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Remember Kim Soo-nam, master of Korean documentary photography

All News 17:53 April 05, 2016

By Woo Jae-yeon

SEOUL, April 5 (Yonhap) -- He was known as a "shaman who takes photos."

Wherever the ancient shamanic ritual of "gut" took place, he was there, taking a photo of what he thought was slowly fading into the mists of history.

For three decades, South Korean documentary photographer Kim Soo-nam took around 170,000 photos, most of which he shot at scenes of gut that involved a dynamic ceremony of worshiping, making offerings to the gods, singing spirit-calling songs and praying. The rites that often last for days are meant to comfort the dead, alleviate sorrows and wish for the wellbeing of those who are left behind.

Kim's priceless records of Korean folklore history will be shown to the public April 6-June 6 at the National Folk Museum of Korea, in time for the 10th anniversary of his death, with 100 items selected from 170,630 photos and possessions donated by his family last September.

His photography of gut dates back to the 1970s, when he felt an acute sense of loss about Korean folk culture practices and those who performed them.

For him, gut was the start of a new life, as it helped the quick and the dead overcome sadness and move on and gracefully leave for the afterlife, respectively.

The subjects of his photo are, in most cases, people. Only after days of building a close rapport with his subjects did he start bringing his camera into focus.

The archive on display at the retrospective shows abundant episodes of his personal charm and how much he tried to connect with his subjects.

To better understand villagers, he spent days and nights in remote, rural areas. When they felt he was close enough, they often suggested they fix him up with one of their daughters. When he told them he was already married, "people often joked 'you have one wife but a hundred mothers-in-law."

An interview in 2003 shows yet another episode.

"Sad stories are abundant at the scene. I often forget about taking photos and just listen to their stories, shedding tears. It is often my subjects who tell me to snap out of it and get to the business. I owe many of my photos to my tears."

His 20-volume shamanistic ritual photo book "Gut of Korea" is considered not only an important asset to Korean folklore history but also a photojournalism masterpiece.

An official from the museum said, "It will encourage people to step back and think about life and death, a subject you don't normally give serious thought."

On top of the exhibition, the museum screens a documentary in honor of him every Wednesday and Friday afternoon and holds a special reminiscence session of his close friends. For those who can't physically visit the museum, it has an online exhibition on Naver, the country's biggest portal site, starting next Monday, with 200 of his photos.


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