Our photographer of the month is a South Korean photographer by the name of Jun Ahn. Jun Ahn became most famous in 2008 for her Self-Portrait solo exhibition.
Photographs emerged of her standing at the edge of skyscrapers and other tall structures. In one very short instant, her work was everywhere, including the South China Morning Post, British Journal, The Washington Post, and even shown in Saint Petersburg. Using a digital camera while studying at a Ph.D. program in New York, Jun Ahn helps viewers literally stand at the edge of a void.
In this interview, we will examine the ideas behind her work and what the naked eye is missing as we use photography as a medium.
Talk about your Self Portrait Series. What inspired this type of Self Portraiture? How has your life changed since?
Self-Portrait (2008-2013) is the first work project after choosing my major as photography in school. I define my work as “a kind of performance without audience hence only to be photographed (the sentence is a part of my artist statement of the project Self-Portrait (2008-2013).”
First, it is about my definition of ‘time.’ It started from one summer day in 2008 on the apartment’s rooftop where I lived at that time in New York. At the moment, while I was watching the cityscape, I thought the future was like the spectacle of cityscape seen from the rooftop, since the vision was in front of me, although the physical object is too far away to reach.
In contrast, I thought the rooftop where I stood was like ‘the past’ because the structure made me have that vision. However, it cannot be changed even if I regret it. Hence I approached the edge of the building because I thought what is between them is ‘the present.’ When I looked down at the edge of the building, I felt the wind blowing from the bottom. I felt like I saw the void, the empty space. At that moment, I came across the thought, ‘the present is the void between the past and the future.’
From this perspective, I tried to visualize the void, empty space. I chose the edge of high-rise buildings as a space for the project since it metaphorically shows how I see the time. We fill in the void with something from the past or something for the future, and an infinite combination of the process of that effort of filling the void is the narrative of life.
On Self-Portrait, there are many pictures of my feet dangling in the air; I liked to portray my feet stepping onto the void-the present. From the day that I started the project until now, in 2008, I was in New York, but now in Seoul, I was a student, but now I am teaching, I was single, but now I am married, I didn’t think I could make my living as an artist, but now I am.
However, I still don’t think my life really ‘changed.’ The project helped me define time as an artist, and the period of processing the project itself inspired me to expand my work to further directions.
What is the role of a self-portrait photographer in today’s society?
Self-portraiture is one of the best ways to deliver one’s identity to your spectators. It’s also a way for the artist himself/herself to discover themselves. Self-portraiture is not limited to photography; we also find all forms of self-portrait throughout the history of the human race. Through the experience of watching and getting to know about backgrounds, it eventually makes us better understand the lives of others in another society, ethnicity, and even another time period in history.
Which self-portrait photographers (artists) inspire you?
I love Claude Cahun’s self-portrait. I was introduced to her work when I was working part-time as a translator. Some introductory writing describes her self-portrait as surrealistic due to her artistic background or composition, but it looked so realistic to me to embody inner struggle. Dieter Appelt and Ana Mendieta, in terms of my perspective about the relationship between performance and photography and the artist’s body and nature.
Do you have any regrets in your photography career?
I had a very long period of hesitation before I chose to live as a photographer. I consider I am one of the lucky people whose childhood dream came true since my childhood dream was to be an artist. (It is also lucky that my dream was not “a great artist”, if it were the case, I may not reach this goal during my lifetime.)
As I remember, I was about 7 when I realized the happiest time for me was when I was creating something such as a drawing or cutting paper. However, at the same time, I thought that I could not be an artist because I had a fear of showing my work to others.
In South Korea, teachers used to hang up ‘well-done class work’ on the wall at the back of the classroom. It was a very happy but, at the same time, nervous moment for me. Whatever the root is, I had a fundamental fear that my work would be mocked or an object of ridicule. I felt like I needed to vomit when I imagined someone passing by my work.
Hence I gave up on being an artist since I love to make works but had so much fear to show them to others at the same time. So I choose art history as my undergraduate major because I still wished to be around the discourse of art.
A few years later, during my junior year, I started to wish to make my own work, despite all of my worries. From my perspective, during my undergraduate studies, art became a kind of language, including every kind of perception.
I wished to be an artist who uses visual language. The next question of an art history major student was what medium would fit for me. Hence I started taking studio courses as much as I could: painting, sculpture, ceramic, drawing, etc. Among them, photography fascinated me the most. The feature of the medium itself was very paradoxical to me.
In my photography class, I found that I pressed a shutter based on my visual observation and decision. There were so many things I could not perceive at that time. The decision of framing is mostly conceptual, and the process is mechanical. Also, the range of phenomenon that the camera can capture has a huge gap compared to your visual perception. Those features of the medium made me really interested in photography.
When I look back at my short pathway as a photographer, there are many moments that I could have done better. But this idea comes to my mind because I ‘looked back.’
Advice for budding self-portrait photographers?
Actually, I used my body as a performer because I had no choice in my Self-Portrait series(2008-2013). I wished to create tension in the space, the edge of buildings. I decided to make a self-portrait as a moral choice about ‘who will be at the edge for the work.’ I did not think about this issue at that time.
My advice would be to remind people to think about their body, self, and identity itself as a very precious subject. Lastly, I think it is a good idea to have a certain period of not listening to other people’s advice and concentrating on your own thinking.
At the present moment, what projects are you working on?
I have been investigating the hidden structure of the world beyond our visual perception throughout several project-based works using high-speed photography. I’ve also been working on much project-based work besides self-portrait in terms of subject matter.
However, for this question, I will focus on self-portrait because recently, I’ve made some new work since quitting in 2013.
I did a series of work after losing my grandmother in her empty house and garden after her funeral. Due to social distancing caused by COVID19, our family could not say goodbye to her.
The year 2020 went without holding hands, hugging, and kissing less due to the fear of disease. I recalled that my grandmother once said a long time ago, “when the frozen pond is melted with warm air, it is spring.”
I made a fire with the dry leaves of last fall on the ice in my grandmother’s empty garden and pond with my condolences. In Korea and many other Asian countries, cremation is not unusual. We burn the clothes of the dead person after the funeral.
Linguistically, in Korean, we call ‘death’ as ‘return.’ I think one’s life is a phenomenon thrown in the void without reason, a free fall in the air, and ends when it hits the ground. The physical body returns to the earth, and the soul ascends to the starting point.
You can discover more work by Jun Ahn on her Instagram and as well as her website. Even more, if you want to buy her book and more of her work, they are available online. We hope that you can find your own creative voice by discovering the art and reality of South Korean photographer Jun Ahn. Thanks to Jun Ahn for the time and advice given in this article.