Am I Famous Yet?

Lessons learned about the responsibilities of a photographer and an artist

Earlier this year, as a part of My Life as the Local Foreigner series, I wrote a short article about my reasonings and methodologies behind travelling sustainably. In that article, I included a short section about the things of which one should be cognizant in order to be a respectable photographer:

The positive response to my photos reminded me to be aware of the ideas I perpetuated with my photos and that it had the possibility to do damage. Photos had to ability to shape the perspective of a place, and my responsibility went beyond creating something beautiful to producing work that was also socially and culturally aware. As photographers, we should be aware of the effects our work has on our subjects and on the people viewing them in order to minimize potential harm. It is the least we could do in return for our subjects’ cooperation.

I wrote the above not having ever affected my subjects before. That was due to the fact that I had never displayed my work in a public setting before and partially due to the fact that I had never produced any work that would have been seen by my subjects. When I had the chance to publicly exhibit my work last September, the ensuing drama that resulted from my shortcomings allowed me to grow as a photographer.

Mullae street at night from #문래동어딘가 (Somewhere in Mullae-dong)

Since returning to Korea last year, I had been intently working on my project, #문래동어딘가 (Somewhere in Mullae-dong), a photographic documentation of my arts-meets-industrial neighbourhood in Seoul. When I first lived in Seoul two years ago, I was fascinated by the rapid gentrification of the neighbourhood and my place within it. Although touted by the Seoul Government as an “art village,” Mullae was and is still primarily a metal working area. Artist studios and street art were mere additions. Still, that did not stop the influx of tourists photographing the metal workers as if they were on exhibit nor of artists and entrepreneurs looking for more affordable rent. Those working in the metal factories saw everything related to art as being harbingers of ruin to their blue-collar neighbourhood and refused to even consider having a discussion with artists, even those who had lived in Mullae for close to a decade. That divide fascinated me, and so I too took their images.

Other photos from the exhibition

My intention was not to fill my Instagram feed but to spark conversation about the adversarial relationship between the factory workers and the artists by photographing the workers during the night, a time supposedly dominated by the artists. I spent almost every night walking around Mullae-dong, taking candid portraits of factory workers wherever they could be seen from the street. Those not from the neighbourhood would think nothing of the combination and of the nature of street photography, but both the subjects and methodology behind this project were controversial because of existing tensions.

Most other galleries would have shied away from presenting such a contentious subject, but I was lucky to have known the owners of Bittarae, an established gallery in the heart of Mullae. Despite knowing the possible backlash to the display of my work, they believed in my intentions and gave the first iteration of the project, (The Night Belongs) To Artists, a place to be seen by its subjects and to facilitate discussion about the coexistence of opposing forces.

The exhibition, from opening to closing (top photos courtesy of Song Kwang-Chan)

Over the course of the exhibition, many factory workers came to see the work. Some were shocked and slightly upset upon first glance, but once they had to chance to understand the work, they became curious not only about the project but about my obsession with Mullae as well. Their response was overwhelmingly positive, unexpectedly, and I was grateful for their support. The factory workers were not the only ones fascinated by my work. A local carpenter was likewise impressed with my work, but her resulting support turned out to be a curse.

At the printers (top); My photos on display at the bar (bottom)

A few days before my exhibition, I passed out postcards as advertisement to many of the local restaurants and cafes. I stopped by a bar recently opened by a long-time local — someone who had come to me for design advice about said bar just a few weeks before. She was not present, and so I left the postcards with the manager and briefly explained to him the concept of my exhibition. After hearing what I had to say, he graciously added them to a table overflowing with other Mullae-related flyers. I invited him to come see my work (as I did with everyone) and left without thinking too deeply about our interaction. When I returned to the bar with a friend a few days later, I realized that a grave mistake had been made.

Instead of allowing people to take the postcards with them, the business decided to frame up a few and to call it art. My first reaction was to be irate at the fact that the owner had reappropriated my flyers this way and almost left without talking with her, but when she saw me leaving, she took me by the arm and happily explained to me her reasoning behind framing them.

Some residents and visitors were apparently interested in my work, and she decided that by displaying my work in a more “official” way, she was helping me by giving my work greater exposure. I felt that her intentions were pure, but that did nothing to resolve the fact that my rights as an artist had been violated. I told her that if she was interested in displaying my work, she should first come to my exhibition to understand it in detail. If she was still supportive of my work after learning about its meaning, then she could purchase official prints. Unfortunately, I never outright said “no” to the display of my work, and as a non-native speaker, she could not read between the lines of what I had said. By the end of the exhibition, she never came, never took down the images (and even moved them around to different parts of the space), and never contacted me. That is, until one of the photographed workers went to the establishment with a group of his friends.

The photo in question

Around 8:00 in the evening, sometime in the summer, I took the image of an engineer in Mullaedong 3(sam)-ga. He was listening to classical music at the loudest volume, as he always did, while reading something on his computer. What piqued my interest in that everyday moment was his foot propped up on the table, He was relaxing as if he were at home rather than at his office, and that moment reminded me how important factory workers were in the identity of Mullae.

Although the image was only of his foot, it was clear by the expensive music equipment on the work table whose foot it was. Upon seeing the framed postcard, his group of friends, engineers and factory workers, teased him incessantly about the image. I was never told the details of the teasing, but the owner of the bar told me that he was concerned that the image would spread on the internet and reproached her for using it without his permission.

The owner of the bar felt humiliated at being criticized in her own establishment and upset that the reputation of her business in the community had been damaged. Although she apologized, the engineer and his friends returned almost every night following the initial incident to reprimand her. I was out of the country at the time of the incident, and once I returned to Seoul, she demanded that I go to the bar so that she could make me apologize in person. Because it was my mistake in losing control of my work’s meaning that caused the engineer harm, I saw nothing wrong with apologizing, but I wanted to do it on my own terms. In our exchanges (with the bar’s manager as her translator), it felt as if we were approaching different problems. I was preoccupied with the engineer’s well-being and understanding of my project, while she was concerned with stopping the damage to her business.

I visited the engineer’s office with a c-print of his portrait taken on the same night as the one displayed and apologized as sincerely as I could to him with the few Korean words that I knew. I visited his office in the late afternoon, and when he came to the door, I gave him two deep bows. “죄송합니다 (I am sorry),” I said each time and handed him the photo. Because of the language barrier, he could only shake his head at me twice, and I left without being able to do any more.

Mullae street at night from #문래동어딘가 (Somewhere in Mullae-dong)

Upon visiting him, I considered closing this project and labeling it a failure since my work was used to hurt one of its subject. What was the point of my work if it could be misconstrued, twisted to become something that it was not supposed to be? I thought about what I could have done differently, but in the end, I realized that bubble-wrapping my work by avoiding potentially-offensive subjects or methodologies does nothing to safeguard against criticisms towards myself or my subjects. Rather than to seek approval from my audience, is it not better to pursue difficult questions and narratives I feel passionately for so that I can portray my subject with the respect that they deserve and have the strength to defend my work? If public opinion is my foremost concern, I would be better off as a politician rather than as an artist. This does not mean flaunting cultural and social mores in the name of art but rather being cognizant of the possible negative outcomes and using that information to better my work. Sometimes that means knowingly stepping over social and cultural boundaries and apologizing afterwards.

The entirety of our KakaoTalk conversation — Identifying information has been blurred to ensure the privacy of the business and those involved

After my first apology, I thought the problem had been resolved. I let the bar owner know that I talked to the engineer and then straightforwardly asked her to remove the photos to prevent any further misunderstandings. It was obvious that the meaning of my work was not being conveyed, and I was afraid that loss of meaning would continue to hurt others.

The following evening, I got the following message:

I heard that you visited him and beged for forgiveness at morning.
But, i want to ask you something about your claim.
Is that our fault? You said that we displayed your photography without your permission. 
At just to be clear, the photography that we displayed, that was from your brochure. You made it for everyone to see. I remembered that you took the brochures on our bulletin.
Through this incident, he came to us to protest and we are really suffered about that.
The key point of this incident is your fault ignoring their portrait rights, not displaying your photography in our space.
In future time, when you take photography, I hope that you should respect the portrait rights not only models, but also workers who wearing worn working clothes. Before taking photography, Keep in mind about permission.
In Mullae, Most of workers are really tired about taking photography without permission. Artists who work in Mullae, they know about this really well. So, thet want to make order between artists and local workers. Thid is really important for symbiotic realationship.
I think you should have a time for reflection of your wrongdoings lead to rock the boat named Mullae.

Although I understood her rage, I was shocked at her tone and her nearsightedness towards the situation. My methodology in producing these images were never hidden. Throughout the course of the exhibition, I explained to all attendees that the photographs were taken without permission but with sincere intentions. Although I meant no ill will towards the factory workers, the engineer and perhaps others perceived its meaning and motives differently, because they saw the pieces outside of their intended context.

An explanation of the project was posted for all to read as well as a take-home version

Context is a strange organism that has the power to mold whatever lives within it. Although street photography is still a genre approached with trepidation, those that understood the message of my exhibition did not reproach the method. They understood why I had to cross the boundaries that I did. When my postcards were reappropriated, turned into art pieces without its social message, unintended interpretations were allowed to rise. That is not to say that artworks should not be interpreted according to the differences of the viewers. Art’s power lies in interpretation, but if the lack of guidance should injure the subject, should the artist insist on taking control of its message? Documentary work like mine teeters between truth and trust; showing reality factually is important but so is the confidence between the photographer and subject. Although the engineer was an unwitting subject, I still had the responsibility to protect him. I had failed him by not saying “no” to the bar’s owner, and how I dealt with the consequences was my way of regaining his trust.

In requesting the ability to narrate my subjects’ stories, I am asking them to have faith in my intention to meaningfully convey their history and in my ability to protect them if it becomes necessary. If I cannot assure their confidence and defense throughout and after the photography and writing process, I will have failed in my role as an artist whose work is of a documentary nature. Although being an artist has always meant to me the ability to create on my own terms, the subjects too should have a say in what is revealed. If the subject chooses to reclaim editorial power, it is not that the subject was over-protective but that I will have failed as an artist to assure them of my intentions and reliability.

In the days following, I heard through the neighbourhood grapevine that he had not truly accepted my first apology since we could not communicate and continued to harass the business with his friends. I decided that another apology was necessary, but this time, with a friend who could translate for me. In addition, I wrote him a letter so that I could properly convey my sincere thoughts to him.

The hand-written letter handed to the engineer

In my letter, I did not want to ask him for forgiveness; I only wanted to explain to him why I decided to photograph that moment and what it taught me about the central role factory workers played and continue to play in the development of Mullae. That simple moment of relaxation epitomized for me the importance of factory workers in the survival of Mullae’s soul. I also wanted to clearly convey to him that I was sorry to have hurt him as a result of my artistic pursuits. Although it is sometimes necessary to push against accepted boundaries for the sake of art, its status as art does not excuse oneself from the consequences of its creation.

I took a day to compose and to write the letter (the complete contents can be found at the end of the article) and I met the engineer again with my close friend and Mullae business owner. Before I could hand him the letter, he opened up the conversation by saying how sorry he was for worrying me. After a few other local artists talked to him independently, he got a sense of what my project was about and understood that I had no ill intentions in displaying the work. When he first saw the image and was teased by his friends, he had no way to resolve the anger and humiliation he felt. The bar owner offered no explanation to him, only apologies, which meant nothing since she was not the artist. Once he learned more about me and the meaning behind my work, he did not blame me for the situation. He understood that the language and cultural barrier caused an unnecessary rift, and he emphasized in our conversation that he wanted to leave me with a positive impression of Korea. Other artists had told him that I had been traveling in Korea and staying in Mullae for quite some time; I was not just some ignorant tourist looking to exploit the area.

I found the opportunity to finally hand him the letter halfway through our conversation, but it seemed wholly unnecessary. He took a glance at it and ended our conversation by saying that I should not be a stranger while staying in Mullae-dong. He told me to greet him when I returned from my trip (I was about to leave for Jeju-do the very next day).

The business owner never contacted me again, but the engineer greeted me shyly when I brought him tangerines from Jeju-do upon my arrival back in Mullae-dong. The rest of the village stopped talking about the situation, save for a few times I was introduced to older members of the village. They would jest, “Ah, she is the Chinese-American photographer who had her exhibition at Bittarae.” Two such members, who were well-respected by both the artists and factory workers, requested that I include my images in the village archive so that my photographic documentation of Mullae and the ensuing incident could be preserved for future generations.

After the opening performances and artist talk (courtesy of Song Kwang-Chan)

It truly took a whole village, but the the situation came to a very peaceful end. This experience of navigating the consequences of my work has given me a framework by which to improve my operating principles as a artist. Most of all, it made me appreciate my relationship with Mullae-dong.

Although I was not born nor raised anywhere near Mullae-dong, I somehow ended up in this forgotten piece of Seoul and began to document the neighbourhood’s changes two years ago. Living there, I became integrated in the neighbourhood’s fabric and contributed to its continued changes. By displaying my work, causing controversy, and involving everyone in the village, I wove myself into fabric of Mullae-dong. No work ever exists in a vacuum; it changes its subjects and its creator even unintentionally. Mullae-dong and I were constantly changing each other in my process to document it; the alterations in our beings affected our understanding of each other, muddling what was and what is. No record, even photography, is truly an objective fact. It captures a real moment, and along with it, the intricate history and relationships that have led up to it. As I have realized through this drama, the existence of context sometimes leads to many difficulties for the artist and the subjects, but those complications are what make the work worth defending. It is not just an aesthetic expression but a purposeful record filled with the many layers that exist in reality.

The contents of the letter:

Dear Engineer,
I would like to apologize to you once again. I know you were hurt by my image of you in your work space and my apology two days ago was not enough. I am now writing to you to address some concerns you had.
Firstly, I was told that you were concerned that I perhaps took images of proprietary information like blueprints, but be assured that I did not. I also worked as a city planner and engineer and would never knowingly cause you trouble.
Secondly, it was not my intention to display your photo at [redacted] and to cause you harm. The image was a part of a project to talk about the tension between engineers and artists and the trouble of gentrification in Mullae. That was the intention of the image. I intended for people to come to the exhibition and to hear about the problems in Mullae. People were not supposed to see the images on their own without having a deeper discussion. The owner of [redacted] and I had a misunderstanding, which has caused this situation to grow in severity.
Thirdly, I wanted to assure you that the images were taken with no ill will. I have been living in Mullae for cumulatively almost one year now. I know very well the problems within Mullae, and I did not intend to hurt the very people have built Mullae. Perhaps you were wondering why I chose to take your image over others.
Every day, as I walk home, I pass by your office and see you working and enjoying music. To me, the photo epitomized the importance of factory workers in the existence of Mullae. Mullae is not only your work space but your home and livelihood. It was wrong of me to violate the sanctity of it in the way I did. I know there is continued tension between artists and workers and my work was meant to be a discussion, a reminder for artists to appreciate the engineers and metalworkers that created the space we know as Mullae. I understand from your indignation that my method was insufficient.
Perhaps that does not make sense to you, and perhaps you do not care because you are already mad at artists for taking away space from the factory workers, and that is understandable. I do not expect you to understand, and I am not asking you to forgive me. I do not deserve that. I simply wanted to explain my intention to you. What you make of it is your own decision. There is nothing much I can do other than to apologize, but if there is something else you had in mind, please let me know your thoughts.
Yolanta Siu

And the Korean version translated by a fellow neighbourhood artist and friend:

다시 한 번 사장님께 정중히 사과 드립니다.
사장님의 작업모습을 찍은 사진 때문에 느끼셨을 불편함과 언짢음에 대해 다시 사과의 말씀을 전합니다. 이틀 전 저의 사과가 충분치 않았다는 것도 잘 알고 있습니다. 그런 의미에서 사장님께서 느끼셨을 우려를 떨쳐 드릴 수 있기를 바라며 몇 가지 설명을 드리고자 편지를 씁니다.
우선 첫 번째로 제가 찍은 사진에 작업 설계도 등의 작업 관련 정보가 행여 찍히진 않았을까 우려하신다는 말씀 들었습니다. 하지만 그 점은 정말 일말의 걱정도 않으셔도 된다는 확인을 드리고자 합니다. 저 역시 도시계획자와 엔지니어로의 경험이 있는지라 알면서도 사장님께 그런 문제를 끼칠 여지는 전혀 남겨놓지 않았습니다.
또한 [redacted]에 사장님의 사진이 진열되어 사장님께 해를 끼치게 된 것은 전혀 저의 의도가 아니었습니다. 제 작업의 의도는 문래동의 엔지니어분들과 작가들 사이에 월세 상승 이라던지, 문래의 상업화 등 때문에 생기는 미묘한 긴장감을 좀 객관적으로 표현해보자… 라는 것이었습니다.
사람들이 전시에 방문해서 문래에 현재 일어나고 있는 문제들에 대해 들을 수 있는 기회를 마련해보자는 그것이 작업 진행에 있어서 저의 의도였습니다. 문래의 전체적 상황에 대한 설명이나 작업 의도가 전달되지 않은 상황에서 사람들이 그저 사진들만 보게 되는 것은 원래는 저의 의도와는 거리가 있었습니다.
[redacted]의 최목수와 저 사이의 의사소통에 문제가 있어서 생긴 일로 상태가 심각해 지는 데 일조한 것 같습니다. 다음으로, 사진 작업이 진행 된 것은 정말 전혀 나쁜 의도가 1%도 없이 진행된 거라는 걸 알려드리고 싶습니다. 재작년부터 왔다 갔다 하면서 제가 문래동에서 생활한 시간만 합치면 근 1년의 시간이 넘습니다.
문래동의 문제들에 대해 저도 잘 알고 있으며 문래동을 재건하신 분들께 상처를 주는 것은 정말 제가 원한 일이 아니었습니다.
사장님께서는 다른 수 많은 엔지니어 분들도 많은데 왜 하필이면 사장님 사진을 찍었나 하는 의문을 가지실 수도 있다는 생각이 듭니다.
저는 매일 집으로 걸어가면서 사장님의 작업실을 지나가며 사장님이 작업을 하시면서도 항상 음악을 즐기시는 그 모습을 보며 지나치곤 했습니다.
사장님의 사진은, 저 개인적으로는, 문래의 존재와 정체성에 있어서 엔지니어와 공장 사장님들의 중요성을 가장 완벽하게 보여줄 수 있는 모습으로 비춰졌었습니다.
문래는 엔지니어 분들께 단순한 작업공간일 뿐 아니라 삶의 터전 그 자체라고 생각했기 때문입니다. 하지만 제 의도와는 상관없이 사장님의 삶의 터전을 침해 한 것은…
정말 제가 잘못한 부분입니다.
작가와 엔지니어분들 사이에 지속적으로 약간의 마찰이 있는 것을 저도 알고 있었고, 저는 사실 제 작업을 통해 작가들에게 문래라는 공간을 형성시켜 준 엔지니어 분들과 철제 사업에 대해 감사함을 표현하는 계기를 만들어주는 대화의 창을 형성하고 싶었습니다. 하지만 사장님이 느끼실 불쾌함을 미리 고려를 못했고 제 작업 방식이 적절치 못했다는 것을 이해하게 되어 다시 사과의 말씀 드립니다.
사장님께서 이 상황을 이해해 주시는 것은 무척 어려운 일이시겠지만 용서 여부와 상관 없이 저는 제 의도만이라도 사장님께서 알아주시기를 바라는 마음으로 편지를 썼습니다. 사실 편지를 드리는 것 외에 제가 할 수 일이 뭔지 저도 몰라 우선 이렇게 편지를 드립니다. 편지를 보고 판단은 사장님께 맡길 수 밖에 없지만 혹시라도 사장님의 심려를 풀 수 있는 방법이 혹여나라도 있다면 저에게 꼭 말씀 부탁드립니다. 마음의 불편함을 드려 다시 한 번 사과 드립니다.
욜란타 시우 드림