explains that she has lived nibbling on all of her sensibilities and energies formed from her early years, seem a bit contradictory.
I just read the first page to explore her art world. But now, I have a store of unanswered questions. I have a strong desire to just flip the pages and check the end, but her touching words come back to my mind. Taking a deep breath, I decide to slowly move onto the next page.
Chapter 2: Leaving Ithaka
Jo I heard that you actually did leave Anmyeondo for your university years. How was your college life after leaving the island?
Son In the countryside, it was quite difficult to prepare for the admissions at a fine arts college. Moreover, in my second year of high school, my father wanted me to work as a public servant, not to study. My dream of escape began to crumble, so from that point on, I began to rebel. If you look at my school reports, my grades were excellent in my first year of high school, but starting from my second year, they began to deteriorate. It was because I gave up studying. All I did was wander around the beach. In the end, although I couldn’t go to a college of fine arts, I did go to a university. That is how I left the island.
I don’t know if it was because I was envious of my friends in the photographers’ club, but when I entered university, I incessantly begged my father to buy me a camera. Without any words, he gave me the money. It was a lot of money to my parents, who are farmers. With that money, I bought a Pentax film camera. I was utterly ecstatic. After putting in the film, I went around constantly taking pictures without even knowing how to use the camera correctly. I even took photography classes. Looking back, I realize I didn’t take normal pictures. Inside my camera were multiple random photos of useless objects. As I moved from house to house, I lost my album, and thus lost all of the photos that were inside of it. Whenever I think of those photos, I feel as if my head is going to explode. They were photos that I had treasured in my younger years.
Jo How did you lose them?
Son I lived in my brother’s house in Seoul. He was living an unstable life, moving house here and there, and I lost my album somehow in the mess. I lost all of my memories. Therefore, I don’t have any photos from my early years to my university years, except for those in my family album. Furthermore, I also lost my first camera in Oksu-dong when a thief stole it. After that, I bought a Pentax automatic camera. However, I didn’t feel any affection for it, and barely used it.
Jo Wow, a nearly 20-year-long record disappeared. You must have been really upset!
Son Nobody can know how I felt. I went into my room and cried loudly under the blankets. What can I say? I must have revived them with my memories. To keep a record of individuals, villages, islands or whatever is to take care of future generations. Now, there is no way for my children to learn about their mom’s innocent young days. Why I did a double take when my father passed away was that I didn’t even think about that fact that I had to record his numerous stories in some way. There is no longer anyone who can tell me such tales. Since then, I always carry around a pen and a camera, of course, even though it is also part of my habit as a journalist.
Jo Afterwards, you, as a journalist, worked for a national daily newspaper for twenty years. I am curious about how you got this job.
Son Initially, I didn’t intend to become a journalist. I started to work at the university my husband attended, and then got married to him. Therefore, I quit my job. Even though the first year of marriage, was a sweet honeymoon period, the routine life style seemed to me a total waste. Since there was nothing to do, I read the newspaper diligently, and I found a job posting from the Kyunghyang Daily News. I was intrigued by the advertisement, so I applied for the job, took the test and had an interview. Everything went unexpectedly well.
Jo I know that you worked in the editorial department. Some photojournalists also work as professional photographers, but that your career switched from an editorial writer to a professional photographer is unique. I heard that you also edited photos when you edited a section of the Kyunghyang Daily News, “Magazine X”, and sections in the weekend edition.
Son The editorial department is the core of any newspaper. Most papers deal with the same news. How a hard-nosed editorial journalist makes a value judgment decides the outcome of each daily competition. He or she has to make quick decisions, given a limited time constraint, on what photos should be on the top, discarded or on the front page after being cropped. The editor is the person who has the final say. To me, photos are most important, when editing the newspaper. The power that a picture has is enormous. No matter how great a long article is, it is not comparable to a photo at all.
In particular, the press photo is a genre with frames and formalities as the spot photo. Journalists produce many similar photos that are in the same category. However, I begin to edit photos once they are in my hands, opening up all possibilities from a zero basis. For instance, suppose that the newspaper publishes an article on Korean pancakes in the winter. The paper’s photo-journalist takes pictures of the Korean pancake from different angles. However, those ordinary photos of the Korean pancake cannot strike any emotional chords in the hearts of the readers. Therefore, I always think about how to interpret and express the pancake in order to impress them. Thus, at the time, my idea was to express the pancake as a full moon in the sky. The title was “The Pancake Rises!” Then, I inserted an illustration in which ET and Elliot fly across the pancake on a bicycle. In most cases, readers can be easily bored with ordinary pancake stories. However, readers put on a smile reading the pancake article with the illustration. A simple pancake can give people dreams and hopes. This is precisely the beauty of editing.
Now that I come to think of it, I have produced lots of revolutionary editing. I put a photo on the front cover that was not possible to publish in those old days and it became a nationwide sensation. One time, I relocated a portrait picture into a space intended for a landscape on the front page. Then the head of the photo department freaked out and ran to me. He said the photo was incorrectly inserted, and asked me why I put the portrait picture in the spot where the landscape photo was supposed to be. Being a pioneer, making changes and doing away with stereotypes are difficult tasks, because you have to fight against routine work. Ha, ha.
I have done these jobs for twenty years. But looking back, those were very important exercises for me. Those were what set up my overall frame and techniques that intuitively capture objects, as if I, as a fisherman, caught a big fish. People often ask me when I show my pictures of the island to them, “I often miss such an objet, but how do you perceive and recognize it, and make it so meaningful to you?” Then I answer smiling, “It is because I have practiced recognizing and selecting objects and objets for twenty years.”
Jo When you wrote articles related to wine, you published a book entitled Wine and Rest. You used your own photos. In most cases, authors work with photographers together, don’t they?
Son The photos used in the book, published in 2009, were the ones I took from time to time while I learned about wine. I always carried my camera. The photos used in the book Travel into Seasonal Tables, are also the ones I took while I traveled around the country in search of Korean seasonal food. I believed that it was meaningful to capture what I saw and felt, even though they were a bit poor quality, because taking photos is covering the news, so to speak. Thinking back on those days now, I can say I enthusiastically took photos. When I participated in winery tours abroad, I looked into every nook and corner of the furrow to take photos, thinking of how well I can take my own unique photos from a different perspective. To take a single shot, I woke up at dawn and got wet in the rainy fog. I used to take photos in places far apart from my companions.
And again, I was right! “The Anmyeondo Odyssey” is Hyunjoo Son’s pleasant journey that she has experienced since her departure from the island: from university admission to marriage, to employment at the newspaper, to wine columnist, to food columnist. My expectation that her journey would be full of suffering and nostalgia for her home, like Odysseus’s journey, is completely shattered.
Losing her photo album and the camera is a bit unpleasant, but isn’t her journey fortunate, compared to that of Odysseus, who was trapped in the cave of Polyphemus, a one-eyed giant, lost his soldiers after fighting against Laestrygones and even chased to hell to return home?
Furthermore, the Anmyeondo story does not appear as a theme as soon as she left the island. Rather, the prominently featured notes in her stories are just her photos. I, to be honest, was overwhelmed by “The Anmyeondo Odyssey,” and thus was absorbed in the island. I completely forgot to ask her my initial question on how she set about her work as a professional photographer. Then did she slip her answer into my hand while I was completed bewitched by something and forgot my initial intention? She would say to me, “Hang in there!”
No, not yet! Her photos still exist as props rather than heroes of “Hyunjoo Son’s pleasant adventure.” For example, let’s point to the moon with our fingers. People usually look at the moon, not their digits. The finger is only the tool for pointing to the moon, so it is of no particular importance. Of course, it is what does the pointing. However, when can it be the main hero?
Chapter 3: Starting the Voyage to Ithaka
Jo All of a sudden, you quit your job of twenty years. This must have been a huge change. How did you make such a big decision?
Son Everyone has a turning point in his or her life. One day in the morning, I was sitting in my office. A question abruptly came to my mind: “What am I doing here?” Something suddenly struck me, and I didn’t want to be there anymore. As I already mentioned, the bag of all my sensibilities had been formed and created in the first nineteen years of my life on the island. My sound energy exploded at that moment. Everything I had experienced and that had formed me - running along the seashore, being stuck on the island, the limited environment, etc - erupted. It was the time when I found myself insubstantial.
I couldn’t touch my work all day, and asked my boss for a week’s leave of absence. My offer was met by a flat refusal. “What are you talking about? You have an important job now. It is not even holiday season!” However, I was about to quit the job if he didn’t allow me a break. As soon as I came home, I packed my bag in a rush, and went to Jeju Island the next day. It was my first backpacking trip alone. From the first day, rain poured down. I thought about how I could survive in this world, even without overcoming this weather. Biting the bullet, I walked and walked. I crossed a mountain, passed a graveyard and arrived at Seongsanpo. I could hardly move forward without my alpenstock, getting caught in a rainstorm. People took shelter from the storm. I was alone. Suddenly, sadness welled up in my mind and I started to cry, overwhelmed in sorrow from some unknown reason, mixing tears with the rain water…. I walked along for a week, and decided to quit my job after the trip. So I did.
Jo Most people have dreams, but they hardly put them into practice. Didn’t you have any anxiety about your future?
Son I didn’t even want to think about the future. Females become stronger after the age of forty, which means that they become more confident. Yes, I became more confident. I pledged myself to doing what I wanted to do, controlling my desires. Was it the time when my body sent me a signal to come back to Anmyeondo?
Jo You had promised yourself you would never come back when you left the island. How then did you decide to return to it?
Son Living in Seoul was nothing special to me, and I might have longed again for the island, my lifeline, like an umbilical cord. I had a lot of things that I wanted to do during my later lifetime there. The sense of isolation from the outer world, the narrow confines of island life, the natural ecology and the unique environment - these restrict people’s activities. However, exactly those things play an important role in making an artist, a writer or a photographer, stay there for part of his or her life. It is because the artist confines himself/herself on the island and tries to build up inspiration that will be the basis of his/her their creative work.
The island is the place where people can refill burned-out energy and express themselves, unconsciously hungering for something. I know this because Anmyeondo, my home, was the place where I could look deeply into myself and trace my origins of myself from being completely wiped out. This is the place where my ancestors rest in peace, where I was born and where I will die. Afterwards, this will be the place where my kids will live. Maybe I might have found an excuse to come back here.
At last, the journey, “The Anmyeondo Odyssey” to return to her home, began.
However, how many more stories have begun with the five words, “One day in the morning”? In my mind, more stories are added to hers: her childhood dream of becoming a painter, the Anmyeondo stories her father narrated, her life as an editorial journalist, wine specialist, food columnist, etc …
However, looking back, I don’t know how her completely different stories are interconnected and how they end. Do they end? Come to think of it, there is an even bigger problem.
If someone longs for their lover who ruthlessly walked away, this sort of feeling is often called “A huge blow.” It seems to me that something that suddenly struck her “One day in the morning” was similar to this kind of huge blow. I cannot imagine how strong the huge blow was to her. As soon as she decided to return, it instantaneously blew her back to Anmyeondo.
Me? In fact, I am a little embarrassed by her instantaneous return. There must have been lots of stories and lists of hang-ups that were untold behind the five-word expression “One day in the morning.” I am sure she was too, when she spent a week on Jeju Island. Even so, shouldn’t a story have an introduction, development, turn and resolution? “The Anmyeondo Odyssey” must be her story of returning to the island, but is her story simply over with it?
No, it is not. Thinking back, the story of The Odyssey was not over after Odysseus returned to Ithaka. Odysseus also tested Penelope’s love for him right after coming back, and got revenge on the men who asked her for her hand in marriage and went though his fortune during the time he was away. Then, the story ends.
We can’t call Hyunjoo Son’s “Anmyeondo Odyssey” as her true returning journey, either, until she actually takes over Anmyeondo. How did she take it over?
Chapter 4: Retuning to Ithaka
Jo It was 2010 when you returned to Anmyeondo. According to the analogy of The Odyssey, yours must have ended there since you returned to your home and settled in it well. But then, you traveled around the island and walked along its seashore. This must have been the beginning of a new odyssey after your return. What was your reason for going around the island?
Son Even though we live on the island, it is impossible for us to know every inch of it. After the Jeju Island trip, I was in complete ignorance of my birthplace. I really wanted to know about it, since I had decided to live here. The best way was to walk along its seafront.
Maybe I was the first person who walked along the borderline between the land and the sea. Those who live their routine lives on Anmyeondo use wide and straight roads, but need not bother to walk along dangerous and isolated byways. Anmyeondo was new to me because I had gone through a lot to get back to it. I wanted to see the whole island.
My house is located in Jeongdangri. I left home, turned to the right, and began to walk. My camera was an instrument for recording, in a sense. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to record, but I just knew I wanted to. In the mean-time, I asked myself questions on the subject, and began to recognize this. Photos then transformed into documentaries, not simple writing supplements.
Jo We come back to the beginning again, after having gone through many stories. The 2010 Anmyeondo tour was the starting point when you decided to become a professional photographer. Did you have photography in mind when you decided to go around the island at the time?
Son I’ve never thought about what I wanted to find within myself, but I eventually realized that it was photography. I took photos whenever I felt like it while walking. After a few days, I asked myself a question after checking out the photos that I had taken. Why was there not even a single beautiful, scenic photo of Anmyeondo? Why were only painful vestiges, such as piece of trash from the island, or a pine tree broken by a storm, photographed?
Why was a television on the beach? It reminded of my late great uncle. I used to visit my grandparents on my mother’s side during the summer break. The whole family converged on the beach to cool off at night, sitting on a low wooden bench and looking out over the water. We talked about this and that, like ghosts or mom’s childhood stories, till late at night. The whole family whispered, gazing into the sea. An abandoned television was discarded on the beach toward the ocean. I remember all of these things as one anecdote. I stood for a while, forgetting to leave the spot. I took photos. The television was my great uncle’s low wooden bench to me. The boundary line I followed to go around was a junk shop with everything from old dishes to broken chamber pots, to pieces of glass bottles, to umbrellas, to shoes, to buckets, to rubber gloves, to boots. All the stories about Anmyeondo came pouring out.
I walked along for 15 days like that. It was a time when I fully concentrated on only photos and myself. I asked myself the question, “Why do I take these objets?’ so many times, instead of thinking that those would be my artistic work. Those objets repeatedly caught my eye, popping up old stories with them. Then they were united with my past. I would say that causality started working then. Usually, such objets are located near villages.
It didn’t take long for me to realize the truth, that “Even though those objets were thrown out by islanders, they are the island’s time of day, these very objets are themselves islanders and the island is there in the midst of ecological circulation.” Putting my ideas together, photographing the objets naturally became my next step. I considered this work as something that I had to seize the initiative with. This was because, as time moves forward, I will regretfully miss those objets, unless I take the photos of the ship disappearing, falling into decay, and those wrinkles on an old lady’s face. I must record everything on the island.
Jo It was because you regretted not ever recording your father’s stories, and so you lost all of them.
Son That’s right. Therefore, I always thought that such moments should remain in my camera, and believed that they would be taken out of it someday. In the early days of my work, recording itself was more important than the photo quality.
Jo In the author’s note, there is the expression, “photos follow the ‘borderline of the island,’ being an inside and an outside the boundary at the same time, where islanders ceaselessly came in and out since the beginning of life in the past.” In fact, I thought that if you walked along the borderline, you might lose the wide open spaces within the island. However, putting this story and that expression together, I feel that, even though you walked along the line, the line was connected with the island’s inner space by the plane.
Son You are right. Every objet is not just created on the spot. They are all from the island, regardless of whether someone dumps them or they are thrown out from the village. Furthermore, the boundary of the island, surrounded by seas, is the circle in which I return to the starting point, by setting my foot on the line. I really thought that I had completely walked around the island. It was what I had promised myself. Only by doing so, I felt I could resurge again. Therefore, I earnestly went around the island.
Jo In the work done during your 2010 trip, the main theme was about a buoy. In fact, you held an exhibition with the title “The Island is a Buoy.” in London in June, 2014. In doing so, you have approached it in omnibus format, describing the buoy as the door to the ocean, the lives of people who wander aimlessly, the environmental problems to the island, etc. What is the symbolic meaning of the buoy that penetrates all of these?
Son The buoy is normally supposed to stay at sea. It is a sign of “the gateway into the ocean,” which is hidden in code by fishermen. This is the sign that there are oysters beneath it, and the fishermen cast their nets to make them grow. The fishermen often use a flagpole made of bamboo as a buoy to mark the sea route they use. The buoy is the gateway into the ocean to them when they go out to sea, and it is the same gateway into the island when they come back. Coming in sight of the buoy means that they are approaching the island. It is the sign of hope that reminds them of their sweet homes with their wives and kids, as well as a symbol of rest, relief, break and the family.
Then, the rope breaks. The buoy, losing its function, is swept away and flows onto the island. This is the moment that the buoy, losing its value, becomes trash. When white buoys washed up on the island, I thought that our lives, wandering aimlessly like the buoys and homeless dogs, might be similar to them.
The buoy thus has two symbolic aspects, but the most important problem in my opinion is indeed environmental pollution. The island is almost packed with buoys. Therefore, it is time to preserve the environment from the ravages of pollution. Shouldn’t my next work include a project that protects the island from buoys?
Jo When I look at the 2010 photos, I feel as if a girl were examining the world here and there with a magnifying glass. It seems as though she looks into little and worthless things, giving play to her imagination with them. But then some changes took place in your second journey in the winter of 2014. I would like to hear your motive for the second journey and know the difference with the 2010 art-work.
Son You can feel that the images are pure and innocent from some of the 2010 photos. It seems as though a pure girl with inquisitive eyes sees the island as it really is. It seems as though I focus on a documentary, not on the quality of the photos. The 2014 photos are a bit different. I was making art work during a harsh winter, and produced photos from an aesthetic point of view. Therefore, I have made progress in photographic skills, but might have lost my old pure girl sensibility. I was also in hopes that the objets that I saw in 2010 would be exactly in the same places. Because it was the time just before I had my private exhibition in London, I walked around the island thinking of how to draw a serious underlying theme of Anmyeondo.
It was the time for me to newly extend the scope of my cognition beyond my early stage of art, even beyond the objets littering the seashore, which lost their function. For instance, recent buoys are made of styrofoam. When styrofoam floats on the sea for a long time, it is broken, and barnacles become attached to it. Then, it becomes a completely different object. It reminds me of a slice of the cosmos, the shape of a person or a unique thing. I feel as if the buoy is another new organism, not simply a drifting object.
Jo You seem to classify your photo work as either in the documentary or in the aesthetic categories. Don’t you think that revival, through being documentary, has a twist? For instance, the photo has its own limitations in the sense that it is locked in the frame. What do you think about photos as documentaries now?
Son Yes, they’re documentaries. I think that this area is what I, as a photographer, have to contribute to the island where I live. I used to tell this joke to my kids: “All Anmyeondo photos are not ours, regardless of whether I take photos of some old people’s eightieth birthday party at the community hall of the village, an exorcism event in the village or tourists who wander around in front of the Kkotji Halmibawi Rock. Even after I pass away, those documentary photos are the island’s.” However, you can have artistic photography that is categorized as modern photos. My personal perception of objects is embodied in my modern art photos, connected to the color, produced from an innate sense of creation from early childhood, i.e., making a collage by inserting the objet into the photo.
Jo It sounds to me like you are saying producing documentary photos is not “creation.”
Son The documentary photo is a bit more associated with records. Many people think differently, but I would like to say that modern art photos are also connected to documentary photos, too. I think that I am in between documentary and modern art photos now. I have interpreted the buoy or objet using emotions or colors. Since the essence of such work is found from documentary photos, it is hard to say that these two are completely separated.
Jo In a sense, you are saying that you are doing something new, however it is not from something completely new, but from what you have done, aren’t you? It seems to me that you do something new, but it is, in fact, from all your sensibilities that were formed and created in the first nineteen years of your life.
Son That’s right. In other words, it is like a report that says “I came back to the island again.” I just begin to work on the images that I wanted to do in the past, and everything I liked and wanted to see then came pouring out. This exhibition is like a compound shop. I release everything I want to show. This is a signal. From now on, my art-work will originate from this.
Yes! Hyunjoo Son is “taking over” the island by her “adventure” of Anmyeondo, while Odysseus “took over” Ithaka by force. Well, it seems to me that, in her “Anmyeondo Odyssey,” she looks harder for her adventure, leaving her footprints on the boundaries of the island after her return, than for her adventures outside it.
She could not stop clicking the shutter, walking around the boundary in 2010, when she returned to Anmyeondo, thinking of her past 20 years in her lost photo album and stamping her foot over losing her father’s stories. “Se non ora, quando?” After coming back from her 15-day-journey, she realized that she had bruised both big toes. She slowly broke the toenails off over the next year.
Yet it is strange. I think that it’s more than enough to take over the island, but she left her home again with her camera four years later. She went around the island again, like a pure girl who dreamed of becoming a painter delighted with colors, or like a gourmet who actively searched for delicious food, but this time she went around it very slowly, as if she were slowly savoring the taste of wine.
Nevertheless, Hyunjoo Son still says, “move onward!” Does this mean that she still hasn’t arrived at Ithaka? Where then is the Ithaka of “The Anmyeondo Odyssey”?
Chapter 5: Sonhyunjoo, Looking for a New Ithaka
Jo When I look at your art photos, I find a variety of subjects obtained from your trips on the island, such as restaurants, people, the seashore, animals, etc. I feel as if I am going around the island too, when I look at them. Is that a similar feeling as if I were to look in every nook and corner of the island myself?
In the previous chapter, I mentioned that Hyunjoo Son’s odyssey begins anew after her return to the island. However, if summarizing the story, I know that it is not about her ‘return to somewhere. If I reinterpret the odyssey in my own language, I think that it is a human being’s adventure story where they move forward to a certain destination. Hyunjoo Son’s odyssey was initially to return to her island, but now it is about finding herself on the island, which concerns more fundamental questions.
Thus, I ask a question to myself “What would be the unique identity of Anmyeondo that Son would want to draw from in her artwork?” Furthermore, I have another question “What domain will she, as a professional photographer, make in the photo art world?”
Son I think that I have taken on more than I can handle. I am bringing in this and that, everything I want to tell. I will fully focus on what I really want to pull out from it. We often look at the table of contents when we read books. First, I look at these as a whole, and then when the aggregation comes to my mind, I investigate each part, one by one, underlining and making circles around them, while keeping the whole in my mind.
My approach will not be any different from this. First, I toss a mass into the open front space. Then, I chop it up. The shredded pieces are important and meaningful only because they are in Anmyeondo. I am going to begin to work on Anmyeondo’s pine trees soon. There must be such pine trees that show Anmyeondo’s historical value, reflect the islanders’ thoughts and become a work of art to people around the world. The real task is to pull the pine trees out from my inner consciousness.
The nation has had full responsibility for taking care of Anmyeondo’s pine trees since the Goryeo Dynasty. Admiral Yi Sun-shin built the turtle ship with these trees. They were also really important as they were used as timber to build royal palaces or to make kings’ coffins. Therefore, government officials were deployed to protect them. If things went wrong, they were punished heavily. I will even try to investigate historical records on them. One thing’s for certain: these are distinct parts of Anmyeondo’s history. Will those parts be continuously excavated? I believe that my photos’ true value will be revealed as they are reinterpreted from their author’s point of view, and as their aesthetic value is increased by them.
Jo It looks like a privilege for only people, who have lived on, and still live on Anmyeondo, to take such photos.
Son I agree. My DNA recognizes the island, and as my age increases, I am pulling out the DNA, that records everything about the island, using photos.
Well, this type of work is indeed the process of finding my true identity, or simply myself, if we trace back to the origin. My photos seem to be different from what tourists take, and as I live on the island, I recognize things, interpret them and combine them with true feelings. Since I take photos, living in them, observing every moment and recognizing their history and time, a living chronicle is embedded in them, whenever I press the shutter of the camera.
In this respect, I believe that the key point that makes an art-work more valuable is the author’s truthfulness. It is a matter of how closely you observe, how much better you recognize and how well you accept things as they are. It could be the best time to begin photography if you are in your fifties, in that sense. The photos that were produced right after I simply learned about how to take pictures at the age of twenty must be completely different from those that were taken from my fifties, with my accumulated knowledge of humanity, various hands-on experiences and all sorts of feelings, such as pain, sorrow, agony and self-examination.
Jo It seems to me that there is still a variety of identities to you, Hyunjoo Son. As of now, in my opinion, you are in the middle of placing a greater emphasis on the identity as a photographer. The, what’s next?
Son Of course, I will be still a photographer. I once insisted that writing was the hardest job in the world. I always used to spend all day and remain all night awake in order to find a single word. However, I now feel that photography is more difficult to me. I often think that the more I do, the harder the job is. Fortunately, I now have a clear goal because I can now see what work I shall do in the future. In that sense, my new beginning is very successful.
Jo In other words, it means that Hyunjoo Son’s photographic Ithaka has already been preordained. Now, the only thing that you need to do is to just move toward it.
Son That’s right. Therefore, from now on, I will go into more detail. I would like to approach objects, such as pine trees or the mud flats, in my own way, and express them artistically. As I mentioned that some sorts of work must remain as documentaries, I will take an ongoing interest in human and environmental problems.
Jo Then do you have another plan to go around the island?
Son Whenever I believe that it is necessary to achieve my vision, or when I face knotty problems, I will use my camera. This is my way to heal my soul, irrespective of photographic work.
My husband always says that I am a free spirit. It is because I am a person who does not know whether there is food or not, whether there are family problems or not, whether there is money to use or not and even whether things are going well or not. I just think about where to go to take photos of the seashore tomorrow, when the best time would be for it, etc. It looks like a privilege. I was born with itchy feet. I cannot live unless I am running out of the house.
My recent career change looks a fairly rich “second life” to people about the same age. However, I don’t like to use the expression “second life.” It is because my current life consists of the sum of every moment of life accumulated from the past. My current photos would have not existed if I hadn’t existed in the past. One of my long-time colleagues once told me this. It was a time when senior supervisor in the editorial department gathered together.
He said, “Hyunjoo has been always a working colleague. To her, a second life is inappropriate to describe her later life. The way she has lived so far always proves that she is still working, and this will continue forever.”
That was greatly encouraging. If someone called a person’s life after their retirement their second life, they might tend to feel that they have really aged. However, the senior supervisor considered me as an active co-worker as if I have never retired, regardless of what I have done for my career. I felt great.
Jo It seems to me that what the visitors meet with in this exhibition would be about retracing the course of Hyunjoo Son’s life, not about following Anmyeondo’s boundary.
Son I think everyone has an island in their heart. The island could be a symbol of loneliness, the person’s unique energy, certain other possibilities, or his or her image in a mirror, shaken by a rainstorm. The numerous images of Anmyeondo that appeared in my photo artwork are those kinds of things. I would like to suggest that you pull out your own island from your heart by looking at Anmyeondo.
So, Hyunjoo Son, a leading actress of “The Anmyeondo Odyssey,” leaves for Anmyeondo, her own Ithaka. However, she is not returning to the physical island because the Anmyeondo for which she is heading is another one.
The teenaged Hyunjoo Son threw harsh words at her mother: “I will never live here sitting in the furrow for the rest of my life!” However, she is now living in search of such furrows, wanting to have them to herself. Now, she is leaving for all sorts of places that are hard to travel to, such as the mud flat that her foot sinks into, uninhabited beaches and deserted isles, as well as furrows.
What young Hyunjoo Son saw in the furrow was not Anmyeondo, but the emptiness of hopelessness. Then isn’t what Hyunjoo Son, a photographer as of now, sees in the furrow her dream, not Anmyeondo as a physical space? It must be the island that called Hyunjoo Son herself, but seen only when we look through a viewfinder.
Anmyeondo: a Korean Island. A black mud flat is on the western side of it, while a silver sandy beach is on the eastern side. If you go around along the sea front, it will take about 15 whole days. Maybe I am the first person who has walked along the edge of the island, because no one else would consider such a hard job a valuable experience. My body and spirit are captivated by intuition and reasoning, while I run away from the flood and follow the ebb tide. The first, the second, the third day… I then feel fascinated by a unique characteristic of the island. Something unknown hits me and hurts my soul. Precisely, it is the buoy. This is my second time around the island since my trip in the fall 5 years ago. This is my output from about 30,000 photos.
- “The island is the buoy,” from Hyunjoo Son’s Author’s Note.
An independent window gallery, as if isolated like an island, is in front of the Doosan Arts Center, located in Jongno 1-ga, the central area of Seoul. No! The window gallery is the annex of the Doosan Gallery. Just as the window gallery is the annex of the Doosan Gallery, so is the Doosan Gallery, so to speak, the ‘annex’ of the Doosan Arts Center. The Doosan Arts Center, which opened in 2007 in commemoration of the 111th anniversary of the establishment of the company, has found and supported artists who have been active in a variety of genres, such as musicals, plays, music, dance and fine arts. If this is true, isn’t the Center willing to be the “buoy of arts” that guides the way the artists should go?
This is the Buoy of Photos!
People who pass by the Doosan Arts Center cast a glance at the inside of the window gallery. Inside, an obscure sculpture and huge photo catch pedestrians’ eyes. Then doesn’t the window gallery serve as a show window like a department store’s or shop’s? As you know, a show window is often a showcase that faces the street in order to provide information on businesses or to promote products. However, the show window needs to utilize advanced strategies in order to properly display the products. It not simply a place to deploy them without any strategy. The Doosan Encyclopedia describes a show window as “a place where store managers attract passers-by into their stores by drawing attention and arousing their purchasing needs, not simply deploying the products.”
The obscure sculpture and humongous photo that are displayed in the window gallery attract pedestrians. Maintaining acute tension between each other, they catch the eyes of passersby. Interestingly, the obscure sculpture is white, while the humongous photo is black (strictly speaking, it is navy blue). Since their sizes are equally enormous, it’s easy to make the gigantic window gallery, already seven meters tall, more noticeable. They excite pedestrians’ curiosity, because no one knows what the white sculpture is about and what the gigantic photo is aimed at.
First of all, let’s look at the photo. It is panoramic, one meter and fifty centimeters wide, three meters and eighty centimeters long. It looks like a wilderness with a winding path meandering through a broad, flat expanse, while daylight remains. To a passerby, it may be a vast wilderness when the sun rises. So to speak, it may be from such a wilderness with a sinuous path that Ubermensch is about to appear, seen in Yuksa Lee’s work. Or maybe that Ubermensch has already appeared somewhere on the path. The passerby takes one step forward to the big black photo. But wait! Isn’t the broad, flat expanse the mud flat that ebb and flow make? The S-shaped winding path on the flat is nothing but the waterway.
Now let’s look at the white sculpture. It seems to be rough pieces, unlike the clean space of the show window. The curious passerby edges down toward it. The sculpture consists of two pieces, tied with a thick string; thus it is one object. The string is nearly white, faded, as if it had been exposed to the sun for a long time. Furthermore, these tied sculptures are partially damaged here and there. The passerby takes another step forward. Aren’t all sorts of shells, like speckles, embedded in the surface of the white sculpture? He comes closer to it. Oh, my! The sculpture is not made of white granite or marble, but white Styrofoam! That’s right! The white Styrofoam is nothing less than a buoy.
Why? Why is a buoy, along with a mud flat photo, displayed in the window gallery? What is the relationship between the buoy and the photo? Maybe the photographer doesn’t use the objet (the buoy) for her direction, in order to maximize the function of the show window? What is the function of the show window? This is exactly what I quoted as the function of the show window from the Doosan Encyclopedia. What? You already forgot? Alright! I will quote it again for you, so you remember it: “a show window is the place where store managers attract passers-by into their stores by getting attention and arousing their purchasing needs, not simply deploying the products.”
If that is true, then is it the reason why the photographer displays both the buoy and the photo in the window gallery to attract passers-by into the Doosan gallery? Then aren’t they simply “bait” to make the passers-by the audience? The Doosan Encyclopedia definition is more about the direction of show windows: “directors should design by getting a sense of the season and being sensitive to the latest trends. It is more effective to reveal business contexts symbolically rather than simply to display product samples. Sometimes, there are cases that improve the enterprise image by trying bold experimental space directing.”
The mud flat and the buoy – these two allude to the sea. Then, is the reason why the Doosan Gallery displays them in the window gallery in the middle July because it is no less than the summer holiday season? However, the mysterious thing is that the buoy displayed in the gallery is a sort of “marine refuse” because of its age and damage; thus, it loses its practical function. In spite of that, the photographer tricks passers-by into recognizing the “refuse” as art-work by directing it with a large mud flat photo in the white cube (window gallery). If so, does it mean that the buoy is an “artistic” one, not a “marine” one?
The Doosan Encyclopedia defines the buoy as “a floating device, used for navigational aid.” So to speak, the buoy is a sort of sign established to allow boats and ships to navigate safely, and to caution against dangers to navigation, such as rocks or sunken vessels. Therefore, buoys symbolize safety, but also warning. Then, what is the artistic buoy? Perhaps it’s an artistic sea route, like an artistic direction that an artist pursues? The artistic buoy and the mud flat photo are displayed together in the window gallery. Then is the photographer who produced the mud flat photo rashly suggesting a photographic direction?
As you see in camera ads which say, “Everyone can be a photographer,” more than ten million people take photos in Korea. Today, Korean photo club members crisscross the entire nation, taking photos and posting tons of photos on their online galleries (digital galleries), as if they are capturing entire landscapes. Therefore if a modern photographer displays scenery photos, people will easily treat them as an anachronism. Needless to say, there are lots of mud flat pictures among scenery photos taken by amateur as well as professional photographers. To most photo club members in Korea, Suncheonman is the number one place for mud flat shot.
Most of them are scenery photos that contain “S-shaped sunsets”; that is, S-shaped waterways on mud flats with the sun in the sky. Others take pictures of Suncheonman drenched in golden sunset tones in the late afternoon. They enthusiastically take photos that show the shape of the mud flat exposed at low tide (like a whaleback), and the skin of the mud flat (that looks like metal). Of course, there is a photographer who waits until people gather to take photos of the S-shaped sunset, then drift away from the place. The photographer believes that the so-called “magic-hour” begins once the sun sets. They pull the trigger to capture the pattern of the waterway along with the beautiful crescent moon in the dark cobalt-blue sky.
However, the mud flat photo displayed in the window gallery is neither the ‘S-shaped sunset’ nor the mud flat photo with the moon in the sky in the ‘magic-hour.’ It is literally ‘the mud flat photo’ that contains only the mud flat while cutting off a portion of the sky. How did the photographer take it? He or she must have taken it at a higher ground than the flat (about four meter high) in order to show the perfect view of the waterway on mud flat. Furthermore, the photo was produced through bold editing. That’s right! The mud flat photo is not a panoramic photo. The top and the bottom, almost half, of the original photo are cut out. It is an edited photo, like a panoramic photo.
Why would the photographer have done this? Is it because the beauty of the sunset or the moon could overshadow the beauty of the soggy mud flat? I think that the photographer couldn’t see the scenic view of the mud flat as only a beautiful one. It is because she hasn’t considered the mud flat as just a place for photographing, but as a workplace for living. If so, isn’t it true that no one can take such photos unless they experience the mud flat firsthand? They must be someone who lives or has lived near the mud flat. Accordingly, they couldn’t have overlooked the village women and the fishermen who do hard work at the mud flat long for hours at low tide in order to dig out clams and crabs in the spring, small octopus in the fall, and oysters in the winter, while taking pictures. The mud flat, “the garden of the sea,” is also “the garden of labor” as well as “the garden of hope” to the fishermen. Does the mud flat photo in the window gallery contain people’s wishes for overcoming suffering and looking forward to the future?
Let’s go back to the starting point of the mud flat and the buoy photos. I argued that the staged buoy with the mud flat photo must be an “artistic buoy.” But then if the photo, unlike other mud flat photos, conveys the flat as a workplace for a living, then can we think that the buoy, staged along with the photo, is displayed as a “photographic” buoy at least to the photographer? If this is true, then do they dare to suggest a direction to the future of photography, filled with unforeseeable problems? And then, does the photographer consider their photos as a sort of “photographic” buoy?
The Women with a Camera
The photographer bravely tries to reinforce their image by making an experimental space production. However, the photographer’s identity has not been revealed yet. Who in the world is this person any way? The passerby really wonders who he or she is, while stepping over the door of the Doosan Gallery. Yes! The person who steps over it is no longer a passerby. They are now the audience. Then isn’t the mission of the window gallery accomplished?
Once the audience enters the Doosan Gallery, a short hallway appears. The title “HYUNJOO SON: ODYSSEY IN ANMYEONDO,” is printed on the wall of the hallway. Therefore, it is Hyunjoo Son who worked on the mud flat photo. Well, Hyunjoo Son, as a professional photographer, is an unknown figure in the photography world. It seems to me that the Doosan Arts Center does not make empty promises in the sense that it has found and supported artists who have been active in a variety of art genres. So, who is she?
She was the fourth-born of three sons and two daughters (and the first-born daughter) in Anmyeondo in Taean-gun, Chongnam Province, in 1965. She remembers that her father was a farmer and a scholar for Chinese, while her mother was in charge of farming for her family for all her life. Her father told her daily affairs that occurred in his village, as well as numerous folk tales passed from generation to generation, village to village, such as Dangsan, Jourtgae, Noroottang, Guksabong, Marlundle, Parlhakgol, Yongcheongol, Sambong, etc. She excelled in literature and fine arts enough to receive multiple prizes in drawing and essay contests from her second year in elementary school to her last year in high school. She originally wanted to be a painter, but majored in Korean literature after words of encouragement by her Korean literature teacher at her middle school graduation commencement. She said, “You will be really a great poet when you grow up!”
She didn’t leave the island until she was 19, when she graduated high school. It would be rather more appropriate to say that she couldn’t. She had always wanted to escape the isolated island. She sincerely hoped to leave for the mainland because she knew how hard it was to live as a fisherman or a farmer there, heavily affected by the weather. Thus, she strove to reach the larger world. Her plan to go to a metropolitan city like Daejeon by the time she graduated her middle school failed because of her father’s disapproval. However, in the end, she was able to leave the island due to her university admission. She swore that she would never come back again.
She married Jeongnam Choi, a graduate student, in 1989 when she worked as a university staff. In 1990, she applied to Kyunghyang Daily News, and joined the company. Afterwards, she worked for 20 years in the editorial department. She then won the Photo Editing Award of the Year by Photojournalists, for an article with a photo in the front page and a short article at the bottom of the page in the weekend edition, entitled “Slowness and Rest,” in 2004. The photo was about an image of pure children in an alternative school freely passing by a footpath between rice fields. She edited the article unprecedentedly, breaking stereotypes. She won numerous other awards for the article. Then she received an award from The Korea Copy Editors Association with the privilege of graduate school at Dongguk University’s the College of Communication Studies. Therefore, she entered in 2006 and graduated in 2008.
Hyunjoo Son is often called a wine columnist, food columnist and a travel writer. She wrote a weekly column about wine for Kyunghyang Daily News in 2003. Since then, she has written about wine for various media. Therefore, she has a nickname, “Korea’s first wine journalist.” Then she published a book, Wine and Rest (Forbook Publishers), in 2009. Interestingly, her wine column covers both wine and food, unlike other wine columns in Korea. She says, “Because wine is in the category of food, there is no way not to learn about food - if you learn about wine. In particular, whenever I took a winery trip abroad, the locals gave me a taste of their wine and gourmet local cuisine.” Naturally, she has been more interested in local food. She published another book in 2012, Travel into Seasonal Tables (Artbooks Publishing), after traveling around the country for two years. Since then, she has continuously written columns for newspapers and magazines on seasonal foods, receiving another title of a food columnist.
She resigned from the Kyunghyang News Daily where she had worked for 20 years and returned to her homeland, Anmyeondo, the place she had sworn not to come back to at the age of 19. She went around Anmyeondo about thirty years after her departure. She resolved to become a photographer while touring the island. She gave her work to the world through group exhibitions from year 2011: “The Face” (Jeongdong Gallery) in 2011; “Mosel! Nature, Terroir, People” (Hillstate Gallery) in 2012; “Grand Cru-Wine Art Exhibition” (Daejeon Trade Exhibition Hall) in 2012; “Miso_Seoulkkot” (Floating Cloud Gallery, Citizens Hall in Seoul) in 2013; and “Dasitamsaek” (Choongmoo Arts Hall) in 2013. She gave her first private exhibition in London in 2014, with the title “The Island Is a Buoy” (Gallery MOKSPACE) for which she received attention from the British photographic society. Thus “Odyssey in Anmyeondo” (Doosan Gallery) is her first private exhibition in Korea. She has a five-year career experience as a professional photographer. However, she worked on photography for a long time before that. She received a gift, a Pentax film camera, from her father on the day that she entered university, after incessantly begging him for one. As she became more interested in photography, she took classes in it. Since then, she used to pull the “trigger” at every opportunity. Of course, the place she exhibited her work for the first time was not on the ground, but on paper. Some examples are the photos that are in her books. Those are the photos she took when she visited various regions abroad, and travelled all over Korea.
Odyssey in Anmyeondo: An Epic Photo Exhibition
Now let’s enter the exhibition hall. The hall is a single space, 16 meters long, 12 meters wide and 3.5 meters high. Hyunjoo Son displays her 119 small and large photos in this single space. The largest photo is 2 meters long, while the smallest one is A4-sized. Interestingly, the name of a place is posted on the wall on each side of the hall: Hwangdo, Anmyeonam and Jeongdangri are on the first wall, while Dokgae, Lararmdo and Nudongri on the next, Youngmok, Baramarae and Saetbyeol or Kkotji on third wall and Naepasudo and Gijipo on the last. What exactly do these names mean?
Yes! These twelve words are the names of Anmyeondo’s regions. Furthermore, they are all located on the seashore. The area from Hwangdo to Youngmok is located on the eastern seashore of the island, while the area from Baramarae to Gijipo is located on the western coast. Therefore, if you walked to Gijipo, starting from Hwangdo, you would arrive at Hwangdo again. If the audience follows the photos of the regions in order, then they go around the island along the seashore as it is displayed in the hall. Of course, the Anmyeondo trip is a sort of “image travel” through photos. This is why Hyunjoo Son names her exhibition “Odyssey in Anmyeondo.” What? But then, aren’t the entrance and the exit of the Doosan Gallery the Anmyeondaegyo Bridge? If so, then you have already passed it.
There are 119 islands in the Taeanbando and Anmyeondo is one of them. Of course, Anmyeon was not originally an island. The region became an island when the Joseon Dynasty built a waterway, cutting the land in the area between Sinonri in Namyeon and Changgiri in Anmyeon town in order to easily transfer tribute from the southern provinces to Hanyang (now Seoul), as well as to stop widespread looting by Japanese pirates, in the reign of King Injo in 1638. A bridge was built in 1970, about 330 years later, connecting Taean-gun and the island, so Anmyeon was connected to the mainland again. Anmyeondo is the sixth largest island in Korea, being 24 kilometers long and only 5.5 kilometers wide. As she mentioned, the black mud flat is on the western side of the island, while the silver sandy beach is on the eastern side. Since the seashore is a Rias coast, the coastline is irregular. Its circumference is 120 kilometers.
Hyunjoo Son explains that it takes a full 15 days to walk around the island along the coastline. She did it in the fall of “Odyssey in Anmyeondo” consists of photographic images of her adventure stories when she went around the coastline of the island, like Homer’s Odyssey. She confesses that “it was not an easy trip due to tribulations and suffering.” Therefore, the “Odyssey in Anmyeondo” is a sort of an epic photo exhibition which expresses her views of the world and her life.
Hyunjoo shows her skills from her 20-year-long editing career in her artwork, such as the editing of the headlines and the pages of the newspapers. She places the 119 small and large photos, like the 119 small and large islands of Anmyeondo, on the wall of the gallery, as if she edits the photos on the pages of the newspaper. Then, she adds about 100-word-long texts below about 60 photos. Therefore, the sides of the exhibition hall looks like four pages of a newspaper. I may look at her amazing editing, similar to the one when she won the Photo Editing Award of the Year by Photojournalists. She took millions of photos while working in the editorial department of a newspaper for 20 years. They are largely summarized by two sentences: “I chose the truth of documentary photos and posted a preposterous photo on the front page.”
Going Beyond the Dichotomy of Photojournalism and Photo Documentary
Now let’s take a look at these 119 selected photos from the 30,000 that she took while she went around the island during two times, once in 2010, and again in 2014. I mentioned that those 119 photos were classified as twelve regions’ names, from Hwangdo to Gijipo. Therefore, I guess that she classified those 12 regions first, and then the 119 photos accordingly. But then, you may realize that the photos taken in 2010 and in 2014 are all muddled up together. Why? Why does she mix batches of photos with a five-year gap between them?
Hyunjoo said, “When I went around the coastline of Anmyeondo for the first time, my camera was an observing tool rather than a tool for aesthetic thinking. Therefore, in my diary of observations about the island (photo diary) there were objets, visible in my eyes and touching my heart without my consciously thinking anything. One day, when I saw them, I realized that they were all garbage. I asked myself, “Why do I repeatedly take these types of photos? At the time, I thought that my preference was a bit eccentric, rather than thinking that this garbage would be my aesthetic objets. Thus, I decided to try to solve my question, going around the coastline of Anmyeondo again in 2014. It was just before I had my private exhibition in London.”
If Hyunjoo is right, is her “Odyssey in Anmyeondo” a kind of a photo documentary taken by her when she walked along the borderline? The derivation of “documentary” is from the Latin documentum, which means “enseignement”, “lecon”, “exemple”, “demonstration”, or “modele.” Therefore, the word nowadays is mainly used when people mention recorded history, recorded evidence in historical records and legitimate documents. Needless to say, documentary also means “providing only objective truths” without editing or inserting fake elements. In other words, documentaries are “records as they are.” Doesn’t that mean that documentary photos are those that capture reality as it is?
What? Then are straightforward photos in the territory of photo-journalism? Some think of the difference between journalistic photos and documentary photos as the difference between fact and truth. In other words, photo journalism pursues facts, while photo documentary seeks truth. Photo journalism emphasizes specific purposes that report certain facts and scenes or functional aspects via newspapers or magazines, while photo documentary refers to the medium of artistic expression that shows a photographer’s view of the world and art, as well as the realm of photo journalism. So, who dares to conclude that the photographer who takes journalistic photos does not have their own view of the world and art? Can we say that the photographer who takes journalistic photos is simply a camera man?
Now let’s go back to “Odyssey in Anmyeondo.” I mentioned that she added roughly 100-word-long texts below about 60 photos. Why does she add these texts to half the photos, but doesn’t add any text to the remaining ones? If you see the photos with and without texts, you will be able to realize that those photos were taken in different years. For instance, the photos with texts were taken in 2010, but those without them were taken in 2014. Why does she do that?
Hyunjoo’s pieces “Jeongdangri 8486” (2010) and “Jeongdangri 7878” (2014) capture a kitchen scale. Both scales are sitting in the open air. The scale taken in 2010 is new, while the one taken in 2014 is rusty and damaged. Then, is the new scale in the forest in the fall exactly the same as the one rusty and ruined during the winter 5 years later? Is the background behind the scale in “Jeongdangri 8486” different from that in “Jeongdangri 7878”? Right! We can’t conclude that the scale in “Jeongdangri 8486” is the same one in “Jeongdangri 7878.” Furthermore, there is only one scale in “Jeongdangri 8486”, but there are two in “Jeongdangri 7878.”
This fragmentary information shows that rusty and damaged scales as well as new ones are abandoned in the Jeongdangri area. However, I don’t understand why people dump new scales out as well as damaged ones. Then isn’t it true that the scale in 2010 was not dumped? Yes! It seems to me that someone hid a scale in the forest in 2010, while the scales were abandoned at a street corner covered with fallen leaves in the winter of 2014. If so, who hid it in the forest, and why?
“There are always scales hidden in the hills nearby the mud flat where people harvest clams and oysters,” explains Hyunjoo.
Village women always hide scales in the hills when they work to find clams and oysters. Why? They leave them there to sell them more easily to the merchants who come to buy goods in the mud flat area, rather than going home with the clams and the oysters to weigh them. The puzzle of the photo that appeared weird at least to the mainlanders is immediately solved with the text that Hyunjoo provides below the photo. If she displayed these two photos side by side without explaining anything, mainlanders would not be able to understand the background stories of the scales in the photos.
Journalistic photos often play the role of showing a scene as it is, but documentary photos play the role of showing invisible scenes. However, can photos really show a scene as it is? Hyunjoo’s photos easily prove that it is not enough for them to be a tool for proving or confirming facts. Her own way of proving facts is adopting a sort of “docutext,” which combines photos with texts, like the photo essays, often seen in the newspapers. Of course, her docutext that describes the hidden scales near the mud flat could be “public documentary” photos in the sense that the facts about the hidden scales are commonly known to village women in the mud flat region.
Going Beyond the Dichotomy of Photo Documentary and Photograph Art
Now, let’s focus on the statement that photo documentary is the genre that shows invisible scenes. This is premised on intervention by a subjective point of view, because the documentary photographer couldn’t completely remove their intention and choice, even if they pulled the trigger towards real reality, not fictional objects. If so, doesn’t the truth of the documentary photo depend on the photographer’s subjective viewpoint? And then, isn’t it meaningless to discuss the distinction between photo documentary and photographic art?
Now, let’s use an example to illustrate private photo documentary from Hyunjoo’s docutexts. Her photos “Dokgae 4078” (2010) and “Dokgae 8033” (2014) seem like a mismatch. The earlier two photos “Jeongdangri 8486” and “Jeongdangri 7878,” have one thing, scales, in common, but “Dokgae 4078” and “Dokgae 8033” seem to be independent of each other: an elderly woman on a concrete floor and a bamboo tree at sea, respectively. What is Hyunjoo trying to say through these two photos?
First of all, let’s look at “Dokgae 4078.” The photo captures a scene in which the elderly woman with her rubber shoes on bends down and does something on the ground. Maybe she is retrieving something from there. She is also holding a stone in her right hand. It seems to me that she is picking up one stone among numerous small stones beside the floor, and is drawing something on the floor with it. This is because we can see a white line drawn by the stone on the floor. What then is she drawing? Why is the elderly woman behaving like that? Hyunjoo kindly adds this text below the photo:
“Why are you taking pictures? Whose daughter are you?” She was quite concerned about me, since I looked dopey, wandering around alone. Furthermore, it was almost dark, but I also lost my way, didn’t I? She picked up a stone and began to draw me a map. She dispelled my fears. This episode happened at Gumulmok in Joongjangri. I had wandered around too much because it was the first day of the trip.
Now can you understand what “Dokgae 4078” is about, or in what situation the photo was taken? Although this may seem tangential, the origin of the “BoonggiPoongurjae” (a ritual for a big catch of fish) on Hwangdo flashes across my mind. Hwangdo is an inhabited island, located in the northeastern sea of the northernmost part of Anmyeondo. A long time ago, a fishing fleet from Whangdori went out on a foggy day. It became dark. They lost direction, and went adrift. The fishermen, trembling in fear, saw a shining light from somewhere. They followed the light, and it turned out that it came from their own island, Hwangdo. They were curious about the light, so they went to the place where it glowed. There was a big snake in the Dangsan, and the light came from the snake’s eye. Thereafter, they built a shrine and worshipped the snake. This is the origin of “BoonggiPoongurjae” of Hwangdo today.
Now let’s take a look at “Dokgae 8033”, next to “Dokgae 4078.” The photo is about a bamboo tree in the middle of the sea - a bamboo tree in the sea? Of course, the tree cannot live there. Then, what is it? Oh, yes! The bamboo is a buoy. As you may know, the bamboo is standing on the mud flat, not under the sea at low tide. Yes! The fishermen put the bamboo tree on the flat at ebb tide. They go out to fish at high tide. When they come back, the tree signals that they are near home. Therefore, the bamboo tree is the buoy that shows them their way home. As the light from the snake’s eye was a kind of buoy to the fishermen who lost their way, so the elderly woman was a sort of buoy to Hyunjoo when she lost her way.
“Dokgae 4078” has its own story, while “Dokgae 8033” does not. Therefore, “Dokgae 8033” induces the audience to make stories. In other words, “Dokgae 8033” elicits the audience’s imagination. The bamboo tree, standing alone, looks lonely. Furthermore, flurries of snow add more loneliness. However, the tree is the hope that shows the fishermen their way home in dense fog, on the boundless expanse of the water. Similarly, what can it be other than hope to Hyunjoo who has lost her way when the elderly woman appears in front of her? Do you understand now why Hyunjoo edited “Dokgae 40783” and “Dokgae 8033” side by side?
I remarked that the truth of the documentary photo could depend on the photographer’s subjective view point. However, can we say that this applies only to the documentary photo? The truth of photographic art also depends on the photographer’s subjective view point. Hyunjoo pays precise attention to this point. Her photos look like documentary photos, but in fact they are photographic. In that sense, she decisively rejects any attempt to try to separate photo documentary from photographic art.
Die Sinfonie der Insel
Anmyeondo is often known as a vacation spot. Therefore, most Anmyeondo photos are mainly beautiful landscape. Common examples of such landmarks are the Halmibawi and Harabibawi Rocks in Kkotji. The glow of the setting sun at these places is considered one of the three most magnificent views of the sunset on the west coast of Korea, along with Chaeseokgang on Byeonsanbando, and Seongmodo in Kanghwa. However, if we see the photos that Hyunjoo has taken in the area of Kkoji, there is no single photo of the glow of the setting sun at Halmibawi and Harabibawi Rocks. Rather, there are a lot of photos of “refuse,” such as damaged buoys, military tableware, etc.
“There must be a military base around here, I conjecture.”
By the way, I could not find any photo of Anmyeonam among Hyunjoo’s photos, even though it is a famous place that people know about the name of the region. The small three-story temple is located on the eastern side of Anmyeondo. If you look at Cheonsuman from Anmyeonam, you can see the two Fox Islands. Photographers like to visit them, especially in June, because of the spectacular rising sun between them. However, in Hyunjoo’s photos of the Anmyeonam area, there is no such photo of the sunrise between the twin islands. The floating bridge between Anmyeonam and the Fox Islands is also famous, but she does not have any photos of it either. Her photos at Anmyeonam include only the jars of kimchi buried near the hermitage for future use, clams in their dilly bags, a television set abandoned in the seashore, and damaged Styrofoam buoys.
“What are you doing here?” seems like a genre of the modern fine arts.
That’s right! Hyunjoo took her “abandoned refuse” photos in all 10 areas when she went around the island, as well as Kkotji and Anmyeonam. These garbage photos are one of her main themes in her photo collection. They are of a broken canoe abandoned in the mud flat, a broken mirror, kitchenware from a dented kettle to a rice bowl, both still useable, a bottle of Coke, a safety helmet, a light bulb, a large bucket, an abandoned plastic buoy, etc. Why did Hyunjoo turn her eyes on this “garbage” dumped in the shore? Does she want to bring up questions on environmental pollution?
“A bottle of herbicide, Gramoxone, a toxic chemical, is littered in the shore. We’re in big trouble.”
Hyunjoo said in an interview that “while it is definitely environmentally problematic that islanders’ daily supplies drift out to sea, these objets are in the process of going back to nature, while having numerous life stories, getting rid of or keeping memories.” Then in an interview with me, she said, “I thought that, even if they are considered garbage from the island, they are the island of today; their presence represents the islanders, and they are in the final stage of entering an ecological cycle of the island, like humans. And damaged buoys floating on the water become garbage on the island by losing their value. The buoys resemble our lives, wandering aimlessly in the sense that they are washed up by waves, lonely and desolate, wandering around the island. I imagine garbage in two aspects, positive and negative.”
Islanders’ daily supplies drifted out to sea - their garbage - are not “trash” to Hyunjoo, but the objets that reflect the islanders’ numerous life stories. Isn’t the garbage abandoned on the shore “our self-portrait,” as she puts it? Then, her “Odyssey in Anmyeondo” contains a journey that makes us answer the question of “Who am I?”
Beads of Sweat, an Inner Secret in Mysterious Beauty
As I quoted above, Hyunjoo states that she took objets that touched her heart, without thinking about anything. Those were all photos of “garbage.” She asked herself: “Why do I repeatedly take these types of photos?” And as she casts back to those moments, she wonders why she could not think that “garbage” could be “aesthetic objets.” Therefore, what she really wanted to do, when she decided to go around the island along the coastline again in 2014 was to demonstrate just that. Then can we say that if her camera in 2010 was a tool for observation, her camera in 2014 was a tool for aesthetic appreciation? No! The 2010 camera was dichotomously classified as either tool for observation or for aesthetic appreciation, but her 2014 camera became the tool for observation as well as aesthetic appreciation at the same time. Let me explain this by using a specific example from her work of art. If you are really curious, then please keep reading.
“Youngmok 5279” (2014) is a photograph of a sparkling objet in a vast field. It is like a fantastic photograph of space that captures a planet among stars in the sky. As you go near the photograph, you will realize that the stars in the sky are stones and broken clam shells and the planet is a plastic buoy. But the skin of the plastic buoy breaks out in pimples. If you come closer, then you will know that those pimples are barnacles. What? Are you asking what the green seaweed that looks like mold on the skin of the plastic buoy is? That is enteromorpha prolifera (sweet laver). Barnacles and enteromorpha prolifera symbolize the track of time.
Moreover, the buoy and iron rod slantingly studded in the mud flat are leaning against each other. The head of the iron rod and the ring of the buoy are tied to each other with a metal wire. Accordingly, when the tide rises, the buoy might start to float on the sea water. Then, the iron rod that was slantingly studded in the mud flat might stand upright at high tide and the buoy also might cling to the iron rod, not the flat. However, if the buoy connected to the rod had kept floating on the surface twice per day, the rod might have gradually become slanted, due to the repeated ebb and flow.
In spite of that, the rod is not that long. Its length shows the degree of the increase in sea level during high tides. In other words, when the tide comes into the mud flat, where the rod is embedded, it will not rise to the top of the rod. If it does, the buoy won’t be a sea marker helping fishermen navigate. Yes! It is a marker for marine fish farms. Clams live under the plastic buoy. Thus, village women go with baskets to the place where the buoy is located during low tides and dig them out, while breaking into a sweat. In this respect, the buoy is a livelihood marker for the islanders.
However, Hyunjoo notes, “This buoy is not only a sort of sea marker for marine fish farms, but also a warning sea marker.” The buoy is a protest. It is a struggle to survive and to protect the fishermen’s livelihood. The island has become a tourist spot; thus, many city people crowd together there on weekends. However, this is an uneasy situation for the islanders who do clam farming, because their living is threatened. Therefore, this buoy is the livelihood marker for islanders, as well as the warning sea marker to tourists. Anmyeondo is no longer an island, where the inhabitants live comfortable lives, “sleeping restfully.”
As mentioned at the very beginning (while looking into the photographs displayed in the window gallery), I mentioned that Hyunjoo couldn’t have overlooked the village women and the fishermen who had to work hard at the mud flat for long hours during low tides, when she pulled the trigger towards the mud flat. In spite of that, I interpret Hyunjoo’s photographs of the mud flat as having a double meaning as “the garden of labor” and “the garden of hope” for islanders. Also, her mud flat photos include islanders’ wishes for overcoming their lives’ harsh realities and having bright futures. Is this the reason? Hyunjoo’s “Youngmok 5279,” looks like a photograph of a fantastic space.
The color of the plastic buoy is often white, black, yellow or orange. However, the color of the plastic buoy in “Youngmok 5279,” is more like the salmon pink, often seen just before a sunrise. Yes, it is! That is the color produced after going through color calibration work. Come to think of it, the color of the mud flat is also more like the royal blue, often seen just after a sunset, not a gray color. This is also a color achieved after calibration. Of course, Hyunjoo might adequately cut out the top and the bottom portions of the photo with color calibration at the last stage before the final photo is printed. If so, maybe the reason why “Youngmok 5279” could look like a photograph of a fantastic space is because the photo has been produced through color calibration and bold editing, right?
If I am allowed to compare the color of the plastic buoy that is more like salmon pink just before sunrise to the color of wine, I will recall Tavel Rose. Tavel Rose? Hyunjoo, as a wine columnist, describes it as follows: ”It is a wine that you deeply in love with even before you drink it because of its breathtaking beauty when the glass is filled. It is the fatal temptation of salmon pink, reminiscent of red salmon.” By the way, what makes the color of the plastic buoy - more like salmon pink just before sunrise - the color of unutterable beauty? Yes! It is because the color of the buoy is perfectly matched with the color of the mud flat, royal blue, just after sunset.
However, the beautiful photo of the mud flat isn’t just about being aesthetically pleasing. For instance, its beauty is mysteriously associated with a salty tang and a fishy smell. Maybe the reason why Hyunjoo’s mud flat photo is beautiful is because the fishermen’s sweat during their hard work, when their hands get chapped and backs bowed, is ingrained in it. Whenever Hyunjoo leaves her home to take pictures on the mud flat at dawn, she meets with villagers who get up at daybreak and sweat to dig out oysters and clams from the mud flat. She knows that the island’s women’s hands have no time to be smooth even during the winter. Accordingly, whenever she pulls the trigger on the mud flat, she might have ambivalent feelings. To her, a photo of the flat mud is like a winemaker’s sweat in the vineyard being present in his bottles.
The Mud Flat, Islanders’ Workplace and Playground at the Same Time
In spite of all that, Hyunjoo beautifully expresses the mud flat where the village women work with sweat running down in beads in her photos. Why? Before finding an answer to this question -- even for the sake of answering the question -- let’s go back to the other questions. She swore that she would never come back to the island again when she left at age 19. However, she returned to her homeland in 2010, 30 years later. In that year, she went around Anmyeondo’s coastline. She did it again 5 years later. First of all, what is the reason why she came back?
Hyunjoo says, “Living in Seoul was nothing special to me, and I might have longed for the island, the lifeline, like the umbilical cord. I had a lot of things that I wanted to do during my later life on the island. The sense of isolation from the outer world, the narrow confines of island life, the natural ecology and the unique environment -- these restrict people’s activities. However, those things play an important role in making an artist, a writer or a photographer. This is because the artist confines themselves on the island, and tries to build up inspiration that will be the basis of creative work.”
Ironically, the reason why Hyunjoo left the island is the very reason why she came back to it. For example, she, who left the island because of its innate sense of isolation, came back to it because of the sense of isolation that she felt outside it. The curious teenager left her home to explore an unknown world. As a journalist or a traveler, she visited many parts of the world. Of course, the unknown world she visited might have been an exciting place. However, the world she had already explored no longer held any curiosity. Is Anmyeondo then an unknown world? To answer the question, I should ask why she went around the island’s borderline in the same year when she returned.
Hyunjoo says, “I realized that I didn’t know anything about the island. Even though I had lived there until I was 19, and my ancestors have lived there from generation to generation, and although I heard many stories from my father, I had never thought about looking into every inch of the island or meeting and talking to villagers. I thought that I should fully understand the island.”
Interestingly, the very reason why she went around along the coastline was because Anmyeondo was an unknown world to her. She left the island in order to overcome geographic limits, but she came back. Why? The isolated island 30 years ago was a limit to her, but the same place after 30 years was now limitless. In other words, the familiar Anmeyeondo of 30 years before became unfamiliar with the passage of time.
Why did she get it into her head that she didn’t know anything about the island? What happened? In the year she returned, one day her mother came home after a long day harvesting clams. But her mother was barefoot. What exactly had happened to her?
As Hyunjoo tells it, “According to her explanation, she dug out clams while sitting on the mud flat alone during low tide. However, she got caught up in the job, without recognizing that the tide was coming in. She told me that, when she finally noticed the rapidly rising tide, she barely escaped from the flat. She realized that she had lost her boots, after she ran away. They might even be somewhere on the mud flat right now. Therefore, I forbade my mom from entering the flat after that. Then, she begged me holding my hand and explaining to me, ‘This is my only joy. If I can’t go to the mud flat, my only source of joy, then what am I supposed to do?’ Is that her only source of happiness? Is the mud flat her playground? She really got me!”
At least to Hyunjoo, the mud flat was the islanders’ workplace. The mud flat was where the fishermen dripped their sweat into the ground, with chapped hands and backs bowed. To Hyunjoo, it was the place where islanders went to at daybreak, working up a sweat to dig out oysters and clams. Now, she realizes that the mud flat is the islanders’ playground, too. After she listened to her mother, she realized that she had only half known about Anmyeondo -- her home. Therefore, she went around the island along the coastline.
What might she have learned about the island when she went around it? What might she have realized after her two trips? Needless to say, her answer is in “Odyssey in Anmyeondo.” That is, her exhibition is her “new” Anmyeondo. Wasn’t the answer already included in my earlier question (why does Hyunjoo express the mud flat, where the village women work with sweat running down in beads in her beautiful photos)?
Beyond Work and Play
Hyunjoo’s “Youngmok 5781” (2010) is a picture of a woman covering her face with her hands. She was probably too shy to have her picture taken. The photo was likely taken right after her digging for oysters or clams, shown by the fact that her sleeves are wet, and that she is leaning on a delivery truck. Yes! Since “Youngmok 5781” is a photograph from 2010, a text is added under it. Hyunjoo wrote about the photograph as follows: “Madam Gagyungjoo comes back home, and covers up her face in embarrassment after digging up clams.”
Madam Gagyungjoo seems to smile like an innocent child. Of course, she covers her face with her hands, but you can see that she is smiling from, the direction of the wrinkles on the corners of her eyes. Well, her wrinkled brow is hard to see, unlike the wrinkles around her eyes or on her hands. Therefore, it’s hard to guess her age. Come to think of it, she’s not wearing a ring. Maybe she takes her ring off when digging clams in the mud flat? Interestingly, however, she has beautifully penciled her eyebrows.
Hyunjoo says, “I didn’t know in the past. I realized one thing, while taking photos of islanders. Island village women always put on makeup when they to go to the mud flats. This one also seemed to pencil her eyebrows and put on light makeup. The women want to be beautiful before they go to the mud flat, in spite of doing hard physical labor, like what career women in cities are.”
The mud flat is the islanders’ workplace where they work hard, as well as their daily playground. Work is play? Interestingly, play is closely associated with labor. Some say that play’s motions are originated from labor’s. For example, they say that play’s rhythm gives labor’s motions rhythm. The workplace and the playground meet in this domain. Labor’s motions are transformed into play’s; thus, they lighten physical and mental pain from labor, so to speak.
Specific examples of the domain where the workplace and the playground meet often include weeding a rice paddy or carrying a funeral bier. In the place where farmers weed the rice paddy, some actually do weed it, while others, called sorikkun, only sing the first part of a rice paddy weeding song. And when people carry a funeral bier, rather than everyone helping to carry, there is a signer, called apsorikkun, who only sings the first part of a bier song while sitting on it. The appsorikkun does not carry the bier, but no one says that he is not working. This is because they improve the efficiency of the carrying work people do in the funeral service by singing the bier song. Therefore, their daily pay is rather higher than those of other people in the funeral service.
Nolda includes all forms of ordinary entertainment -– singing songs, playing musical instruments, dancing, making or drawing certain shapes, competing against each other in games, displaying special skills and talents, planning certain accidents or events, then showing their dramatic storylines, etc. These play activities imply work and play at the same time. Therefore, dancing is play to a certain person, but is work to a dancer. This is because dancing to a dancer is a professional job.
However, if the dancer dances with joy, t
hen their dancing is both work and play. Similarly, drawing a picture is play to one person, but it is work to another. However, if a painter draws a picture with joy, then their drawing is play as well as work. Hyunjoo realizes this from the village women who dig clams on the mud flat. It is both a workplace and a playground to the madam, Gagyungjoo.
A camera is a tool for play to one person, but can also be an occupational tool for a photographer. However, the camera to Hyunjoo is a professional tool for photographic art as well as for play. The camera is a tool for work and for play to her, as if it is a marker for living and warning at the same time. It is a sort of magic box that puts labor and hope together. Thus, as a result, the mud flat photographs that she takes are mysterious and alluring.
Do you know now why she beautifully expresses the mud flat, where the village women work with sweat running down in beads, in her photos?
The Extremely Enchanting “White Devil”!
Anmyeondo approaches Hyunjoo, who comes back home after spending 30 years in cities, as an unknown world. She begins to question everything that she believed that she knew. She saw what she didn’t know by looking at her photos that she took when she went around the island. No! She recognizes how narrow-minded she was to have been confident that she knew it. She applies that point to her photos. She suggests a question of hackneyed disputes between photo-journalism and photo documentary, i.e., historical records and truthfulness. And she ignites a long debate on the distinction between photo documentary and photo art. She questions the boundary between fiction and nonfiction.
Hyunjoo’s “Beneath the Wind 9692” (2014) is a panoramic photograph of a huge objet on an open grass field. The objet appears to be a huge unidentified object, floating on an attractive emerald-color swamp. Maybe the unidentified white objet is sinking into it. By the way, the shape of the unidentified objet catches my eye. The cylindrically carved objet resembles a male reproduction organ. Furthermore, because a singular ring seems to cover the edge of the glans, it further implies this. I step forward to the photograph, wondering what the unidentified objet is. What? The objet is chapped everywhere and damaged. What was it before it was damaged? I take a closer look. The objet is made of Styrofoam.
Hyunjoo says, “When I saw it at first on the seashore, it seemed to have somewhat of an aggressive shape. Thus, I changed the color of the sand into green. The sand looked like a sea covered with water-blooms. And the white buoy looked like a dying fish due to a lack of oxygen.”
The unidentified objet is nothing less than a useless buoy for marine fish farming. That’s right! It is a damaged Styrofoam buoy. It is often referred to as a “white devil.” Because the Styrofoam buoy is relatively cheaper than other types, lighter and more buoyant, it is widely used. However, that is precisely why its collection and disposal are difficult, since it is easily broken and does not decay well. In particular, the Styrofoam buoy comprises the great majority of marine garbage produced in Korea. One of the critical problems of Styrofoam is that it contains fatal toxic substances. Thus, fish or birds die from eating broken Styrofoam, and this, in turn, adds to marine pollution.
According to Hyunjoo, “Beneath the Wind 9692” is a photograph after color calibration. This photo shows when the Styrofoam buoy arrived at the sandy beach, after being used in a marine farm, getting damaged, and then drifting off to sea. She changed the color of the sand to green, so making the sandy beach look as if it was the sea were covered by water-blooms. This is a phenomenon that makes the color of the water green, resulting from the high density of phytoplankton. In general, it originates from blue-green algae occurring either in rivers or streams. The water-bloom destroys the ecosystem as its production pollutes water and decreases its oxygen level while killing fish.
Hyunjoo remakes the sandy beach into water-blooms, through color calibration, so that the floating buoy covered by them looks like a dying fish because of the low level of oxygen. Of course, her work is for conveying “environmental pain” to the audience. In spite of this, the buoy in the photograph looks like a huge unidentified objet, floating on an attractive emerald swamp or sinking into it, at least to me. This is because the water-blooms that Hyunjoo recalls look more mysterious than dirty or muddy. If that is true, then isn’t the reason why the “white devil” looks like a mysterious objet because she transforms the sand into water-blooms? However, because of that reason, fatal danger lurks in this mysterious beauty.
Towards a Third Photography
Hyunjoo’s “Beneath the Wind 9692” aims for “a third photography,” beyond the dichotomy of fact/truth and reality/imagination. The third photography alludes to a third space beyond dichotomous space. It reminds me of Michel Foucault’s “heterotopia.” This is Foucault’s neologism made by combining heteros with topos. Utopia, with the prefix U meaning “negativity,” is an imaginary place, but heterotopia means a utopia that actually exists. Hyunjoo’s “Beneath the Wind 9692” is located between an imaginary place and a Utopia existing in reality. If so, is her photograph “photopia” between utopia and heteropia?
Hyunjoo’s third photograph is an unavoidable strategy for responding to a camera’s programming. While taking mud flat photos that anyone can take, she responds to the camera’s automation in order to produce beautiful photographs that express labor and play together. She takes photos that capture real places. However, since such photos are only results of the camera’s programming, she makes the real places look like imaginary places through her post-production editing. Does she fight back against the camera programming in order to report that there is fatal danger in the beauty that the camera’s programming brings about ?
I mentioned that the camera, to Hyunjoo, is a professional tool for photographic art as well as for play. As you know, the camera is a play tool with intelligence. Of course, most people do not feel difficulty in using a camera (taking pictures), even though they don’t know much about its complicated structure. This is because, even though people do not known about the structure or basic principles of a camera, the camera does everything once they click the shutter.
Of course, even though you can obtain knowledge on the camera’s several functions, such as aperture, shutter speed, ISO, camera noise, image quality, automatic focusing, and wide-angle lens, the photos that you take are made by the camera’s programming. And, despite how well you take photos, you will eventually take them, according to the programming. Therefore, if a photographer wants to escape from the camera’s automatic system, they will have to fight against the play tool (camera) with a play tool.
However, this mission is not easy to accomplish, because you will have to find weaknesses in the programming if you want to escape from the camera’s automation. Thus, Hyunjoo focuses on editing as a counterstrategy for responding to photos’ unavoidable programming. With 20-years of long experience as a newspaper editor, she responds to the camera’s automation through bold editing in her post-production work. Hyunjoo’s “Youngmok 5781” and “Beneath the Wind 9692” resist camera automation through her frame transformation via color calibration and cropping. No! “Beneath the Wind 9692” is created not by cropping, but by screen extension.
I mentioned that Hyunjoo’s latter photo is a panorama of a huge unidentified objet floating on an attractive emerald-color swamp. However, the photograph is not a panoramic one. It is not a lengthy distorted one transformed by cutting the upper and lower portions of a photo, like “Youngmok 5781,” but, by expanding water-blooms, people feel that it is. Some might consider Hyunjoo’s bold editing as straying from the right path. However, whatever they call it, the right path, maybe the very evidence that they adapt themselves to the camera’s automation. Then isn’t Hyunjoo’s “Odyssey in Anmyeondo” “Odyssey in Photograph”, a full-length epic photo exhibition, where she takes photos, goes around Anmyeondo’s coastline and travel towards a third photographic way at the same time?