In our age of expedited globalization, photography increasingly delineates poignant historical and cultural conflicts. Citizens are called on to sift through their industrial urban presence and come to terms with the realities inherent in our capitalist metropolises. My work slips between the two global sister cities Chicago and Seoul, trading connections across their cultural, spatial, and economic barriers.
Several years ago, I began to make photographs that examine traces of Modernist housing “experiments” in Chicago as well as their conspicuous failures, as reflected in a persistent urban inequality. Drawing on my training as a photographer attuned to social and political issues as embedded in architecture and domestic objects, I am invested in making images that reveal my own autobiographical presence within these spaces, both physical and symbolic.
Guryong Village is an enormous shantytown in Seoul’s wealthiest district, Gangnam. It was formed in the 1980s, when thousands of people were pushed out of their homes by redevelopment projects for the Olympic Games. The 2,400 residents of Guryong Village live in shelters cobbled together from plywood, metal, sheets of plastic, even cardboard boxes amid some of Seoul’s most expensive real estate. My mother has lived in Guryong Village for the past decade; I lived there for three years prior to moving to Chicago in 2012.
In the winter of 2014 and fall of 2015, I visited her for six weeks, documenting the village, and providing much-needed photographic services, such as passport photos and funerary images. This project was a very personal one, but it was also political. In making portraits of my family members and their neighbors, I wanted to do more than show my great respect for them, I also wanted to call attention to the struggle of their daily lives. There was a sense of urgency in my documenting the physical spaces that they have called home for so long, given that this village is now scheduled to be redeveloped–these people are certain to be displaced once again. Rather than showing the shabbiness and miserableness of poverty in the neighborhood, I wanted to bring out a question about the socio-political and structural reason why the shanty town had to be built, and how human nature has worked there. The outside observer may see in these homes nothing but crushing poverty; what I see, as an inside observer, its ingenuity, perseverance, and pride.
I intended the juxtaposition of small moments of daily life and significant urban spaces not only to emphasize unspoken contradictions of places shaped by neo-liberal economic policy, but also to reveal a narrative of private relationships and often painful subjectivity. While the abstract composition and sequencing of my photographs interweave the contemporary history of Seoul and Chicago, my subjective experience provides viewers with access to a reality that is possible only through being involved in the different times and places represented.
Fight for 15: Portraits
Fight for 15: Portraits is book of photographs and oral histories of Chicago workers participating in the “Fight for 15” (FF15), a national campaign to raise the minimum wage in the fast food industry. The book consists of portraits of fast food workers made by me, and oral histories of these workers written by my collaborator, Scott McFarland. Recently, McFarland I published a book of visual poetry, Fifteen Dollars, which uses text and photography to satirize the McDonald’s Corporation’s lobbying and public relations campaign against raising the minimum wage. By combining oral histories with photographic portraits, we hope Fight for Fifteen: Portraits will make the viewer/reader aware of the disjunction between the clarity and objectivity that photography promises, and the subjective ambiguity that it often delivers. Our goal is to put the two mediums in conversation, such that the “documentary” claims associated with the two mediums would be heightened, or subverted, or both.
Since April 2015, I have been taking portraits of FF15 members in the Chicago area—and McFarland, has been interviewing them—at their workplaces and in their homes. FF15 organizers recruit their members to tell their stories and have their portraits made. I photograph the workers at home, often with their young children. I have also been documenting Fight for Fifteen rallies and events; when possible, I also take pictures of these same workers at these protests. My portraits and rally photos, which are being used for media projects by FF15 organizers, will eventually be exhibited in galleries and public spaces. The book, Fight for Fifteen: Portraits, will be published in 2017.
Like Fifteen Dollars, the portrait project provides a counter-narrative to mainstream media depictions of the “working poor”—as well as those they provide for. (More than 16 million American children live in poverty.) Historian and critic of photography Margaret Olin has written that photography “gains power as a relational art, its meaning determined not only by what it looks like but also by the relationship we are invited to have with it.” That relationship is not only between the viewer and a photograph but also between photographer, viewer and the subject photographed. Fight for Fifteen: Portraits will help to develop and solidify communities, and cement productive relationships among them. This is what I want most from my work as a photographer—to examine human relationships, and to support the struggle to find the necessary agency to determine our own lives. I also want my work to challenge viewers to enter into the same kind of relations and reach toward the same kind of change.
To view more of Soohyun’s work, please visit his website.