Uncovering History from Lingering Invisibility: Berlin Portraits by Oksun Kim
Lee Phil
A Persistent Gaze

Oksun Kim’s Berlin Portraits is a series of portraits of former Korean nursing women living in Berlin captured in a straightforward style of documentary photography. In the center of the frame of each photograph, Korean women from their mid-60s to 70s are sitting against the backdrop of the interior space of their respective homes. Their eyes are on camera with a detached gaze and reserved emotions. According to Kim, the viewers of these photographs can experience a moment of ‘contact’ with women in the images. Mediated through a viewfinder, the gaze of those women living in Berlin meets Kim’s gaze who came over from South Korea to visit them. Now, their gazes enter the context of the exhibition space and confront the viewers who are standing at the point that was once occupied by the artist and her camera.

Compared to painted portraits, photographed portraits give us the sensation of seeing an actual object rather than a fictive one. As we observe Berlin Portraits, we experience them as if we were meeting the emigrated Korean nurses in person. Through Kim’s eyes, we meet these women ourselves. Most photographers provide us with such an illusory experience of coming into contact with the object, yet the intensity varies. Whereas portraits by some photographers seem to be as shallow and volatile as the surface of ink/print, others render the person’s presence so deep and intense to the extent of making the viewer forget the fact that photography is indeed a flat medium. The distinctive physical presence of Korean female nurses against the blurred background reinforces this sensation of direct contact, as if they were sitting in front of our own eyes.

The viewer’s sense of contact derives initially from their gaze. The women in the large-scale, almost life-size prints are watching the viewers with blank expressions, but their mute gaze is tenacious. There is nowhere for the viewers to escape from their penetrating gaze, standing in front of their life-size and vivid presences. Especially when standing in the middle of the exhibition space, the viewer is surrounded by persistent gazes, inundating from every side. Where does this stern sense of presence staring at the viewer derive from? This mysterious sense of the photographic portrait could be generically called its aura. In early portrait photography, according to Walter Benjamin, there was an aura around the character, a medium that lent fullness and stability to the viewer’s gaze inasmuch as it penetrated the character, and the technical equivalent to this aura was the absolute continuum from brightest light to darkest shadow.

As photographic technology experienced groundbreaking innovations in comparison to its early stage, Kim’s photographic aura is something different from what Benjamin identified. The aura of Berlin Portraits originates from the presence of gestalt, the form as a unified whole, that discloses the actual material properties of the female body. The vividly transferred textures of the models’ faces and bodies expose the traces of time and incidents accumulated throughout their lives. The mute expression on their faces exposes the wrinkles and texture of their skin in detail, together with the sediments of time engraved on their hands, feet and the entire body. Against the backdrop of the continuum of light and shadow that gradually blurs throughout the foreground, middle distance and background, the solid presence of the figure is emphasized even more. The silent gaze of the woman with her rigorous presence in the photograph demands something from her viewers. The viewers, rather than experiencing fullness and stability in their gaze toward the image, are startled in turn by the women’s gazes penetrating their bodies. Who are these women? The Korean nurses seem to tell us how they lived through history, how they cultivated their own terrain in a foreign place as a minority and how they now stand alone with their own integrity. Standing alone in the unfamiliar space of an exhibition, one cannot but surrender to their piercing gazes sitting on their chosen most comfortable spot in their homes.

The Unknown and the Familiar: Substantiality of Cultural Hybrids

The uncanny feeling that their almost empty expressions gives us is hard to describe. Certainly they are Korean women entering advanced age, yet they appear as Others, rather unknown than familiar to Koreans. Their lives, that had to be settled as Others outside the Korean society which they came from, were far different from those of their female contemporaries who resided in South Korea. As Germans with Korean appearance, the grounds for their families and lives are in Germany. Their Otherness is dual, as a Korean minority in Germany and as overseas Koreans in South Korea. In their appearance, we see the mingling of strength, dignity and the pain of alien life in Germany, which they had to endure as women from the a less economically developed country.

What motivated Kim to focus on retired Korean female nurses in Berlin was her participation in the Women Who Transcended Boundaries exhibition (2017), which was held at Seoul Museum of History on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the emigration of Korean female nurses to Germany. After meetings and lectures with three women from Berlin who visited Seoul, Kim aspired to photograph their present lives. This motivation appears natural, considering Kim herself has long been interested in hybridity, heterogeneity, alienation, and standing alone as a woman. Born shortly after the Korean Liberation, female nurses around their 20s headed off to Germany to find jobs. Due to the Japanese colonial era and the aftermath of the Korean War, Korean society of the 1960s was highly unstable economically. Meanwhile, one can imagine the actual issues of Germany accepting Korean female workers’ immigration in unprecedented numbers, while the awareness around immigrant workers was still greatly lacking. Discrimination in the workplace, and complications in marriage, childbirth and obtaining temporary or permanent resident permits were inevitable. Being alienated from the land where they settled as well as unprotected by the underdeveloped homeland, these female workers had to learn to stand alone, raise their voices and reorganize their lives in the face of the legal system. They established their own associations, opened up discussions on Korean women’s social position, legal terms and the problems of nursing staffs in claiming their rights, opposing discrimination and becoming independent subjects. They relied on each other, and became powerful as a result of endurance and resistance. As their situation improved, they moved on to social movements reaching out for people with similar needs. They were proud Koreans who survived history, capable of protecting their dignity and leading independent lives irrespective of their marginalized and alienated position.

After years of hardship and having made their livings, they finally sit in a comfortable spot in their homes for the female artist from South Korea who arrived with the wish to document them. Having spent 20 years in Korea, then 50 years in Germany, cultural hybridity naturally permeated their daily lives. In BNP_8717GR, a woman in loose attire sits relaxed holding her right leg to her chest. As the viewers’ eyes follow the sky blue pedicure on her right big toe, they can soon reach a postcard of a buddhist statue leaning against the wall. The illustrated Gilt-bronze Maitreya in Meditation, one of the Korean National Treasures, is a sign which informs the viewers about her identity. Likewise, there are many signs of cultural hybridity to be found in Berlin Portraits: A small gyojasang [Korean traditional dinner table] in a corner within a German house, a fan in saekdong [five cardinal colors] neatly hung next to a cello, and the appearance of a woman in a modernized hanbok [traditional costume] of pastel color with her hair fixed with binyeo [ornamental hairpin], radiating her Korean beauty at the most. However, even without these studium denoting obvious cultural interpretations, the hybridity and the dual Otherness of these women are self-evident. Therefore, Kim’s photography discloses the hybridity deeply rooted in their faces, postures and entire physicalities above all. It activates the reading of their existences and presences as signs of cultural hybridity and dual Otherness.

Social Documentary and ‘Fluid Typology’

By definition, Berlin Portraits belongs to the genre of social documentary. Since the notion of documentary is extensive, almost every type of photography can be perceived to be documentary in the sense of recording. In the same light as social documentary in general, it could be understood as a case of using photography with the aim to describe the real world and the people dwelling in it. Social documentary goes beyond the dimension of simple documentation and structures empirically the notion of the public sphere through social experience. Jacob A. Riis and Lewis Hine, pioneers of such documentary tradition, mobilized photography to expose and spread the truths behind social problems. This tradition was succeeded by New Objectivity in Germany where August Sander laid the foundations of a typological model of photographic portraiture that dealt with the figure’s social role as its principle. Social documentary connects what we visually see to the knowledge of it. Berlin Portraits is a social documentary in the sense that by showing the current appearance of Korean female nurses in Berlin, it informs us of the history of hardships, struggle, and achievement they went through as well as the service and dedication they demonstrated along the way.

Kim’s chosen method to reveal the truth of a social minority from a specific group is typology. Sander’s typology was formulated in Bernd and Hilla Becher’s strict formalism of neutrality, frontality and repetition. In the pursuit of approaching the object in a neutral and objective way, Kim adopted the frontal, neutral and inexpressive style. She appropriates the mode of documenting without the artist’s subjective projection, representing objects of similar type enumerated and repeated in an identical way. Nonetheless, by granting the models freedom of posture and not applying identical composition strictly to every figure, Kim’s could be called a ‘fluid typology.’ The neutrality and typological mode of display of Berlin Portraits unfolds Korean female nurses’ hybrid identity and establishes the historical and social context around them. The series of portraits presented as groups operate as a revision of the awareness about the social position of the Other they had to endure with no other option as an individual as well as the dual identity and cultural hybridity that they were destined to accept in-between South Korea and Germany. At the same time, it also calls for social recognition and institutional strategies to solve the recent problems of immigrant women in Korea.

Significance in Korean Feminist Art History

What will Korean men feel facing their gazes? It is significant to consider how these women from their mid-60s to 70s are documented in art photography that arouses individual interest in viewers, going beyond the dimension of simple historical records. Undoubtedly, Korean history has been written in a male-centered manner. Whether intended or not, Kim is writing a history of empowered women who kept their integrity in their own places without surrendering to any kind of humiliation or the actual difficulties in the male-centered society. The stern sense of presence that Kim’s photography gives to their lives that had been eclipsed by invisibility grants a certain value that no plain archive of history could. Through Kim’s art photography, the presence and strong vitality of Korean female nurses in Berlin, who shared the burden of Korean history but under the leadership of male subjects, finally gained their recognition in history.