Pho­tog­ra­phy — his­tory sto­ry­teller

Noon­bit serves as ca­reer launch-pad for pho­tog­ra­phers

The Korea Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Kang Hyun-kyung [email protected]­re­

Var­i­ous peo­ple claim their roles as sto­ry­tellers of Korea’s tur­bu­lent mod­ern his­tory.

His­to­ri­ans have long been praised for chron­i­cling a se­ries of mile­stone events and key his­tor­i­cal fig­ures who ini­ti­ated or trig­gered tip­ping points at crit­i­cal mo­ments in the past. Books — his­to­ri­ans’ pre­ferred sto­ry­telling tool — have been touted as one of the best sources to learn about his­tory.

In mod­ern times, film­mak­ers chipped in and took part in ed­u­cat­ing view­ers. His­tor­i­cal movies un­ravel catastrophic mo­ments and ma­jor so­ciopo­lit­i­cal events that shaped Korea’s mod­ern his­tory, stir­ring soul-search­ing in au­di­ences about what went wrong.

In the dig­i­tal era, so­cial me­dia in­flu­encers are also emerg­ing as sto­ry­tellers. YouTube chan­nels are gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity as a tool of learn­ing.

Amid a swath of self-pro­claimed his­tory sto­ry­tellers, there is a group of peo­ple whose role has been un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated, if not for­got­ten — doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phers.

“We, Kore­ans, have not been prop­erly ed­u­cated about im­ages and this is why as sto­ry­tellers, pho­tog­ra­phers came to be for­got­ten,” Lee Kyu-sang said dur­ing a re­cent Korea Times in­ter­view.

Lee, the founder and pub­lisher of the Seoul-based pho­to­book pub­lish­ing house Noon­bit Pub­lish­ing Co., was cau­tiously op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of pho­tog­ra­phy, hop­ing that in the dig­i­tal era, pho­tog­ra­phy can gain long over­due at­ten­tion as a sto­ry­telling tool.

“Pub­lish­ing pho­to­books has been a hard slog for me, partly be­cause it is not a prof­itable busi­ness and partly be­cause its reader base is not wide,” he said. “But I think the fu­ture for pho­tog­ra­phy is promis­ing, be­cause I think more and more peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly those out­side the coun­try who are cu­ri­ous about Korea, will want to see how Korea has trans­formed and where the coun­try is head­ing.”

Over the past three decades since Lee founded Noon­bit Pub­lish­ing in 1988 on the sixth floor of a shabby old build­ing in the neigh­bor­hood of Gwangh­wa­mun Square in cen­tral Seoul, the pub­lish­ing house has re­leased 700 doc­u­men­tary pho­to­books.

French pho­tog­ra­pher and doc­u­men­tary film­maker Chris Marker’s award-win­ning photo col­lec­tion “Coreennes” was its first pro­ject.

Re­leased in 1989, it show­cases the late Marker’s photos taken dur­ing his 1958 visit to North Korea. In black and white photos, Marker cap­tured or­di­nary North Kore­ans and their way of life. His pho­to­book cre­ated a big buzz back then. As al­ways in many highly suc­cess­ful pro- jects, re­ac­tions from view­ers about Marker’s photo col­lec­tion were po­lar­iz­ing. Some con­ser­va­tive ex­perts painted pub­lisher Lee as a North Korea sym­pa­thizer, while some lauded the book for giv­ing a rare peek into the North.

Fol­low­ing Noon­bit’s “stun­ning” de­but as a pho­to­book pub­lisher with Marker’s col­lec­tion, the pub­lish­ing house has re­leased var­i­ous photo col­lec­tions taken by Korean as well as in­ter­na­tional pho­tog­ra­phers.

The photos cap­tured the Korean way of life, its tragic mod­ern his­tory spi­raled in a se­ries of po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and so­cial up­heavals, from the lib­er­a­tion from Ja­panese colo­nial rule in 1945, through the bloody 1950-53 Korean War, the coun­try’s mirac­u­lous eco­nomic growth at the ex­pense of hu­man rights, mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ships and the fol­low­ing surge of pro-democ­racy protests. Some photo col­lec­tions fea­ture North Kore­ans.

Lee, 58, says his pub­lish­ing house’s three decades of col­lec­tions il­lus­trate the power of pho­tog­ra­phy as a strong sto­ry­telling tool. If or­ga­nized well in a proper con­text, he says pho­tog­ra­phy can be more ef­fec­tive than any other tools in telling what hap­pened in the past.

In Novem­ber, Noon­bit cel­e­brated its 30th an­niver­sary by show­cas­ing hun­dreds of pho­to­books it has pub­lished since 1988 at Space 22 in south­ern Seoul. Some pho­tog­ra­phers Lee teamed up with for book projects joined the cer­e­mony.

Lee says run­ning the un­prof­itable busi­ness for three decades has been chal­leng- ing but he has never thought of clos­ing down.

Al­though he owns a decades-old pub­lish­ing house, he works like a startup en­tre­pre­neur.

Mul­ti­task­ing has been part of his life to cut un­nec­es­sary costs.

Un­like other es­tab­lished pub­lish­ing houses where divi­sion of la­bor is highly val­ued as a source of ef­fi­ciency, at his small pub­lish­ing com­pany, Lee over­sees al­most ev­ery­thing, from plan­ning to edit­ing photos to the pub­li­ca­tion of the pho­to­books. Lee even de­liv­ers books to his clients, if nec­es­sary.

But such a work­load doesn’t bother him. He is a mission-driven per­son.

Lee says he has a sin­gle-minded goal — dis­cov­er­ing pho­tog­ra­phers who are tal­ented but un­rec­og­nized and giv­ing them a way to suc­ceed through pub­li­ca­tion.

His un­wa­ver­ing com­mit­ment to discover au­then­tic photos and the pho­tog­ra­phers be­hind them has paid off.

Over the past decades, his pub­lish­ing house, al­beit small, has taken on a big­ger role — it has served as a ca­reer launch­pad for many tal­ented but un­known pho­tog­ra­phers.

“One of the joys of be­ing a pho­to­book pub­lisher is find­ing tal­ented doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phers and help­ing them make their de­but as pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers,” Lee said. “None of the pho­tog­ra­phers were fa­mous when they started work­ing with us.”

One of the joys of be­ing a pho­to­book pub­lisher is find­ing tal­ented but un­known pho­tog­ra­phers and giv­ing them a way to suc­ceed through pub­li­ca­tion.

The late pho­tog­ra­pher Choi Min-shik, who died in Fe­bru­ary 2013, is one of the pho­tog­ra­phers whose ca­reer took off thanks to Lee’s pub­lish­ing house.

“Choi was a Bu­san-based pho­tog­ra­pher who took photos of the Ja­galchi Fish Mar­ket,” Lee said. “He was a pho­tog­ra­pher who was un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated in his time. There needs to be some kind of work to ad­dress his role in Korean photo his­tory and rediscover the val­ues of his photo projects, al­beit posthu­mously.”

Choi took 150,000 photos start­ing from the late 1950s. Lee met Choi one day in 2006 upon the lat­ter’s re­quest. Choi was then look­ing for a pub­lish­ing house that was will­ing to pub­lish his photo col­lec­tion.

As his ef­forts were in vain, he called Lee and asked if Noon­bit could pub­lish his works.

Noon­bit re­leased Choi’s photo col­lec­tion book, “Hu­man,” in 2006. It fea­tures some of his works taken from 1956 to 2006.

Each pho­to­book is a shard of a mo­saic of Korea’s tur­bu­lent mod­ern his­tory, as pho­tog­ra­phers cap­tured dif­fer­ent groups of peo­ple of dif­fer­ent time pe­ri­ods rang­ing from 1945 to the present day.

Some took photos of the poor­est of the poor, the home­less and mar­ket ven­dors strug­gling to make ends meet in the post-Korean War years.

Women and girls with un­washed faces are eat­ing noo­dles in Choi’s black and white photos. They look no­tice­ably in­se­cure and their fa­cial ex­pres­sions re­veal the tough life they had led.

Ja­panese pas­tor and so­cial ac­tivist No­mura Mo­toyuki cap­tured the ur­ban poor liv­ing in un­speak­able con­di­tions along Cheong­gye Stream. The area later un­der­went a facelift as part of an ur­ban beau­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­ject in the early 2000s un­der then Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak be­fore he was elected pres­i­dent in 2007.

The Ja­panese pho­tog­ra­pher’s col­lec­tion, ti­tled “No­mura Re­port,” gives a rare glimpse of old Seoul’s down­town and how peo­ple there led their lives be­fore the area was changed.

Photos taken in the 1980s fea­ture a chaotic Korea fol­low­ing the “Seoul Spring.” De­mand for democ­racy and hu­man rights surged af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of the mil­i­tary gen­eral-turned-Pres­i­dent Park Chung-hee in Oc­to­ber 1979.

Fac­ing a mil­i­tary coup later that year, pro-democ­racy ac­tivists took to the streets. An ac­tivist who com­mit­ted self-im­mo­la­tion to make his voice heard and fell from a rooftop while on fire, pro­test­ers who were ar­rested by the po­lice, and the be­reaved fam­ily mourn­ing their sons or sib­lings who lost their lives while fight­ing for democ­racy and a power trans­fer from the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship to civil­ian rule were also cap­tured in some old photos.

Lee Jae-gap’s pho­to­book shows his life­time pur­suit of trac­ing the roots of di­ver­sity in Korea.

His 1993 photo fea­tur­ing the gloomy half-black, half-Korean Kim Jong-chul with his weary grand­mother in their nar­row room in Paju, Gyeonggi Prov­ince, is a snap­shot of the tough life the bira­cial man had en­dured.

Through his photo pro­ject, Lee learned bira­cial peo­ple have be­come part of the Korean pop­u­la­tion since 1947, two years af­ter the United States Army Mil­i­tary Gov­ern­ment in Korea was es­tab­lished fol­low­ing the coun­try’s lib­er­a­tion in 1945 with the end of World War II.

The bira­cial pop­u­la­tion saw an­other surge af­ter the out­break of the 1950-53 Korean War as the United Na­tions-led multi­na­tional forces joined the war for South Korea. At that time, bira­cial peo­ple were treated bru­tally as the “ho­moge- neous” Korean society was not pre­pared to ac­cept di­ver­sity. The photos re­flect such a sad his­tory and the progress society has made.

Over the decades, Lee has abided by an un­com­pro­mis­ing prin­ci­ple he had set re­gard­ing man­age­ment of his pub­lish­ing com­pany — earn­ings from book sales will be rein­vested in pub­lish­ing books.

“It’s dif­fi­cult to run an un­prof­itable busi­ness. We are wrestling with a chronic deficit, partly be­cause the en­tire pub­lish­ing in­dus­try is strug­gling and de­mand for pho­to­books is not high. But this has not dis­cour­aged me from liv­ing up to my ini­tial com­mit­ment of dis­cov­er­ing tal­ented but un­known pho­tog­ra­phers,” he said. “It’s tough, but man­age­able.”

Lee says the joy of find­ing a “di­a­mond in the rough” is so great that he was able to run his busi­ness with­out much com­plaint for the past three decades.

“The best mo­ment of be­ing a pho­to­book pub­lisher is when my months- or years-long hard work even­tu­ally leads to the pub­li­ca­tion of books in a won­der­ful man­ner,” he says.

“There is an old Korean say­ing that hav­ing plenty of pearls is mean­ing­less un­less they are weaved for cer­tain jewelry prod­ucts. My job is sim­i­lar to that of jewelry mak­ers. Photos are mean­ing­ful only when they are or­ga­nized in ac­cor­dance with a cer­tain, con­sis­tent topic. Once I have done it with the pub­li­ca­tion of pho­to­books, I feel the im­mense joy of ful­fill­ment. The feel­ing is so great that it out­weighs all dif­fi­cul­ties or chal­lenges I had gone through all while I pulled to­gether the book pro­ject.”

He says pub­lish­ing pho­to­books is his call­ing.

“One shiny day in the late 1990s — about a decade af­ter I es­tab­lished my own pub­lish­ing com­pany — I came across a thought that I would never quit my busi­ness no mat­ter how tough it would be to run it. I don’t know why it came to me at that time though.”

When se­lect­ing photos for pub­li­ca­tion, Lee uses his own cri­te­ria. Each photo should dis­play a clear, con­sis­tent theme, be re­lated to Korea and show Korea’s or Kore­ans’ iden­tity. “Photos also need to be re­lated to Kore­ans, their way of life or tra­di­tion or his­tory,” he says.

His un­com­pro­mis­ing spirit has some­times pit­ted him against some es­tab­lished pho­tog­ra­phers who he says pri­or­i­tize the aes­thetic value of photos.

Lee de­scribes him­self as a rebel against main­stream pho­tog­ra­phy.

“Some peo­ple ask me why I don’t work with fa­mous pho­tog­ra­phers. Well... first of all they are al­ready fa­mous and they don’t need my help. Sec­ond of all, there’s a gap be­tween main­stream pho­tog­ra­phers and me re­gard­ing our def­i­ni­tion of au­then­tic photos,” he says.

Lee hinted that he and some es­tab­lished pho­tog­ra­phers dif­fer over their interpretation of what makes photos au­then­tic. “Pho­tog­ra­phers can be­come fa­mous if they take photos of fa­mous peo­ple,” he said, in­di­cat­ing fame is not the same as great­ness.

He cited pho­tog­ra­phy fea­tur­ing North Kore­ans as one of the ex­am­ples show­ing a rift be­tween him and oth­ers.

“We’ve seen many photos taken by pho­tog­ra­phers dur­ing their vis­its to North Korea. There are some typ­i­cal el­e­ments in those photos. The statue of the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, poor North Kore­ans, things like that,” he said.

He said such photos re­flect a “learned per­cep­tion” of the pho­tog­ra­phers and warned of its risks for doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phers.

“They took photos fea­tur­ing the statue of the North Korean leader or poor North Kore­ans be­cause they had a per­cep­tion that North Korea is a coun­try like this and naturally no­ticed scenes fea­tur­ing such im­agery,” he said.

“There’s sort of a ten­sion be­tween me and some pho­tog­ra­phers re­gard­ing the def­i­ni­tion of what makes photos au­then­tic. The rift is sub­tle, not out­stand­ing, but we have very dif­fer­ent views about photos. So in a way, my pho­to­book pro­ject has been sort of my en­deavor to chal­lenge main­stream pho­tog­ra­phers’ no­tions of au­then­tic photos.”

He said he would pub­licly raise the au­then­tic photo is­sue some­time in the fu­ture.

Cour­tesy of Byun Soon-cheol

Lee Kyu-sang, founder and pub­lisher of the Seoul-based pho­to­book pub­lisher Noon­bit Pub­lish­ing, poses with his arms wide in front of a pa­per board fea­tur­ing the time­line of the pub­lish­ing house’s 30-year his­tory at SPACE 22 in south­ern Seoul in Novem­ber.

Photos from Noon­bit Pub­lish­ing

In the left photo, Lee Kyu-sang, right, and edi­tor-in-chief of Noon­bit Pub­lish­ing pose to­gether at a book fair to cel­e­brate the pub­lish­ing house’s 30-year an­niver­sary in south­ern Seoul in Novem­ber. Lee Jae-gab’s 1993 photo “Kim Jong-cheol and his grand­mother,” right top, shows the tough life bira­cial Kore­ans have lived in Korean society. French doc­u­men­tary film­maker-pho­tog­ra­pher Chris Marker’s “Coreennes,” right bot­tom, was Noon­bit Pub­lish­ing’s first photo book pro­ject re­leased in 1989. Marker cap­tured or­di­nary North Kore­ans and their way of life dur­ing a trip to North Korea in 1958.

The late pho­tog­ra­pher Choi Min-shik’s “Bu­san” was taken in 1965. Choi was a Bu­san-based pho­tog­ra­pher who took photos of the poor­est of the poor. His photo book, “Hu­man,” was pub­lished in 2006.

Byun KBS’ long­est-run­ning Soon-cheol cap­tured pro­gram an un­named “Na­tional con­tes­tant Song Con- of test” in the east­ern coastal city of Sok­cho, Gang­won Prov­ince, in 2013. Like the man, con­tes­tants of the pro­gram are or­di­nary cit­i­zens, in­clud­ing housewives, wait­resses, farm­ers and restau­rant own­ers, and they dressed up with full hair and makeup for their tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances.

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