A Conversation with Suejin Shin

Michael N. Meyer: This is Michael Meyer, the publisher and writer of KoreanPhotographyBooks.com; I am sitting here with Suejin Shin, who is the Creative Director of the Ilwoo Foundation, and a Research Professor of Yonsei University.

Suejin Shin: Right.

Jimin Han: And a director of Lamp LAB, brand-new [laughter].

MNM: And also with me is Jimin Han, who is translating for me and interjecting follow up questions. Suejin, let’s start with your background. You have multiple degrees in photography and in psychology. How did you come to bring those two things together? How did you come to use psychology as a lens to understand and expand upon photography?

Suejin Shin, Lamp LAB, Seoul

Suejin Shin at Lamp LAB, November 2014

SJS: My first major was psychology, and my second major was photography. I then got a master’s degree in photography and a PHD in psychology. My studies of photography were primarily in photographic theory. I’ve never intended to be a professional photographer. In studying psychology my focus was on vision, or visual perception, and Cognitive Science. I simply followed my curiosity in studying the two; I wondered what kind of feelings or thoughts people have when they see photographic images. It’s about what people feel when they see images. It’s about feeling, or the process of thinking. In other words, when they see certain images, they come to have certain feelings or thoughts. My main interest lies in where they come from.

Generally, the background fields of art theory are commonly art histories or something similar; so, many people wonder how psychology can be applied to these fields. I’m interested in photographic images, but it is the audience I observe in order to realize my interest.

JMH: You observe how they feel?

SJS: Yes. So, experiments or surveys are the methods of study.What I am interested in is what kind of reactions or response a lay audience might have when they see images.

MNM: That sounds like the research you talked about at the conference in 2012, the three axis of light/heavy, static/dynamic and positive/negative. And then the other side of your research strikes me as being interested in the psychological aspects of making photographs. In Full Metal Jacket the photographers were talking about process and communication and you kept mentioning the psychological questions within the process, within their decisions. Maybe we start with some of the findings that you came to in the research, and how you applied those findings. What’s the practical import when you put a book together or when you put an exhibition together? You know, how do you use those findings in your action? There’s the research side, and then there is the production side. You’re producing something, a book or exhibit? How does this research inform this production?

SJS: Your question could be, what kind of difference I have from other curators or art directors when I work as an exhibition director. When I work as an art director or a curator, I am working as a researcher at the same time and as a psychologist as well. So there is a strong connection between these two fields. However, in the view of the practical aspect that I make up exhibitions, I would be the one who is much more interested in what the audience would experience in this space, compared to other creative directors.

I mean the experience itself. What I am interested in what the audience’s experience itself means. For example, choosing the artworks to the way they are displayed to designing the audience’s flow through an exhibit, I care about all of these much more obsessively than others. I am very obsessive about these things. Most basic things would start from this point, I think.

That is the practical point, and from this point, I would like to broaden the conversation. Why is art needed in the world? The important question to me is what kind of experiences can art provide to contemporary people living in our society?

It is important what kind of experiences audiences have in exhibitions. Similarly, the value of the social effect comes from the question: what kind of experiences can art give to contemporary people living with me. So that means, with my psychological background, I always face art with a consumer centered viewpoint. In other words, the viewers’ experiences are central rather than considering artists first. I think this gap is wide. It is generally believed art is only in museums, galleries or in art books. I am much more interested in what experience I can give to contemporary people beyond the art field when I decide whether I should do a project or not.

MNM: You’re primarily interest in the contemporary rather than historical view.

SJS: I’ve always focused on the response of the audience, not the artists.

MNM: So I have, two specific examples, maybe we could look at those to see in two specific ways how this worked itself out. The two exhibits are, and they seem very different to me, are the DMZ project that you did…

SJS: That was in 2010.

MNM: So, DMZ, and the other one, Myth in the Mirror, from a few years before that.

SJS: Ah, you saw that exhibition.

MNM: I did not. I have only read about Myth in the Mirror. So I am on thin ground with my questions, but let’s see how this goes. Myth in the Mirror was all about celebrity as I understood it–photographs of celebrities. Given the research you’re doing in the audience reactions and thinking about what audience might be most receptive to, it seems like that kind of show in particular might run the risk of appearing to be a sort of bubblegum pop kind of show, much more about being popular than about being critical.

SJS: At that time, I saw a clear demarcation between which artworks could be exhibited and which ones could not. The photographs I’m speaking about now had been put on advertisements, posters, or picture books, so it was thought that they could not be exhibited in galleries. Of course I was against that viewpoint.

JMH: You wanted to break the rule.

SJS: I think photographs start to have artistic value when they show “non-reality.” Most photographs are thought to show things the way they are, but in fact, they actually present the process of their making–something beyond reality. There is nothing that can be shown as it is; elements of imagination are included in the photographs. There are some “standards” that people in this era think of as delicate, sophisticated, great, or fabulous. Standards come to be made from that point.

JMH: People often see them on TV and feel familiar with them…

SJS: Yes. Those images are shown to people continually, making people have particular emotions. So I thought all of these can be the core element that can explain the power our period has.

JMH: The power that images have?

SJS: Yes.

SJS: I mean… it’s not the matter of changing photos with photoshop, but the beauty that photographers have found is added to the photos. So the exhibition was not about who is in the photographs but about who made the photograph. Every photographer has a different style to show beauty in their photographs.

MNM: So… the subject… the celebrity…

SJS: Is not important.

MNM: …is not important. It’s the photographer’s viewpoint and the resulting photograph… and how can you look at those photographs leaving celebrities as background element…

SJS: Right.

MNM: …but it must have been, at the very least, that the idea of celebrity would bring people to the exhibit. Right?

SJS: When people see the photos celebrities are taken, for example, let’s say Hyesoo Kim [Hyesoo Kim is one of the most famous actresses in Korea. -ed.] is in the photo. People who see it say ‘Oh, Hyesoo Kim is there!’ But it’s not the real Hyesoo Kim herself.

JMH: It is Hyesoo Kim made up beautifully.

SJS: Yes, the photos show the celebrities in different appearances, depending on who took the photos.

JMH: Were the photographs of many celebrities or was there just one person photographed by different photographers?

SJS: No, I chose the photos that presented the most characteristic features of the photographers. When an actor or an actress is in photos by one photographer and by another photographer, his or her face seems totally different. The fact Hyesoo Kim is in the photo is not important; who took the photos matters most.

MNM: Right, and the photographers each have different psychological responses and different mindsets that they bring to the photographs.

SJS: Yes. Each photographer has a different style, a different way of trying to find beauty from the same person. I tried to figure out the specific beauty from different photographers. I picked out the most characteristic photos of the last 10 years from each photographer and then had regular people take part in sensitivity evaluations with these photos. I showed the photos to ordinary viewers, and experimented to find what kind of emotional response was triggered.

MNM: That is the research component?

SJS: Yes.

MNM: This is separate research from the light/heavy?

SJS: It was different [laughter]. I always do the research, so….

MNM: So, you did a similar evaluation on the celebrity photographs?

SJS: Yes, a similar process.

MNM: Interesting.

SJS: The result of the experiment is explaining the effect on a Korean audience of commercial photographic images. The interesting part of the results was that most images in advertisements or picture books are assumed to be bright and positive, but they were not. Conversely, they were quite negative, heavy, and static. Most people have vague idea that these images have positive and bright feelings, but actually they did not.

MNM: So, in a way the photographs had the opposite of their intended response. Meaning the outlet, whether an ad agencies or a magazine or whoever is commissioning the photography, wants the photographs to do a certain thing; they want to convey a certain message. You’re saying the viewers came away with almost the opposite reactions?

SJS: No, no. I mean advertisements aren’t made after planning what kind of emotion the images would trigger even though most of the content of commercials is very direct. The images chosen to actualize the direct messages didn’t work as they intended to. They, in fact, have triggered the opposite reaction or emotion. The images that intended to make us pay attention and think they’re more fashionable had actually the opposite effects.

JMH: Did people have any kind of feeling of inferiority?

SJS: No, no. I mean, the messages, I mean, these images are made to deliver the direct messages of commercials. But the actual effect of the images, in other words, the emotional effect, has not been known well. We have never had an effect-centered rather the message-centered way of thinking.

Usually, advertising photography has a very direct message.

MNM: I suppose, yes.

SJS: They have to deliver a very concrete and direct message. The way that we show this message, we don’t know the actual effect of the commercial photography. That’s why I try to…

MNM: Figure out if these are working the way we think they’re working. OK.

SJS: Yes. That’s the way to discover the contemporary trends and how to use the images.

MNM: How many ad agencies approached you after the exhibit to help them market more effectively?

SJS: (laughter)

MNM: Did any?

SJS: I have two projects with Cheil Worldwide, one of the largest advertising agencies, and with HSL.

MNM: So, they are interested in how to use this…

SJS: And sometimes politicians want to [laughter] buy some [laughter]. They always want to know how the audience…

MNM: Reacts to their….

SJS: Yes.

MNM: Well, this brings me to the questions about the DMZ project, which is sort of the flip side of… not necessarily making something popular, but using photographs to sell an idea. I didn’t see the exhibit, I saw the book. I know there were more photographs in the exhibit than they were in the book.

Given your understanding of how people react to photographs, with something as charged as the anniversary, 2010 was the…

SJS: 60th anniversary, yes.

MNM: Something as politically charged with that might run the risk of seeming, especially working directly with the military…

SJS: Yes, yes.

MNM: Is this propaganda? And it’s the same thing, whether it’s the politicians or whether it’s government or whether it’s the advertising agencies wanting to more effectively market. Where is the line between understanding how things work and using that understanding to sell or to convince?

SJS: …basically, these two project were not different to me. I mean, the way of approaching them is similar to me. So…

MNM: On the exhibit and research side you’re interested less in finding practical ways to implement your findings than in how specific images work. Is that…?

SJS: How can I be sure enough to choose without knowing how the specific images affect people? The most important thing is what stories I want to tell when I make books or exhibitions. In the Myth in the Mirror project, I wanted to tell people that “The images you constantly see on advertisements are not real.” and “Images are completely independent from reality.” I chose this kind of photography as I thought the images from commercials were suitable for exploring this idea. This led me to work with commercial photographers.

The concept comes first and the next step is to choose the right photos and photographers suitable for the concept. The important thing is what I want to say; this comes first.

The Defense Ministry project, On the Line was at first brought to me by the Defense Ministry. It was inevitable that this project had some kind of propagandizing aspect, which made me quite cautious. What I wanted to say through the exhibition was an idea that was distinct from other typical projects of the Defense Ministry. I do not consider propagandizing exhibitions as my job. What I thought was important was to show the meanings that the Korean war has to people today.

When the person from Ministry of National Defense came to me, I asked him if it was possible to have freedom [laughter]. He promised me independence.

MNM: So you could do whatever you wanted. To keep it from being propaganda it’s about what you and the artists were seeing rather than what the Ministry of Defense wanted to convey. There’s no message that they were asking you to provide?

SJS: No. From the beginning I had to start with my imagination about the Korean War. What does the Korean War mean to people who are alive today? I chose very different ages of photographers…

MNM: They were from almost in their 70s to as young as about 30.

SJS: Yes. I found the most important thing is the perspective differentiation from the age difference…

MNM: That was the biggest differentiator, age?

SJS: Yes. The photographers from the 30s to 70s were naturally included. The exhibition included many differences between the ways that photographers in their 70s use photography, such as using black and white film, making small prints, an emphasis on recording reality, to the ways to look at photos versus the things photographers in their 30s manipulate with digital methods like Photoshop. I thought those things mirrored the attitude that people in this era have toward the Korean War.

The people in their 70s consider the war very bad, terrifying. It was an event that killed many people—they lived through it when they were young. The people in their 30s think of the war as just the one on TV. I used the curatorial process to reveal this metaphorically.

MNM: It’s a living memory versus an historical episode.

SJS: Usually the older photographers use black and white, still, and a very small print.

MNM: Very directly seen, not quite documentary but slices of the world. Whereas the younger, as I recall, use fairly complex digital manipulation, to the point of being dayglow bright at times

SJS: Yes, they have gotten their information about the Korean War from TV or books, so it’s not reality to them.

MNM: They try to imagine it and are building it in their minds…

SJS: This is true not only for the artists, but every Korean has a different attitude to the war.

MNM: Right. I’m going to transition now a little bit. This is probably, a good segue. The On the Line photographers had these incredibly different understandings, different vantage points, based on their ages. But they’re all from the same culture. They’re all from Korea. What happens with photographs, with the understanding of photographs when you start throwing in cross-cultural implications? For instance, when I come to look at Korean photographs or a Korean photographer’s work, they are clearly going to be nuances of understanding that I miss. It’s as simple as me having a more Eurocentric art history background versus them having a deeper understanding of Korean artistic traditions. Even if I go to ten shows at the Leeum Museum, Celadon pottery will never be an integral part of who I am. So I’m going to miss any of those aspects that are in their work. I’m not going to understand it fully. When you’re looking at a very quantitative, psychological reading of photographs, are there cultural implications that arise in terms of how people understand it?

SJS: [Sighs] Ah…

MNM: [laughter] How’s that for an easy one?

SJS: I think, in fact, the understanding of the culture comes into being as experiences are accumulated, not in a certain moment. To make the people from other cultures understand Korean culture or art, I think it is very important to systematize experiences and to make opportunities to keep making them available to people. Now, in your case, as you visit Korea regularly and continue having interest in Korean culture, you will come to understand it little by little. Others who aren’t accumulating these experiences wouldn’t understand even if we force them to see these cultures as Korean. So, I think it is very important to do projects that let others know about Korean culture and artists.

For example, Westerners don’t ask questions about Japanese or Chinese cultures. It’s because there are common parts accepted as Japanese or as Chinese. Historically speaking, those experiences have been accumulated by Westerners for a long time.

MNM: For an individual, even if that understanding accumulates, is it internalized in the same way that it would be for someone who’s part of the culture? And that internalization, does that change our psychological response to the work, either from your own culture or for another culture?

SJS: Is that a concern if it can be applied commonly?

Precisely speaking, in case of the emotional study I’ve been doing, which is, what people feel from the images, this study has to be applied to another in other ways for audience in different cultures, as you say.

It is true that people in other cultures would have different reactions.

However, for example, there is a notion called visual property, one of the most basic properties photographs have, and the components such as brightness, color, or depth are maintained. When the same images are shown, the same visual properties are presented as well. Depending on cultural circles, there are cases that these common reactions are maintained or that different responses occur under the influence of culture. There are a lot of studies about this, but I haven’t done cross-cultural study before, so it is hard for me to talk about photographic images specifically. Anyway, your question might be another further inquiry. It may become a theme.

MNM: So, taking it one step further, for a book like Taewon Jang’s Stained Ground, or Sungsoo Kim’s…

SJS: Koo.

MNM: What did I say?

JMH: Kim [laughter].

SJS: There’s another artist [laughter].

MNM: Oh, excuse me [laughter], I just saw Sungsoo Kim’s show at Gallery Skape and have the name stuck in my head. Anyway, when you’re putting work together for a Western audience rather than a domestic Korean audience, do you take this cultural difference into consideration?

SJS: In China, there’s a huge population and a big market there. It doesn’t matter whether they sell and buy things only among themselves [laughter]. They can make a living within themselves. But in Korea, there’s a narrow market here for artists to keep working in if they are not well-known to the world.

It is totally meaningless to talk about Korean spirit or Korean culture between ourselves only. It has meaning only when the differentiation from other cultures or other countries can be explained. So I have a kind of sense of duty that we shouldn’t know and talk about our culture only internally but should share and communicate our culture with others.

Koreans always talk about the originality of our culture, but…

MNM: There are plenty of historical influences that have…

SJS: Yes, from China or Japan. We have to show more to the world audience, I think. It’s very important to build up our cultural identity. If we cannot show them our cultural spirit it is hard to maintain. And hard to find out the identity as well. So…

MNM: And that was part of my own thinking when I started writing the blog. I would come home with 20 or 30 books after a visit, and I’d show them to friends. I’d say “This is really cool;” and they’d respond, “Yeah, this is really amazing. Where can I see this? or Where can I get this?” And my answer would be, “Well, you can’t.” So I think there is an interest and I wanted to try to make these works more known. Even if someone couldn’t hold a book, at least one would know that these books, these photographers were out there.

SJS: Hatje Cantz has the power to distribute worldwide. But if we make a book with a domestic publishing company, no one [outside Korea] will know anything about them.

MNM: Right. Hatje Cantz can put a book in front of every curator or photographer who either looks at books or who needs to know what’s happening in the world of photography. They become sort of the de facto overview of what’s happening.

SJS: Yes, I want to make a kind of literature about Korean contemporary photography, like this kind of project (gestures to wall behind with her current project tacked up).

MNM: There was a similar kind of overview that was been put together two or three years ago, I don’t remember the exact year. Bohnchang Koo was involved with…

SJS: Full Metal Jacket?

MNM: No, not a Full Metal Jacket. He’s one of the three curators who’d done Chaotic Harmony at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Houston Museum of Art.

SJS: Ann Tucker was the head curator.

MNM: Yes. When you put your overview of contemporary Korean photography together, how would it differ from what they put together?

SJS: Ah… We might have more information. Americans have a limitation of having information about who Korean photographers are or what photos are here.

And, as an aspect of that, one might ask whether the title “Chaotic Harmony” is appropriate. It might be understandable as this is an interpretation of a certain curator, but Koreans don’t think the “Korean situation” is chaotic. [laughter] So, there must be a difference of viewpoint.

Korea is changing very fast. So, somebody who came from abroad, they can see the situation as very chaotic.

MNM: Because they haven’t internalized that history, or seen that evolution or that change in the same way?

SJS: But we Koreans don’t look at that situation as, I mean, it’s not chaotic. It’s just… natural [laughter].

JMH: It’s just there [laughter].

SJS: It’s just there [laughter]. So Chaotic Harmony was a good chance to show Korean photographers to a worldwide audience, but the different viewpoint of the curator is very meaningful. And this project [gesturing to the work on the wall] would be the first chance to show this from our viewpoint.

MNM: I look forward to it [laughter]. So the next two topics. This first on we were talking a little bit about before. As you’re working on this project on Korean photography, what makes Korean photography “Korean”? We were talking about this from the perspective of Taewon Jang, who… He’s living in New York. In a sense he has one foot in a Western history as he’s working in that environment, but also having come from Korea, having been educated in Korea, and worked in Korea for a long time, does his work stay Korean or does it start become part of a New York history or school of photography?

SJS: In Taewon’s case, he once told me of his father’s tears when he was doing this project with the Western way of seeing.

JMH: Do you mean the Western way of seeing is the thing seen from the photo…?

SJS: Yes. His way of seeing is hard to sort between what is Western and what is Korean. Photography has come from Western society.

I think Korean photographers are relatively more interested in their roots or spirits. How the final products can be differentiated visually is an idea for me to study more, but basically, as I see what makes photographers keep working and what makes them motivated to keep doing their job, the spiritual elements are very much involved.

MNM: In Full Metal Jacket, Bohnchang Koo talks about working in Germany and showing his work to another photographer, a German photographer, who said, and I am paraphrasing, “You photograph like a European. Why don’t you photograph like a Korean, in your own way?” What strikes me is that phrase “in your own way”. What does that mean? It seems like there is implicit bias in that question. Given that, is there any risk to label something as Korean photography because it could limit how someone might be working or might stifle a particular individual?

SJS: Can you rephrase that?

MNM: Sure. Koo is asked, “Why don’t you photograph like a Korean?” In the conversation in the book you kind of go off in a different direction. I was hoping you could comment on that story. He’s making work, and even if he’s making it in a very rigid German kind of way, I still think of it as very Korean–such as the vases that he photographed. The photographs are very soft and lyrical, but there is still precision in them and in the process that he uses to produce them.

SJS: As I remember it, what the person who pointed that out to Bohnchang Koo said was… “Don’t shoot like a European. Shoot like a Korean.” Or more precisely, “shoot in your own way.” It might rephrased as “Don’t take what you seemed to see, but take what you can say is yours.”

I guess the teacher who taught Mr. Koo wanted to teach a lesson about, “Don’t shoot like the others.” I mean…

MNM: Don’t simply imitate?

SJS: Don’t imitate the others’ vision. It’s not an assumption that there’s a European viewpoint and Korean viewpoint is very different. It’s just about, “Please don’t follow the others.”

MNM: Because you have your own individual way of seeing.

SJS: Yes. Every artist has a different background, memory, and experience. If you focus on all those experiences, you can make your own different way.

MNM: Right. So it is a pedagogical story. I read it as a weird cultural thing, rather than as a teaching moment. It makes more sense as a teaching moment [laughter].

SJS: As we see the ordinary experiences Koreans have, they, Koreans, focus on their family roots. Also they are very interested in social changes since they have always lived in a fast-changing environment including the urban one. These may be the special features.

MNM: So, what makes the work Korean, a thread might run through multiple photographers’ works as disparate as Seung Woo Back and Byung-hun Min is less visual than psychological? Their photographs are visually distinct, yet they both seem to me very Korean. Perhaps what I’m seeing as “Korean” is less about the visual function of the final work and more about the motivational aspect or the process behind the work. Would that be the fair way of rephrasing what you just said?

SJS: I don’t want to explain the difference between the artists through the common points of “Korean-ness”. We don’t need to do that, I mean, for example, some photos focus on something very current and other photos have interest in the accumulation of time or history, depending on each photo. So, the works like Byung-hun Min’s are here and Seung Woo Back is somewhere in this part. [Gesturing to a series of small prints tacked to the wall being sequenced for the Korean photography survey exhibition.]

These are totally different. Towards the middle, these [pointing] are sensitive experiences and immediate responses, and to the sides suggest an extended time. These are sub-divided into elements which are influenced socially or in which the social landscape is made as time goes by. But rather than finding out the common points of Korean just because the artists are Korean, it seems to be important that these variations show the ways in which Korean photos have been made.

[The wall of photographs being spoken about, here and earlier, are part of a historical survey type show of Korean photography that Ms. Shin is working on. They are arranged in a kind of Cartesian plane. When she says, “as they come to the middle”, she means both physically on the x-axis. -ed.]

When one looks at the scope of these photographs, then one may find, “Ah, this is a common point of Korean-ness.”

MNM: I realize that whole line of questions, shows my own Euro-centric cultural assumptions and my own biases. For me to compartmentalize Korean photography as its own separate photo history and then think there must be something that ties these photographers all together… if I turned the question around to ask what makes American photography American I’d have to describe so many different threads, so many different micro-histories within it. It’s impossible. It’s an unfair question.

SJS: One may come to understand Korean photography as he or she gets to know one artist through that individual person or through a larger framing of so-called Korean photography. It is always possible, but it is relative… for instance, let’s take American photography: famous photographers are well known by people around the world and the history is well organized. There haven’t been many chances to give others information about Korean photography; we are trying hard to do so.

As I said earlier: true understanding grows when people accumulate many experiences, as does true understanding of cultures. But artists don’t have any reason to be defined by the classification of Korean photography. As you said, if someone asks, “what is American photography?”, then some say they don’t know but… [Ms. Shin is interrupted by a phone call.]

MNM: Let’s segue here. The blog is primarily about photo books. So, I’m curious what your perspective is on the role that photo books play in Korean photography, whether broadly or specifically to your projects or those of the Ilwoo Foundation.

SJS: When I work on a project, I always try to have the budget to make a book because the exhibition is very short-term. I always regretted the limited duration. I make books with the thought that books influence the audience for a long time, and they can be the faithful historical records for the period. So I always try to make books but have no idea how the formation of books will change in the future. I am still considering whether the form is kept heavy and printed [Ed. note: this translation is quirky and not-quite-right, but “heavy and printed” is just so nice.], or if a PDF file is enough. But I like holding, looking at, and flipping the pages of physical books in person. I always try my best to make a good book, but I think a totally different approach to the audience should be used when I conceive of an exhibit versus when I edit the book. I don’t assign all the work to book designers, but take responsibility for everything, like an order of artworks and presentation, size, edition, the touch, etc.for each of them. [The translation of that last sentence is possibly skewed. I believe Ms. Shin means that she is actively involved with each step of the book making process rather than abdicating all decisions in this process to a designer and that the book making is as much the responsibility of a curator or editor as the conceiving and arranging of an exhibition. I know that for many of the books of her’s there are absolutely designers involved, though. -ed.]

I always try to go on press for the printing. People are always surprised, saying ‘What are you doing? Why are you staying all night here?’ [laughter]

MNM: Are there any particular photographers who are using the book form in interesting ways? Is there anyone you’ve worked with for whom it is much more than just taking pictures off the wall and putting them in sequence and that’s it? Who is really using the book form as more than just the catalog? Who considers the book as a final product in in and of itself?

SJS: Especially in documentary field, documentary photographers used to publish their photos in magazines or newspapers, but they’ve come to have less opportunity. That’s why they try to convert their works into the forms of exhibitions or books these days in Korea. They’re having a hard time as they don’t have many chances to show their work.

One example is the photographer Sangyeop Lee; he has been publishing books combining his writing and photos together, not just traditional artworks, after being in agony.

MNM: What’s the name of the book?

SJS: The Final Language – Why Do I Take a Photo, though there are many books of his.

Next there are some photographers who think they can show their work just through books, not by exhibitions these days. It costs too much when they print photos and make frames, so they think it would be much better to make books rather than to have exhibitions. Compared to others like painters or sculptors, photographers can be closer to print media, so there are many ways for them to show their own works if the works can be made into books. I think it is a very good idea.

MNM: A lot of photographers you work with at Ilwoo, are incredibly forward looking in the way that they make work and yet seem to use very traditional book forms for the most part. With Korea being one of the most wired, perhaps the most wired country in the world, and extremely invested in digital technologies, are there any photographers who are pushing beyond the paper book into publishing digital book forms? Is there anything that’s happening in the digital that is more than just a website with a handful of different projects, something beyond that, whether it’s apps for mobile devices or whether it’s PDF publications? Is there anyone doing anything really interesting in the digital realm?

SJS: I’ve been thinking about that. Eventually, this kind of book lies on a crossroad, which means, the opposite road. One example is like the magazine Visionaire, which is making various attempts. Whenever it is published, it is done in a different way each time, and collaborated on by new people. This makes people value it. Books should be made in a way whether they have values as an artwork on their own [as an object, -Ed.], or whether they are made digitally for everyone to access easily. These days’ people are getting lazier and lazier [laughter], and they don’t think they have to go to bookstores to feel and buy books for themselves, right? On a basic level, when this book is made [holding up Full Meta Jacket], it is completed in a PDF form. So there is a way to upload it on a website and have people download it. However, I think a form suitable for the digital environment and devices should be developed. And that is…

JMH: Software?

SJS: So, whether interaction is possible or whatever, a media art should be developed. The artist has to develop a new way of interaction with the audience through digital devices.

MNM: Is there anything you want to add to any of these topics or anything that I haven’t asked about that you think it’s important? Or if you want to mention anything that you are working on now, or any exhibits that are upcoming that you’d like to have another link to on the web?

SJS: This is the book I have just completed [gestures to Full Metal Jacket sitting on the table], and what I’ve been working on recently is this project on Korean Contemporary Photography.

Three months have passed since I started this space, Lamp LAB. What I thought while making this space was that I want to make people who are not art professionals feel the power of art and experience the value of art in their lives through this space. That comes of my being a person who work both in the art and science fields. I believe art doesn’t exist just for artists; it exists to make non-artists’ lives more artistic.

I’d like to tell interesting and ordinary stories that public museums or commercial galleries can’t. That’s why I made this space. Art is, I think, valuable enough in itself if it can give some insight or experience one couldn’t have for common people in everyday life. I also want to share and show things that break down the barriers between art and science. “This is an art here. That is a science there.” This kind of boundary can be destroyed as I’ve lived in that way. I want to make and to show those things to people, to share the experience here.


What I felt when I was doing this project [Full Metal Jacket] was that what photographers want is not that hard or big. Just listening to them and having a conversation with them to share ideas are quite helpful for them to keep working. I want to use this space to do those kinds of things.

MNM: I found, as a photographer myself reading the conversation in Full Metal Jacket, that it sparked ideas of my own and my own process. If I just sit and think about what I’m doing, it’s not the same as hearing other people talking about their process which helps me to see either similarities or differences. That was super interesting and super helpful. Conversations like that whether a panel at the Ilwoo Conference or very casually between friends over a beer, those conversations between artists are incredibly helpful and gratifying. And having access to other people’s conversations who are working at such a high level, it’s hugely helpful for the audience. I thought that was a fantastic project.

SJS: Thank you.

MNM: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us, Suejin. I really appreciate this. Again I really found your talk at the Ilwoo Conference in 2012 fascinating and have enjoyed the opportunity to speak more in depth about some of those ideas. I think you’re one of the leading voices on Korean photography, so I very much appreciate you generously sharing your time. Thank you.

November 2014


Special thanks to Suejin Shin for her willingness to sit down with Korean Photography Books for this conversation; to Jimin Han who facilitated the interview as translator; and to Yoonsun Jung for transcription and translation of the interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity post-translation.

2 thoughts on “A Conversation with Suejin Shin

  1. de Morsier Caudia

    Please, could you give me Shin Suejins Korean name in Hangeul or in Hanja (Chinese characters)?
    Or her e-mail address, so I can ask her myself?
    Thank you very much.
    Sincerely yours
    Claudia de Moriser

  2. mnm207 Post author

    I thought I’d noted this, but I guess not. Seujin’s name written in Hangul is 신수진.

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