Hyeyoung Kim is a photographer of Korean origin who, after living some years in Vienna and San Francisco, is now established in Hawaii.
Her black and white photos are an exploration of an inner world, a secret universe where everything is revealed: joy and suffering, fear, anxiety, peace and security. In her series “A Room within a Room” Hyeyoung Kim builds puppets and put them on stages, small dummies that creates real allegories of feelings and human kind state. The photographs are then manipulated in dark room with several techniques, creating dark and disturbing images, such as nightmares or visions, strong and expressive.
Here a chat about her photographs and her life.
Fabiano Busdraghi: How did you start taking pictures? What is your history as a photographer?
Hyeyoung Kim: When I moved from Vienna to San Francisco, I planned to enroll to SF music conservatory to continue to study cello. One day, when I was doing a campus tour at SF music conservatory, I felt this strong resentment against the idea of further studying cello. So I quit playing cello at all and registered in basic photographic classes at the Academy of Art College. Ever since, I have been creating photographs and other visual art pieces. The fact is, cello was a thing that my parents imposed on me ever since I was a little girl but photography/visual art was what I chose by myself.
Fabiano Busdraghi: What is the photography for you?
Hyeyoung Kim: Photography has many meanings for me! Most of all, it is one of a few ways I let this world to know about me: my thoughts, feelings, and opinions. I am an introverted person and most of times, hardly speak out what is in my mind.
Photography also helps me to calm down all the noise going on in my mind and re-boost my emotions when depressed. As if it is like anti psychotic/anti depressant pills to some people. Especially, while working in B/W darkroom, I feel such a serene and peaceful aloneness.
Fabiano Busdraghi: I think I know what you are speaking about! Two years ago it was one of the worst period of my life, anything make me happy. The only moment when everything seemed fine was when I printed in darkroom using historical processes.
Lets go on with the next question. You are born in South Korea, than in 1991 you moved to Vienna, where you stayed 2 and half years. Than you stayed in San Francisco during some years and finally in 2001 you ended up in Honolulu, where you live now. It sounds like an interesting and adventurous life!
Why did you choose to move from Korea and travel in so many different places? Do you plan to stay in Hawaii for a while or you want to move again to another place? What is the importance of travel in your life?
Hyeyoung Kim: Moving from Korea to Vienna, it was my parents’ decision to send me to Vienna with two reasons; first their hope of me further studying cello in the renowned city for classical music. Second, they were having a hard time controlling my rebellious/troubled behavior towards them and towards the Korean society: when I think back, it was just a young person’s attitude to figure out my life. However, having that troubled youth had concerned my mom a lot.
Moving from Vienna to SF and again to Honolulu was my own decision. Both decisions came from two sets of opposite options my destiny thrown to me. I had to make a choice between old/familiar and unknown/adventurous when I decided moving to SF. SF to Honolulu was a choice between being comfortable but dependent or becoming independent but always struggling with daily life. I believe that a person was born with a certain destiny but to reach to that destiny, there are several ways and he/she can choose which way to take to arrive at his /her destiny.
Staying in Hawaii… Hawaii is a wonderful and unique place. I love its people, cultural diversity, and nature, especially ocean. Being in the water (bodysurfing) also became an important daily activity for peace of my mind. However, being an artist in Hawaii is very tough since there are not much inspirational sources for the type of work I do, opportunities, and structures (good pressure) to help an artist to thrive. I also began to feel my butt itching for something more challenge and unknown. I love to be a stranger in a strange place.
Fabiano Busdraghi: And what are the consequences on your photographic work? Is the place where you live essential for artistic creation?
Hyeyoung Kim: Not much. Living in Hawaii for last 8 years has been a struggle for the creative side of my life. However, the person (my husband Arlo) I live with is one of few sources that help my creative process. And he was one of reasons I decided to move to Hawaii, so in that sense, this place is related/contributed to my art process.
Fabiano Busdraghi: Concerning photography and more generally art, do you think there are fundamental differences between South Korea, Europe, USA and Hawaii? Or today there is only a global photography and differences are only due to the individual quest and personality of authors?
Hyeyoung Kim: Yes and no. Yes, there are differences in art in different demographic areas with their own kinds of cultures, social situations, values, etc. Therefore, art may thrive and grow in some areas more than others in the world. Last time when I visited Korea, after checking out art scenes there, I realized there are two kinds of art scenes going on. The former was art with global trend: many galleries and museums there were exhibiting “the post-modern big size art pieces”. The other scene was art with artists’ individual quests and personalities but influenced by the particular society they come from with their own social, political, and cultural agendas.
Fabiano Busdraghi: During several years you studied cello. Are music and photography two independent activities or just two complementary expression of the some need of creativity? How music can influence photography and vice versa?
Hyeyoung Kim: I quit playing cello when I moved to SF (I am planning to pick it up again when I become an old lady to master Bach Suites). Music and my photography/visual art are in a way intertwined. My sensitivity reacts to both certain sound and visual stimuli. Good music awakens my sensibility and urge to be creative. So I always listen to my favorite music when I work in darkroom. I have been also thinking about doing a photography project based on “the Six Suite for Unaccompanied Cello” by Bach, which I plainly love to listen to.
Fabiano Busdraghi: Let’s step back to photography. Can you describe your project “A Room within A Room”?
Hyeyoung Kim: I have always been interested in the inner reality within a human mind etc. “A Room within A Room” is my attempt to explore, comprehend, and visually depict inner reality, especially human mind where suffering, hatred, desperation, loneliness as well as happiness, compassion, and hope possibly originate.
Fabiano Busdraghi: Your photographs are dark, and disturbing. They are like nightmares that become true before our eyes, our fears that come to life. Why did you choose these topics? Do you think life in general is like these photos, or it is just one of the many aspects of life that is worth exploring?
Hyeyoung Kim: Both! As Buddha said, “Life is suffering”. Suffering, (both physical and mental) has been, is, and will be always a major part of human life. But many of us try to ignore this part of life and tell themselves everything is/will be fine. We avoid going deeper to contemplate about the inevitable sufferings of our lives and try to only pursue so-called “happiness”, mostly short-lived pleasures. It is like self-hypnotizing. With my given personality, I couldn’t help to turn my back but look harder at these human experiences (life, sufferings, dying, and death, etc.) we all go through in our lives. Sometimes, I wish I could convince myself everything is well and bright in this life and this world. I wish I had the ability to see only the bright side of everything!
Fabiano Busdraghi: Using of dolls and building your stage you completely manipulate reality to create what is your personal universe. Do you think the construction of a new reality is only required for the production of images that you imagined? Or the construction scene has equal importance than the final image?
Hyeyoung Kim: I guess your former description is closer to what my intention was if I understood your question correctly. When an image and concept hit my mind, I do a quick sketch in my journal book. Then I contemplate for a while if it is worth trying to make as a tangible, visual image. If I decide it is, I begin to build the scene and figures accordingly. Since I don’t have the ability like many talented sculptors or craft-people, my scene and figures end up looking very flimsy, yet conveys my idea.
Fabiano Busdraghi: Can you briefly describe technically how did you created your pictures?
Hyeyoung Kim: Most images I created were shot with a traditional 35 mm camera (mostly Nikon FM2 and occasionally with a 35 mm plastic camera) and initially printed in darkroom. In the darkroom I usually experiment with various techniques to enhance and manipulated images so the final images would look the way I believe they should look.
Thought on digital camera: Digital camera has gained its popularity last 10 years or so. I also use a digital camera, especially, when a photography job comes across. It is convenient and quick. It reduced the physical laboring part of being a photographer (from changing and developing films, mixing chemicals, printing contact sheets and photographs in darkroom, spotting, etc.). However, I would dearly miss these labors if traditional photography disappears all together from my life.
Fabiano Busdraghi: It is often said that photography is practiced mostly by men. Of course there are many examples of well-known women photographers, which produced memorable works, but it is true that they are fewer. Do you think that women photographers have a different way of looking at reality and a different way of photographing? If so, what are the differences in your work, the specificity of being a woman?
Hyeyoung Kim: Yes I agree with what you said. Although equality between the sexes has been improving tremendously last several decades, we are still living in the male dominated society. Except a few career fields (job of being a mother and few others), male workers are greatly outnumbered in any career fields you can think of. This fact also applies to photography as you said.
I believe, sensitivities (in this particular case, what and how to perceive and to photograph), between women and men are distinct although the degree may vary. The differences come from innate factor (the genes we were born with) and environmental factor (how we were raised in this society).
For me, technical glitches of an image don’t bother me much if the image conveys the emotional impact and the concept I intended. Also I am less interested in certain subject matters, such as photographing cars, fashion, and sports’ actions. For instance, when I am in the water bodysurfing, there are male water photographers in the water trying to capture a surfer, riding a good size wave. They seem to be interested in capturing the action, the physical happening. I would rather photograph the emotion and atmosphere that action is giving out in that particular moment. But I am not sure my differences are due to being a woman or just being me.
Fabiano Busdraghi: The diffusion of your work is done by galleries, exhibitions, paper publications, etc, or is entrusted mainly to artistic circuits on Internet? What do you think of these initiatives? What are your favorite photographic and art sites? Do you read any photo e-zine, blog or online art magazine?
Hyeyoung Kim: Until several years ago, I thought a way of being established as a fine artist was through galleries, museums, and paper publications. I did some exhibitions in museums and art galleries in New York, Hawaii, and other cities in US. Then I found out /realized that I do not have the personality, which fits to these areas of businesses. You have to be a very outgoing and smart-businessperson to succeed in the mainstream art establishments in U.S.
I like the idea of sharing art and reaching to wider audiences through Internet. The idea is almost like the new street art/graffiti scenes, which has been recently popular throughout the world. Although I would not go out in public and do as these artists do, I appreciate the idea of “art for people” rather than “art for people with certain social statues”. Internet was one of the best inventions in our history for both general uses and art. I love using Internet as much as I dislike using telephone.
I do not have a particular art web site that I read or follow in regular basis. However, when an art website is introduced to me, I visit it and look carefully through. Like your website with all different and interesting interviews or this web magazine from Chile called Revista F.8 eZine. The editor approached same way as you did to me and showed interest in my art. So I visited the e-Zine, looked through, and decided to accept her invitation to show some of my work on F.8 e-zine. I sometimes visit Photo Eye online gallery because they send me the weekly newsletter with new photographers’ works on their online showcase gallery where my images are also exhibited.
Fabiano Busdraghi: Can you choose one of your photos and tell its history?
Hyeyoung Kim: Thought on “Body, Sewn – Self portrait”.
Although all my images are personal to me, this is the most painful personal image for me. This image is made one afternoon when I felt so down and grey. Thoughts on death were overwhelming and I had to do something to come out from this obsessive state of mind. So this image was born. After putting it together digitally, I made a digital print on film and framed it by sandwiching two flexi glasses. I also printed on fabric and stitched all body pieces together. I am still experimenting the final outcome of this image. Eventually, I want enlarge it to life size. It is slow process since I often feel reluctant to revisit this image that reminds me of the afternoon.
Fabiano Busdraghi: Can you speak about some of your favorite photographers and tell us why you love their work? Is there some photographer from South Korea or Hawaii you especially like?
Hyeyoung Kim: There are a handful of photographers and artists I admire with different reasons. First, Mario Giacomelli’s photographs taught me about breaking rules, particularly in darkroom printing in early days. Works by Eikoh Hosoe, Francesca Woodman, and Matt Mahurin are formally attractive and emotionally fulfilling to me. I also love the book “Exiles” by Josef Koudelka. It has the surreal but urgent quality I admire. I appreciate Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s photographs and his effort to have come up with such unusual/original images in such an uninspiring environment where he resided.
I also like Masao Yamamoto’s photo books. With the way he puts his collections of photographs as books, his photo books become no longer mere books on photography but separate entities, which are treasured. Finally, I look up to Duane Michals’ opinions on art and our society. One of his interviews can be found in the book “Conversations with Contemporary photographers”. It is worth to check out.
Considering painters, I get never tire looking at works by Bosch, Paul Klee, Mark Rothko, and Edward Lucie-Smith Rustin.
From my immediate art cycle, I always liked works of my husband Arlo Valera. He is both a photographer and an illustrator. These days, he is more into illustrations and painting.
I was also lucky to have had a few mentor figures, Lon Clark and Franco Salmoiraghi. Both are photographers/visual artists/educators. They introduced me specific ideas and insights on art and life and encouraged me to keep going with my own art and life.
Fabiano Busdraghi: Just some question about your personal tastes. What are your favorites movies, books and music?
Hyeyoung Kim: Books: “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera, “Touched with Fire” by Kay Redfield Jamison, “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche, “Out of Her Mind –women writing on madness” edited by Rebecca Shannonhouse, “Artists in Times of War” and other books by Howard Zinn, “The Art of Happiness” by Dalai Lama, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time” by Mark Haddon, “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” by Edward Gorey, “On Love and Loneliness” by J. Krishnamurti, “Notes to Myself” by Hugh Prather.
Films- Features: “Brazil” by Terry Gilliam, “Brade Runner” by Scott Ridley, “Fallen angels and Chungking Express by Kar Wai Wong, “Three colors Trilogy-White, Blue, Red” by Kieslowski, “Run Lola Run”, “Delicatessen”, “Big Blue”, “City of Lost Children”, “Little Miss. Sunshine”, “Shaolin Soccer”, “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly”, etc.
Korean films: “3-Iron”, “The Isle”, The Vengeance trilogy: “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”, “Oldboy”, “Lady Vengeance”, “Memories of Murder”, The Story of Two Sisters”.
Documentaries: I enjoy watching documentaries a lot. There are many well-made, mind-opening documentaries out there and Netflix has a good collection of them. “Sicko” and other documentaries by Michel Moore, “You can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train” by Howard Zinn, “Born into Brothels”, “This Film is Not Rated Yet”, “Genghis Blues” etc.
Music: My music taste is very diverse and I usually like piece by piece from different genres. “Radio Head” has been one of my favorite groups for a long time though. I also like certain classical music pieces, such as “Bach Cello Suites”. I enjoy K-Pop too.