[Eye Interview] Famous photographer MJ Kim forms a lens on ordinary people

MJ Kim stands in front of his photographic portraits of ordinary people. (MJ Kim)

The life of photographer MJ Kim has been a roller coaster ride. From studying filmmaking in London to getting a job with singer Paul McCartney, a partnership that would last over 10 years, taking pictures of ordinary people and directing an award-winning short, Kim, 49 years old, did it all. With irrepressible optimism and enthusiasm.

A gentle bossa nova tune is played in Kim’s studio, her “man cave”, in Seoul’s trendy Seongsu-dong district. The white walls of the high-ceilinged room are covered in photographs – a portrait of a metallurgist from Euljiro who has become a good friend, still lifes of garbage (he’s planning a still life exhibit of the garbage he produces) and, of course, portraits of instantly recognizable international celebrities.

“Today is an important topic. The way we live today may change tomorrow, ”Kim said of the title of her next show. He tentatively titled the show, which records the transformation of the US military base at Yongsan into a park, “Remembering the Past and Dreaming About Tomorrow, Watching Today.” It is inspired by a line by the great Indian playwright Kalidasa, he explained. “I realized that investing today is the only safe investment for a change tomorrow, when I was on the verge of reaching my fiftieth,” he said. “Now every day is precious.”

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” says a saying. And that’s exactly what Kim has done with her life which, according to her own account, has seen its fair share of ups and downs.

After failing to enter college in Korea, he ended up studying cinema in London. When his lack of fluency in English became a major obstacle while working on group projects required for film studies, he took a detour into photography, just so he could earn course credits.

“There was no need to be stressed about English,” he said. “I could take pictures on my own and go to a dark room to make prints, on my own. As he dabbled in photography, the 1997 Asian financial crisis hit and he had to drop out of school.

He took odd jobs to stay in the UK and was eventually hired as a photo intern at a small news agency. “I didn’t have a dream or passion for photography at the time. At first it was just a way to survive, ”he said.

Singer Paul McCartney (MJ Kim)

Singer Paul McCartney (MJ Kim)

Then came the celebrity boom of the early 2000s. He had just moved into the Press Association when there was a sudden explosion of information about entertainment. “Journalists didn’t really like covering show business news. I volunteered to do it because for me it was about survival, ”Kim said of her early days as a celebrity photographer. Very quickly, he found himself working on the red carpets of Cannes, the Oscars and the Venice festival.
Actor Natalie Portman (MJ Kim)

Actor Natalie Portman (MJ Kim)

He then began to make portraits of lesser-known actors at festivals, less busy, and became interested in portrait photography.

He then joined Getty Images where he continued to explore portrait photography of the rich and famous.

Actor Johnny Depp (MJ Kim)

Actor Johnny Depp (MJ Kim)

That Kim is a celebrity photographer is a well-known fact, but that he recently took portraits of ordinary Koreans is perhaps less well known.

It all started with a six-month project commissioned by Baedal Minjok, a delivery application company, to photograph workers in the Euljiro area, once a bustling area of ​​small metal and other workshops. The region has seen better days and the skilled workers who were the lifeblood of the secondary industry are largely on the way out.

Kim said he would accept the offer on the condition that the company pays for his accommodation in Euljiro and meals with the workers. He lived among the potential subjects of his photographs and for the first three to four months he was content to eat and drink with the workers, getting to know them.

He then identified himself as a photographer and said he would like to take pictures of people in Euljiro. He began to use a film camera rather than a digital camera. “It didn’t feel right to use a digital camera to film, review and delete too easily when I saw their wounds and their fingers cut off,” he said.

Photographing celebrities usually involved taking photos that made them look beautiful, Kim said. But photographing ordinary people was something else.

It involved a lot of questions and answers and ultimately in-depth conversations developed with the subjects. “People opened up without realizing it. They would talk about things they hadn’t talked about with others and start to cry, ”Kim said.

With their emotions drawn this way, Kim saw expressions he had no intention of creating.

The Euljiro project led to a 1,000 employee photography project at Baedal Minjok and other similar projects at Samsung Semiconductor and Naver Labs.

“I started to realize that taking photos while communicating with people can be the essence of portrait photography,” Kim said. “Now I sit with each person for 20 to 30 minutes, just the two of us. No one else is allowed in, ”Kim said, comparing her photoshoot to one with a psychologist.

The simplest but most important thing in portrait photography is empathy, Kim said. In this respect, the course of his own life is a great asset. As he overcame the many challenges in his life, he experienced setbacks and setbacks, made mistakes, experienced success, and suffered indignity and embarrassment. And all these experiences endowed him with a great capacity for empathy.

While photographing ordinary people, Kim feels that she has created a happy memory for them. “When they are tired and discouraged, they can look at the photo of themselves with a bright smile and tell themselves that they have happy memories and find solace. Maybe they will find the courage to pull themselves together, try a little more. I hope my photographs will do it for them, ”Kim said.

In Kim’s experience, when one door closes another opens.

When the pandemic struck and the world stopped, Kim finally found time to work on his passion that had been put on the back burner as he traveled the globe with celebrities.

He is now working to transform his award-winning short “Juicy Girl,” based on the brutal murder of a Korean woman by an American soldier in 1992, which was completed just before the pandemic, into a feature film.

By Kim Hoo-ran ([email protected])

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