Oksun Kim's Photographs of Couples
Chan-gyeong Park
Just as we don't use expressions such as "national marriage", and "international family", the term "international marriage" seems a little awkward if you look at it more closely. Depending on how you look at it, it may even seem like two nations have gotten married. On the other hand, these marriages have nothing that makes them strange, but, yet, they become something special from social customs and prejudice. Likewise, Kim's photographs of couples become something special from the way they are viewed by various people. This refers to the way the photographs are viewed after being filtered by the prejudice of ultranationalistic Koreans (men), and views that are conscious of such views. Although it is believed that there has been tremendous improvement in such matter, men are wishing to rebuke Korean women who married foreigners as "whores", and women are hiding such thoughts inside of them and still manage to work in the secret like guardians. Even people who are thought to be relatively reasonable and generous will not easily give an approval to their children to have an international marriage. Even if there is a viewer who is not bounded by such prejudice, it is difficult to completely forget that such views exist as one looks at the photographs.

The Photo series Oksun Kim showed at her exhibition with the title "Happy Together"(Alternative Space Pool, 2002) and the following New York exhibition on photographs of couples are clearly an objective criticism on such ideologic views and social-cultural prejudice. It is not that the photographs themselves are objective, but that it is hard to find any exaggerated expression in the photographs. This is true in the setting, pose, and lighting. Also, there is no specific visual equipment used in technical aspects such as selection of lens. Instead, we are faced with the physical and psychological distance between the limited number of individuals inside the frame (usually two, but sometimes three or four including the children), and the typical silence drifting in the indoors. Therefore, it seems as though Oksun Kim's objectivity is not looking for excessive evaluation on values such as prejudice, but it is looking for the neutral zone or the gray area where such evaluation of values do not apply. This is why some photographs have no familiarity and just become stylized like the modern drama. Of course, most pictures are not about heart-touching love between married couples and couples living together, but it is definitely not trying to simply show the dragging relationship between hetrosexual and homosexual couples. What Oksun Kim's photograph captures can be thought of as a family under a special system. International marriages are part of the family system, but adversely, it is sometimes expanded to the ordinary families because an international marriage is an system that can lead to aspects of the typical family problems.

Therefore, we can consider two things when looking at Oksun Kim's photographs. First is the international marriage, a problem in specialized levels, and next is problems related to families in general. All of the problems related to the general family system cannot all be discussed. However, Kim's question - "Are the gaps existing in international marriages cultural or personal?" - can be applied to not only the couples in international marriages but also to the couples in ordinary marriages. In fact, it will take an eternity if one had to find out where the personal bonds are created in all of the gaps. For example, were does a cultural gap end and where does the personal gap start? Moreover, among cultural gaps, where are the finish and start lines for western and eastern, American and German, Gyeong-sang provincial and Jeolla provincial, aristocratic and common, and masculine and feminine?

One cannot find any clear answers in Oksun Kim's photographs and, of course, one does not ask for the answers in them. The subjects seen in the photographs are "unredeemably individualistic individuals". We live amongst astoundingly repeated chatty products about love in the modern society, however, it is difficult to believe in the inevitability in that love or marriages definitely had to come to these couples. Instead, from these photographs, we just confirm the fact that these couples decided to either get married or live together. We do not know whether their 'international marriages' were hard-won or not, and whether the individual's great bonding is created over racial, sexual, and social gaps or not. However, when one step aside from the certain social conventional wisdom and special point of view, or from the problems surrounding the law and the system on international marriage, and step into the personal relationship problems, one will not be able to assert that it is either particularly more complex or completely different from those involving ordinary married couples and couples living together.
From Oksun Kim's photographs, I hear this: "One truth that allows an individual to talk about one of the group culture - the family system - is that it "happened" to us." This is not a matter of ethics such as good or bad and happiness and unhappiness, but it is a matter of existence.

Therefore, the important thing is not about providing information about the private lives of the couples, decoding the code, or narrating various guesses made about it, but it is about facing a particular situation. Facing the fact that an system of "marriage or cohabitation that crossed racial and national borders" did happen to them and the situation that it is happening inside their homes. Since it is a photographic characteristic to let the viewers see what has already been seen by someone else, the functions of such "counterview" might be elemental to photographs. However, in Oksun Kim's photographs, there are more strategic counterview than the one simply given in the photograph.
The photographer herself is in an international marriage, and she reveals that she started to take these photographs to look back at her life and to heal herself. This is why she made sure that the women in the photographs, or one person in a homosexual couple always look straight at the photographer. The first counterview comes between the photographer and the woman posing for the photograph - an individual and an individual. Therefore, it is not only the photographer who faces the situation, but the women in the photograph faces the photographer. The viewers automatically look from the photographer's view, and their eyes meet the eyes of the individual in the picture. This is similar to Brecht's play in which the situation on the stage is stopped by an abrupt appearance of a third person. The only difference here is that all of the stopping is made by not everyone, but just one person who is selected by the photographer. This is more like a by-speech in a play where one character in the play says something to the audience, and other character cannot hear what that character is saying - a type of a technique for encouraging the audience's participation.

The key is the content of this by-speech. What are these people saying to me? Since a photograph is not a play, it is obvious that it does not say anything in language. Instead, they are staring at something. It can be said that they are looking at the outside beyond the relatively small cohabiting space that they belong to. This is true in the sense that the lens and film that they are actually looking at are a imaginative mirror, and it can also be extended to be true in figurative and metaphorical sense. That outer space indicates that such marriage or cohabitation did not have to happen, and that since this marriage happened to me as one form of a system, it might have not happened, and the fact that the existence of "I"(the person looking at the photograph) is not limited to only this space(the actual space, systematical space, etc.). In other words, the reason is that as a viewer facing the individual, I am looking at the individual in a space separated from that of that individual. The space that the individual is in is the space of "international marriage", of just "marriage", of a wife and a mother, kitchen, bedroom, and living room. This person is separated by rising from the third-person to the first-person and we cannot use the pitiful name, international marriage, to him/her as conveniently as before.

Chan-gyeong Park (Author, Critic)
BACK TO LIST