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(Yonhap Interview) Photography as a way of healing personal wounds, honoring victims of state power

All Headlines 16:20 October 18, 2018

By Woo Jae-yeon

SEOUL, Oct. 18 (Yonhap) -- It was one day in his early 20s that Kwon Sun-kwan realized he could see things through a camera lens that his bare eyes could have easily overlooked.

That day, he spotted through the lens a tramp dressed in rags wandering around the streets of his neighborhood. Intrigued, he followed him to his house to learn that the man and his brother, both mentally challenged, lived in a very unsanitary, inhuman environment and that their family had neglected them.

The "awakening experience" put him into the dilemma of whether to help them get assistance from the community right away, or do his job as a photographer, he said.

This photo provided by Hakgojae Gallery in Seoul on Oct. 18, 2018, shows photographer Kwon Sun-kwan. (Yonhap)

"Taking photos, by nature, is quite violent. You see your subject matters as the subject of your desire and your means. You see and interpret them as you want and think. It is violent," Kwon said during an interview with Yonhap News Agency at Hakgojae Gallery in Seoul on Thursday.

Since then, he has distanced himself from his subjects, observed them long enough to stay objective and rational and tried to capture things and memories associated with his subjects that, however peripheral and fleeting they look, often fall through what he called a "hole of silence."

"The Mulch and Bones," which is set to open at the gallery on Friday, is his first solo exhibition in five years, and is part of his continuing efforts to use photography to visually -- and metaphorically -- record the seemingly unimportant, forgotten or neglected memories and victims in modern Korean history.

"We all have distant, fading memories. Where have they gone? Did they disappear? Probably not. I believe they remain somewhere in our consciousness as they sometimes pop up in certain situations," he said.

"The same applies to our history. Stories and incidents neglected by the state must remain locked in silence somewhere ... They might appear to have all gone now, but do they? Air, water or earth might have kept or remembered them and connect us with them."

This image of "A Statue of the Flame" was provided by photographer Kwon Sun-kwan and Hakgojae Gallery. (Yonhap)
This image of "The Valley of Darkness" was provided by photographer Kwon Sun-kwan and Hakgojae Gallery. (Yonhap)

For "The Valley of Darkness," a large-scale work from 2016, he spent days in the forest where the bodies of hundreds of innocent civilians, mistaken for pro-communists, were presumed to have been buried after being killed in a U.S. air strike during the Korean War. The lush, pitch-black and eerily quiet forest symbolizes the restless souls of the tragedy known as the "Nogun-ri Massacre."

"Outwardly, the place seems peaceful. No trace of tragedy remains there. But for me, it is this intense violence scene. The incident failed to make it into the history dictated by power for a long time."

In "The Red Smoke #2," Kwon imagined what victims of state power in modern Korean history might have seen in their last moments alive, and the image of a snarling wolf occurred to him.

This image of "The Red Smoke #2" was provided by photographer Kwon Sun-kwan and Hakgojae Gallery. (Yonhap)

Born in 1973 in a rural village in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, he grew up with his grandparents. Although he connected with his intellectual and literary grandfather, he said he spent a "very lonely childhood" as his grandfather was "locked in his own world and silence."

It was only when he became an adult and started building a photography career that he realized that his grandfather was also one of so many victims during the turbulent times.

"The lonely upbringing made me who I am now. I grew up with a sense of lacking. I try to overcome the sense of deficiency through my photography and through the way I see the world."

His exhibition is open until Nov. 10.


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