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South Korean photographer Yoon Giljung captures a wide array of subjects that, upon first glance, may seem completely unrelated. Traditional stone statues, replicas of fruits and flowers, faces of major world leaders… But the work of photography, at its core, is to capture, reflect, and reinterpret. Especially when the eye loses focus, stops noticing details, or simply forgets what to look for. And so, his work masterfully captures everything that we’ve started to overlook – the universal desires that remain unchanged from generation to generation, the differences between real and artificial beauty, the cost of selfishness. Stone statues, plastic replicas, faces of politicians. Today he tells us a bit more about the inspiration behind his projects, the experience of visiting his own exhibitions and the purpose of photography.

South Korea has a rich tradition of visual arts that’s changed quite drastically over the last few decades. How has that affected the field of photography and particularly your own work?
Thanks to rapid economic growth, practically every sector of South Korea has changed drastically. You see, from K-pop represented by BTS to K-movies, like those of Kim Ki-duk and Bong Joon-ho, the realm of K-culture has expanded across the world beyond our country.
Although rooted in tradition, many industries of K-culture, such as food and entertainment, remain active and vibrant, which is especially evident when looking at K-pop concerts. Though the development of fine arts and photography may seem slower in comparison to those fields, but invigorated by other areas of culture, I think that the stimulus of the Korean economy and culture would allow K-art to expand the same way K-pop has. My own work has also expanded to reflect the introspections of human life and environmental issues that people around the world can empathize with.
Growing up, did your family take many photos or videos? How did you preserve memories?
In my childhood days, in the '60s and '70s, cameras were still a rare thing in Korea. So we could only take pictures at the studio, on special occasions. But in the '90s, things changed. I was finally able to buy a little camera and take lots of pictures for my children. And with those pictures, I made a photo album a few years later. It’s now been 20 years, but I can still recall that time very clearly. I believe there is no other way to remember the past except photos.
What did you study at university and how has this influenced your approach to art?
I actually studied Business Administration. During my teenage years, I liked literature and writing. I was very passionate about it. So, I was certain that I wanted to study literature, but I couldn’t because my family and I had some financial difficulties back then. However, thankfully, my sacrifice turned into an opportunity. Because I studied Business Administration, I could work in a large corporation and run my own business for a long time, gaining diverse life experiences.
Those social experiences broadened and deepened my world view. Ultimately, my passion for literature awakened my artistic sensibility and the various social experiences became the foundation of my work. This helped me to communicate and share my ideas with the world. But I wanted more.
So, in 2013 I joined a professional photo academy to study more systematically and did so for three years. I realised that having a good understanding of academic theory is also an important part of contemporary photography, it’s not only a matter of excellent technique that is often talked about.

When and how did you get your first camera? For what did you use the first roll of film?
After 1992, I had to focus only on running my business, rather than taking care of myself. But after undergoing a major operation in 2010, due to a serious health problem, I finally began living my own life. This led me to dream of becoming a professional photographer. So, I bought my camera and started documenting trees wounded by man-made environmental destruction. At the same time, I also worked on capturing the life of severely disabled people. These works changed my attitude and direction in life.
So, I would say that this, becoming more serious about my life was a great moment of enlightenment and opportunity, earned by carefully observing subjects and looking at the lives of others. I finally shared what I saw, what I felt, through my individual exhibition Not beautiful but beautiful (2013) and Picturesque (2014). The exhibitions handled these two subjects – disabled people and wounded trees respectively
Last year, director Bong Joon Ho’s film – and especially his Golden Globes speech – sparked an important conversation about language barriers in cinema. What did you think of it? Were language barriers ever a concern for you as an artist?
I completely agree with him. I’ve been abroad six times, to participate in photography portfolio reviews. Of course, I got help from translators, but there was a limit to how fully I could make reviewers understand my work. I don’t think that language barriers are the deciding obstacle in doing my work. I believe the work itself doesn’t require language, but emotions and feelings as a means of nonverbal communication. So, 2 years ago, I finally started studying English intensely to explain my work to reviewers and, of course, to communicate with foreigners.
What inspired your Human Desire series and what do you think it reveals about the stone and the people who sculpted it?
The Human Desire series depicts the traditional stone men statues placed in front of graves to guard them, and the stone totem poles erected at the entrance of villages to drive away evil spirits. I wanted to highlight the facial expressions – the wish and longing – carved into the stone statues’ faces rather than their roles.
Even though the stonemasons weren’t artists but the lowest class of their time, the stone statues they carved fascinated me with their facial expressions, and those expressions became more abundant during long tines of hardship. I think, making stones into objects of prayer by carving the image of a man into the long-lasting stones was an expression of humans’ desire to comfort themselves.

Many repressed cultures have used traditional symbols not only to preserve their identity but often to subtly criticise their repressors as well. Have any of the statues gained new (perhaps satirical) meanings as the country’s dominant political and religious systems changed?
The stone men were mainly carved before the mid-Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), they have varied in the style of their hats, clothing, and their size over time. So, yes, we can say that they each reflect their time. The stone totem poles carved in the mid and late Joseon Dynasty once satirically expressed the accumulated dissatisfaction from the lower class through the stone carving. It is never easy for the newer generations, which live in a democratised society, to decipher the desperate hearts of our ancestors that are carved into the stones. While working on this series, I kept thinking that the task of finding the unrevealed meaning of relics and reinterpreting them is meant not only for historians.
Why did you decide to use natural, handcrafted materials in the production of the series’ photos? How did this affect their overall tone?
Hanji, the handmade Korean traditional paper, was broadly and extensively used during the Joseon Dynasty. But traditional handmade Hanji is almost entirely gone and replaced by machine-made now Hanji. I printed the stone statues photos on the handmade Hanji and ordered it especially for this project because of its benefits. Above all else, the texture of stone statues and their facial expressions become richer when I print their images on the traditional handmade Hanji. Also, the ink absorbs naturally into the handmade Hanji, soaking into it. This then softens the tone and increases the depth of the images.
What is the main subject of your Nature’s Counterattacks series? Why did you decide to incorporate plastic materials and images of political leaders into it?
For 28 years, I’ve been working on recycling plastic waste into chips by crushing and pressing it. Most plastic waste cannot decompose independently, so it ends up becoming the main source of marine and land pollution. By putting the recycled plastic chips on my photos, I, paradoxically, wanted to emphasise environmental issues. So, I put those chips on the faces of world leaders, hoping they would take environmental issues more seriously. Because they are the highest-ranking decision-makers in their countries, including decisions on environmental issues.

Why do you think we as humans are – or have become – so self-centred?
Modern society has been driving us to pursue only profits and efficiency, and the only thing we’re chasing after is our comfort. Although the human is just one of the countless living things on this planet, we humans have been either ignoring or trying to rule these other beings. All of the counterattacks of Nature and other living beings are the result of what we’ve done.
Your SeeSaw series explores our relationship with real objects and their replicas. Where did you find such realistic replicas? What other challenges did this project involve?
One day, while attending a wedding, I realised that most flowers at the wedding hall were fake. Not only that, I was surprised to find out that people were not that interested in whether these flowers at the celebration were fake or real. At restaurants, offices, or in display windows – no matter where it might be – there are so many replicas around us. They’re barely distinguishable from real things unless we look at them closely. But we still call them beautiful. I mean, what on Earth have we seen?
Afterwards, I started looking for replica shops and collecting the finest quality replicas. Finally, I put the replica together with the real thing, side by side, and took photos of it. Then, I selected one photo and printed it out twice. One for the horizontal cut, and one for the vertical cut. After I cut each photo in two, I recombined it. This may bother some exhibition visitors as they’re trying to enjoy my works, but it’s a technique that keeps their attention on the objects longer.
Nowadays, we tend to think of photography as one of the more technology-based, less ‘organic’ art forms. In your experience, how much does photography depend on the tools, and how much on the skill of the person who’s wielding them?
I think that the gap between documentary photography, which focuses on recording and archiving life, and the sort of photography which uses the camera merely as a tool will widen, each forming their own separate genres, like photography and fine arts. The recording-focused nature of documentary photography is valuable and deserves to be respected. And the photos that blur the lines between the functions of a camera as a tool to document or express the photographers’ imagination should also be respected.

Do you ever attend your own exhibitions? How does it feel to experience other people discovering your work?
I’ve held many exhibitions here in South Korea, but Human Desire (2019) was held in Houston, and SeeSaw in Brussels. My most recent series is Nature’s Counterattacks, which should be on show this March, in Budapest. At my exhibitions, the two questions I’ve received most often have been "Where do you get such ideas?" and "How did you get this idea?." It’s always been and will be a great honour for photographers to have exhibition visitors discover the concept and message, or messages, hidden in their work and be amazed by the photographers’ passion and the effort they put into it.
How has your photography experience changed how you look at art and at the world overall?
I may have been influenced by someone else’s fine arts or photography work. But I can definitely say that I’ve made a huge effort to totally differentiate my work from all of the other work I’ve seen so far. Recently, I’ve decided not to look at other photographers’ work. Because it disrupts my imagination as well as limiting my work. To do creative work, I believe I have to think on my own and exercise my own imagination.

Julija Kalvelytė

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