By doing documentary photography, you are trying to give a voice to the socially marginalised or unrepresented.
Jun Michael Park is an emerging documentary photographer based in Seoul, South Korea. He uses photography as a means to address human rights issues, social injustices and to tell the stories of the marginalised and the under-represented. Jun’s first long-term project of the Sewol ferry tragedy and the families involved has won him the silver award in the Prix de la Photographie Paris 2015.
You’ve had a busy year since we last met at Angkor Photo Festival in 2014. What’s been the highlight of the year past?
I’ve been following the South Korean ferry victims’ families for about a year, and that was the work that I showed [around] at Angkor. When the story got published in the first half of this year, I felt so relieved. I was afraid that I would fail the families and not be able to get their story out.
How did you manage that, to get the story out?
I met a German writer through another assignment, and when the first year anniversary came, he had wanted to do a story on the Sewol families. I told him that I’ve been following the story for about a year and he got really excited about it. I introduced him to the main character, the father, Kim Young-Oh, and helped with the interview and translation. It was a big story in a Sunday paper, and I was very happy about that. I framed two copies of the story, one for myself, the other I gave to the father, as a gift to him. It was a big break for me. I got some recognition through that body of work and I was accepted into the Eddie Adams workshop.
The tragedy had claimed the lives of 304 people, many of whom were children. It is a delicate, overwhelming and emotionally charged story, what was your approach to it?
I was personally affected by it. I went to Jindo county two days after the accident, not as a photographer but as a fixer and translator for NPR. What I witnessed there really stuck with me – all the suffering and agony of these families as they waited for the safe return of their loved ones. But nothing came out of the rescue mission, and the families soon became families of the deceased. I was there at the initial phase and witnessed the ineptitude and the inaction, and that is what has been happening the past year, repeating itself all over again.
I did not start photographing immediately because I was on another job. I think it was better because I didn’t have to force myself to take photos. I could afford to be more sympathetic and take my time with the interviewees and digest what was happening. I thought the story would be over in a month or two. The government would do its job and investigate into what happened and punish those responsible. But that didn’t happen and the families had to take the matter into their own hands and it became an activism movement.
It was not easy gaining the trust of the families as they were suspicious of anyone with a camera or associated with the press.
It was my first major crisis and from the beginning I wanted to tell a human story. In Korean media, the faces of the families were blurred out because of privacy concerns. It was a huge story but it was becoming harder to relate to, and it felt as if the victims were becoming a mere statistic. I really wanted to dig deeper and put a human face to it. That’s when I met the father, who went on a hunger strike for 46 days. Who knew he would go on a hunger strike for so long? He emerged as this icon through his tenacity. Because he became this figure, even among the families, I became known as the father’s photographer. I was able to gain more access and it helped open doors for me. It was not easy gaining the trust of the families as they were suspicious of anyone with a camera or associated with the press.
It’s been over a year since the tragedy, how has the story unfolded?
The disaster only had its first hearing this December, one year and eight months after the sinking. So there was a lot of shunning of responsibility, attempts to mute the families’ demand for justice and truth. The South Korean government has been interfering with the truth-seeking process and the families were getting frustrated. Public opinion has shifted and gotten worse, and a lot of people have lost sympathy for the families. In Asia, there is this hierarchy of succumbing to authority. The parents have not gotten their closure yet.
And how is it for you? Is the story finished?
I’m still following it but the story I was doing had been newsy, so I want to find some other creative way to tell the story. Maybe portraits? Because I kind of feel like I’ve hit this photographer’s block in terms of the story. I’m trying to find ways to contextualise the stories of those who are left behind, the students’ parents, the brothers and sisters, and even the divers who went in to retrieve the bodies. I think there are many layers to the story, but it’s difficult. Sometimes it is about persuasion and negotiation. Sometimes it’s just about sticking around and being persistent about it.
You’ve attended two major workshops this year, Foundry with John Stanmeyer, and the Eddie Adams workshop in New York. What lessons did you take away from the workshops?
At Foundry, because I was following such a big story, I wanted to go micro and do something very small and intimate. I found this small restaurant or warung near my guesthouse, and did my project on that. John (Stanmeyer) was great. He’s really willing to help Asian photographers grow. He’s almost like a photography godfather or uncle to me and to other Indonesian or Malaysian photographers. He’s been pushing me to be more poetic and less direct, and also play with metaphors and visual geometries.
Eddie Adams taught me about community and sharing. Photographers can be a solitary bunch, and we can be shy and reserved. We don’t really want to talk about or show our work with other photographers. And sometimes it can be about competition, too. At Eddie Adams there was so much sense of sharing and camaraderie and community. There were great friendships formed, which I really value. And all these renowned photographers and editors were so giving with their time and knowledge. That is something that I would like to take after, once I am more established, to be more giving and contribute. I would like to give back where I can.
How did you choose photography as a career?
I started with photography as a hobbyist but I’ve always been interested in the arts. I wanted to become a painter when younger. Then I got into various musical activities, like singing, band and choir. You can probably relate to this, but having been brought up in an Asian culture as an only child, my mother had very high expectations of me and wanted me to become a lawyer or a doctor. But if you are creative or artistic, you cannot deny yourself. You cannot go against it, right? I picked up the camera during my college years and started shooting, and I really fell in love with it.
As an English literature major, do you make links between literature and photography?
I studied English literature back in college, and was more verbal at that time. Then I discovered photography as a visual language that has an immediate, direct impact. I’ve been exploring the power of documentary photography since. My background in English literature is very helpful. What I’m doing, in essence, is story-telling, and you get inspiration from all these other stories, no matter the format – words or visual. Nowadays, I’m leaning towards combining these elements, verbal and visuals, and maybe some audio and multimedia pieces. I think it can lead to a deeper and higher level of story-telling. It’s something I’ve been thinking about.
Having lived and studied in Canada for many years, has that affected the way you work in your own country?
Some journalist friends have told me that I have the advantage of the insider knowledge with an outsider’s perspective, and it does help. I speak the language and I know the society pretty well, so it does help me when I’m trying to form a story and an angle.
But you are now based in Seoul, and a lot of your work is about South Korea.
I’m conflicted because there are many stories that need to be explored in South Korea but I also have this pressure to produce something that is more relatable and has a bigger picture in Asia. I think a lot of Asian photographers feel the pressure also because the markets in Asia are relatively small. So we tend to seek validation from international media.
You are a self-employed business person, and you really have to think about the business side of photography
What’s the scene like in South Korea, especially for documentary photographers?
I think there is more leeway for conceptual and artistic photographers. It is a challenging field for documentary photographers because there is no editorial market to pick up the stories. I had to turn to the foreign editorial market. I’m very lucky to be published in the German market. They pay on time, they pay well, and they have a strong publication market. My goal throughout my relatively short career was survival. It is impossible to survive here as a documentary photographer alone. A lot of publications hire full-time photographers and don’t really commission photojournalists. They have little experience with independent photographers, unless you work with fashion magazines, something that I don’t do quite so often. Even for the ferry story, I didn’t get anything published here.
I do have a platform called Korean Exposé, which I’m running with a writer friend. I publish a few pictures there, but it’s not for the Korean audience. It’s an English language online magazine about things in Korea, like culture, politics etc. I’m the photo editor and contributing photographer. I also help manage the website.
I’m thinking of starting a bilingual blog. I need to engage more with the Korean audience. Maybe writing back stories to my photographs will help.
So you are thinking of new ways of engaging with your audience or showing your work?
Nowadays photographers can tell stories in a more creative way than the traditional way. Of course you have to stick within the journalistic boundaries. They are certain rules that you cannot bend as a documentarian and a journalist but there are many possibilities. Personal projects, in my opinion, can advance your career, but you also want to think about how you want to finance all that and to sustain yourself.
A very important lesson that I learnt from Foundry and Eddie Adams is that you are in this business. You are a self-employed business person, and you really have to think about the business side of photography. And I think Asian photographers can be quite shy about that, marketing and promoting themselves, ‘Oh, this is selling out!’ but I think that is totally wrong. By doing documentary photography, you are trying to give a voice to the socially marginalised or unrepresented, and you are not marketing yourself, you are marketing for them. You got to do things to promote the people, the voices and the causes.
Any plans for the new year?
In 2016, I would like some life, some balance. This is purely personal because I don’t want to be too ambitious about my projects. I realised that this is something you cannot force, especially with documentary photography. You just try your best, spend time with your subjects and hope for the best. On a personal side, I neglected many relationships, including friends and family because I was so busy chasing after these stories and trying to build a career. I feel, as a photographer, it is easy to neglect your own life. I think it would be really impressive if you can do both successfully. I have really high respect for photographers who have maintained that balance.
This interview originally appeared in Asia Papercamera, curated by Tan Lee Kuen.