What we want and when we want it comprise one of my favorite one-twos of every protest or rally. The answer to the first is always noble (justice, peace) but can feel less direct than the answer to the second: now. Always now. This urgency is twofold: the circumstances are dire and negotiations have to start somewhere. As if it were never not the case, many artists are finding increasing necessity that their work is addressing our complicated, critical political landscape. I’ve long been impressed by the clarity and grace of the images that Soohyun Kim creates. Soo is relentless, training his keen eye on landscapes, cityscapes and the people that inhabit—or have left traces on—them. The series Guryong Village in Seoul documents the enormous shantytown within the city’s tony Gangnam district. The series of portraits—even if half the images don’t contain people directly—distills large political shifts, like the displacement inherent to so-called development (here writ in literally Olympic proportions), into tiny, domestic moments. The series, made while visiting his mother in the home they once shared, reveals “what I see, as an inside observer, its ingenuity, perseverance, and pride.” This empathy is equally on display in the photographs he produced for the Tamms Year Ten Family Room exhibition with Laurie Jo Reynolds and the Tamms Year Ten campaign, even if these were people he barely knew, whose homes were an ocean apart. And, this empathy is what drives the subject of our interview, the release of his new book (made in collaboration with Scott McFarland and Jangho Park), Fifteen Dollars, about the Fight for 15.
Soo graciously agreed to answer a few questions and explain a bit about the process by which it was created. For your own copy, visit Amazon. It’s only fifteen dollars.
(all images drawn from the book)
For those unfamiliar with it, what is Fight for 15?
Fight for 15 (FF15) is part of the national movement for a $15/hour wage that began in 2012, when fast-food workers in New York City went on strike. This movement has really changed the minimum wage debate. They have gotten some serious increases in some cities and states, and they are still going. I think the mainstream media has been fairly sympathetic to it. Even from the beginning. I guess it is obvious to most people that these workers are being exploited. And it is a pretty obvious question to ask: if McDonalds makes 6 billion dollars a year, why do their employees need public assistance just to get by? Why are taxpayers subsidizing the labor costs of these huge, profitable corporations?
What made you want to promote the Fight for 15 campaign?
A desire for social justice, and in interest in socially-engaged art. As an MFA student at UIC, I studied with Brian Holmes and Blake Stimson, and they introduced to the “extradisciplinary investigations” of artists like Trevor Paglen, Critical Art Ensemble, and Laurie Jo Reynolds. This kind of art practice appealed to me.
How did you come to this project?
In 2014 I worked with Laurie Jo Reynolds on an art installation at “The Proximity of Consciousness” show at Sullivan Galleries, curated by Mary Jane Jacob. For this installation, titled “Tamms Year Ten Family Room,” I made portraits of members of Tamms Year Ten (TY10) their homes. TY10 was a grassroots legislative campaign that had worked for 4 years to close the state supermax prison in Tamms, Illinois. This installation at Sullivan was kind of “family room” in that the group used galley space for their meetings. At that time they were discussing the future of their campaign. For the portraits, I made home visits to TY10 members, and borrowed a piece of furniture, or decorative item, for the installation. So the belongings in the “family room” were visible in the portraits. I had worked with Scott McFarland on this installation, together, and he suggested that I do a portrait series of FF15 members.
What was Scott’s connection to them?
He teaches in the English department at UIC, and he had connected with FF15 organizers through his work for, UIC United Faculty. So we went to FF15 and asked if they wanted to do a series of worker portraits. They liked the idea. Luckily, we then received a monetary award from the Graduate College at UIC that enabled us to produce a book. We expected this to be a book of portraits of FF15 workers. This was in April 2015, when I started taking photos for the campaign. Some of these photos will become part of the book of portraits that I’m working on, but I’ve also been sharing all the photos with FF15 to use in their publicity.
But you decided not to use portraiture in Fifteen Dollars. Given that it’s a book about Fight for 15 (FF15), about fast food workers, one might expect to see photos of workers.
There are photos of workers at FF15 rallies in Fifteen Dollars, but these aren’t, in this context, portraits of workers. I am planning a book of portraits that will include photos of workers at home and at rallies. I expect that these rally photos will feel more like portraits because you will see them as individuals, as mothers and fathers, as sisters and brothers, at home, or at work, before you see them—and recognize them—in a crowd.
This project uses labor as a lens for considering intersections of race, class, neoliberal economics, corporate structures and rhetoric, structural inertia and the movement. Do you find that the more specific your subject matter, the more the works open up into other avenues?
Yes, I think that is a good way to describe the way my work has become more political, or at least the way my intentions have become more political. I think aesthetic interests have evolved into more political ones. I am thinking here of my photos of Guryong Village in Seoul, a shantytown in the wealthiest area in the city, where my mother has lived in for the past decade. I lived there myself for three years. The photos I have been taking for this project are not really exercises in formalism, even though I always do want to make images that are visually compelling. It’s been equally important to document the dire circumstances of Guryong’s residents, to call attention to themselves. And I want the viewer to face the political realities as well as the visual evidence, to consider how shantytowns are symptoms of structural problems, of elite power structures and neoliberalism in South Korea.
Having seen the “Guryong Village” exhibition, both in its beginnings when we were at UIC and then as came more and more into focus, I’m wondering how your personal experience of class and mobility has affected your approach to this project?
For that project, I visited my mother for six weeks, documenting the village, and also providing much-needed photographic services, such as passport photos and funerary images. I wanted my portraits to show respect for my family members and their neighbors, to not simply document crushing poverty, but to document ingenuity, perseverance, pride, community. So my personal experience of poverty has shaped my political sensibilities. I think it’s what has led me to doing the portrait projects we’ve been talking about, since I see my own family’s circumstances in those of my subjects, I mean the members of Fight for 15 and also the members of Tamms Year Ten.
You employ a number of photographic styles and strategies in this work, from something akin to inverted advertisements, empty domestic spaces, portraiture and street photography. Will you discuss these various strains and your approach to picture-making and taking?
I think that, primarily, there are three visual languages that are employed, that of commercial, journalism, and “documentary-style” photography. They’re used for different purposes, since they are in dialogue, in some sense, with the text they’ve been paired with. The texts in the book come from advertisements and media reports, but also from internet memes, academic studies, corporate handbooks, corporate documents, P.R. firms, lobbyists. Some of the photographs have been paired with were taken with that particular text in mind. The architectural photographs are inspired by the New Topographics. Others are inspired by print advertisements. So it varies. While images of the Fight for 15 rallies might have the photojournalistic feel, images of the workers’ homes might seem more like fine art photography, in the sense that Walker Evans distinguished between documentary- style and documentary.
Was it important that this became a book (instead of a website, an exhibition, a film, etc.)?
Yes. We see this project as an “artist’s book,” rather than individual images. So it’s important to us that each image in the book be understood as part of a whole. There is a lot of irony in the book that could be misunderstood if read out of context. For example, the meme: “Liberty will produce prosperity. Government mandates won’t.” The conceit of the book is that you’re reading a McDonald’s employee handbook from bizarro world, that everything is being said in the “voice” of the McDonald’s Corporation. So the individual images in the book need to be seen in context—without it, their meaning is lost.
Tell me about the collaborative process between you and Scott.
There’s not been a single process that I can describe, since we’ve been working together on many different things. A lot of it has involved just pitching ideas to each other and then making on-the-spot decisions, assigning ourselves different tasks, coming back with something, and then figuring out how to improve it. For Fifteen Dollars, Scott was more responsible for the conceptual aspects of the book, and I was more responsible for realizing it, for making the images. We hired graphic designer Jangho Park to do the book layout and design, but his role grew as the project developed, and we came to see him as co-creator.
What has collaboration taught you about your own practice?
It gave me a chance of reaffirming the possibility of mixed art, considering the relationship between image and text, which has a long history in art.
What is the future of political photography?
I take this question to be more about photography in contemporary art than about photography in journalism, or in general. In the near future, capturing images will involve collecting all information available, rather than some small, select amount that catches a “moment.” This trove of information can be sifted through, and arranged, after the fact. I believe this and other technologies will open up new possibilities for all kinds of artists, but especially those that are engaged in “extradisciplinary investigations.”
SOOHYUN KIM (b. Busan 1979) earned his MFA in photographic design from Hongik University and a second MFA in photography from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He researches the catalyzing potential of art for social change. In his role as Assistant Director at the National Photographers Association of Korea (2005-2010), he traveled to remote villages, working with families to preserve their photographs, document their homes and take portraits for use in daily life. He is working with the Fight for Fifteen campaign to raise the minimum wage. Kim has received awards for his work, including the 2016 CDS Documentary Essay Prize. Kim currently teaches at Saint Xavier University in Chicago.
JESSE MALMED is an artist and curator living and working in Chicago. His work in moving images, performance, text and occasional objects has exhibited widely in museums, cinemas, galleries, bars and barns. He is the curator of the Live to Tape Artist Television Festival, co-director of the mobile exhibition space and artist bumper sticker project Trunk Show, a programmer at the Nightingale Cinema, instigates Western Pole and curates exhibitions, screenings and performance events both independently and institutionally. His writing has appeared on and in Bad at Sports, Cine-File, Incite Journal of Experimental Media, The Official Catalog of the Library of Potential Literature, Temporary Art Review, Big Big Wednesday and YA5. A native of Santa Fe, he earned his BA from Bard College and his MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
- Works of: A Conversation with Dan Miller by Jesse Malmed - September 4, 2017
- The Fight for 15: An Interview with Soohyun Kim - December 7, 2016
- A Lullaby That the Adult Me Hands Back in Time to the Teen Me: An Interview with Jennifer Reeder - September 25, 2014