Forgetting Beings.

Oh Hyoung-kuhn’s American

Looking at the pictures Oh Hyoung-kuhn produced in America between 1989
and 1992, the period in which he was studying film and photography there, we
are reminded of an experience of watching a movie. Some of those appearing
in this movie resemble the country singer Woody Guthrie or Frank Sinatra. We
can also find the painter Salvador Dali. It is up to you the readers to find out
about whom in Oh Hyoung-kuhn’s pictures they correspond to. If you mobilize
your deja-vuesque imagination, you will be able to find more actors or singers.
The background is a country village of Ohio and Kentucky and New Orleans of
Louisiana. What happens there can appear weird, funny, or strange to you.
But why are those people who have nothing to do with real actors and
actresses look like them? What does it mean that photographs invoke scenes
from a movie? Doesn’t it reveal some uncanny truth about the very fact of
“seeing,” which is too common and natural to us? At this juncture, we have to
think about the truth that haunts the photograph so tenaciously, the fact that it
records the indexical trace of something that has once really existed before our
eyes. In spite of theoretical tropes characterizing today’s images in general,
such as virtual or hyper reality, the indexical nature of photography always
bears some weight upon us. Let us unburden ourselves of that weight while
looking at Oh Hyoung-kuhn’s photographs.
To Korean readers who are not accustomed to American customs and
culture, what happens in Oh Hyoung-kuhn’s photographs should surely look
strange. For to Koreans, America is better known through tourist stereotypical
images such as skyscrapers of New York City, manors of Beverly Hills or Walt
Disney World. How the common people of American countryside actually live
and enjoy their lives is indeed not very well known to Korean people. However,
the images of these people can also look strange to middle class Americans. If
the life revolving around New York Times, Macy’s, wine or coffee at a street
cafe and health food with little or no fat is thought to be normal, the life of ‘red
necks’ working at farms, drinking beer rather than wine and eating fat rich fried
chickens is an area of the Other. In America where lives are equalized to a
great extent over diverse areas, the countryside is the Other to the urban. Just
as Europeans established themselves as modern subjects while constituting
non-Europeans as the Other, the urban people of America became American
subject while othering the country people.
The New Deal documentary photographs of the 1930s are examples of such
a successful othering. For no one thinks of those images as a realm that
constitutes the country people as the Other but as “a truthful depiction of the

countryside devastated by Depression and sandstorm.” However, in the sense
that the readers of documentary photographs at that time mainly comprised of
the people of New York or Chicago who could afford to have cultural habit and
economic means to buy Life magazine and visit art gallery exhibitions, they
belong to totally different natural, cultural conditions than the subject of
documentary photographs.
To Korean people, the rural people of America are doubly othered area.
They were othered once when pictured in photographs, which were an urban
medium (the photograph produced as a work of art and exhibited in a gallery is
surely an urban phenomenon), and once more when their images were seen to
Korean viewers. What matters here is the status given to people when they are
turned to images. ‘Red neck’ is ‘red neck’ only when seen by urban people. By
the same token, Korean people never recognize themselves as ‘yellow’ but as
part of general human beings. The problem occurs when the two different
systems of Korea and America meet each other. But the difference between the
two systems, which is not a relative one but posited in a severe political,
economical, military and cultural imbalance between two countries does not
operate in Oh Hyoung-kuhn’s pictures. In many ordinary photographs, such an
imbalance vividly resides in the images of American mass culture celebrities as
the ideal of beauty and charm for the rest of the world, and even working its
way out into the retina of Korean people. But, as if bleach soaks out the stain
out of the cloth, the American people captured in Oh Hyoung-kuhn’s
photographs are deprived of such a supremacy by the working of the camera
and flashlight as well as due to the fact that they are common people living in
the periphery of American society.
The flashlight exploding fiercely right in front of the subjects’ face is never a
light that shows them in an honorific way. It is a light of surveillance and
observation developed by the modern disciplinary power. The flashlight
exploding in front of the criminals, homeless and insane of England, France
and America who wanted to conceal their identity and their habitat forcefully
took them into a bright area of administration and public health, i.e., to the
realm of visibility. To be seen meant to be saved. The place reached by the
administrative gaze was improved and supported. It was by being
photographed by Jacob Riis that the slum of the 1920s’ New York City was
saved. Child laborers working under inhuman conditions came to be protected
by the law by being recorded by Lewis Hine. Indeed, Hine’s photographs
decisively helped to pass the law forbidding the employment of children under a
certain age for hard labor.
For the same reason, students want to be seen by their teachers,
entertainers want to be noticed by producers and artists want to be watched by
critics. However, the moment being seen means to be benefited by the
disciplinary gaze, it also means subjection under the controlling power of that
gaze. The extent to which that disciplinary power is permeated into the level of
ordinary people’s lives is well revealed in American movies about fugitives
trying to evade the eyes of the authority. In those movies, we can easily see
scenes in which the fugitives are recognized by anonymous eyes of a
restaurant or a shop employee and clandestinely reported to the police.
Therefore, the fugitives do not want to be seen. They fear visibility. As there are

night animals and day animals, there are types of people who are fond of
brightness and who are not. And the same person can hate certain kind of light
and like other kind of light. Celebrities will like the kind of light used in
photography studio that glorifies them but will hate paparazzi’s flash light that
exposes their private life in an less than an honorific way. It is not an
exaggeration to say that what killed Diana was the flash of paparazzi. The art
photography that tries to depict the object in an aesthetic manner has been
attaining the artistic value by avoiding such a direct, cold light. It is a common
sense of photography that diffused, soft light is used whether for artistic
photography, commercial photography or portrait photography for ordinary
people. It is for such a reason that the contemporary flashlight is equipped with
a reflector, however small it may be, or designed to reflect light onto ceiling.
Through such a mechanical and semiotic device, diffused light functions as the
token for distancing photography from the light of discipline and surveillance.
However, the history of the meaning of the flashlight makes a significant turn
in the works of the American photographers such as Weegee and Diane Arbus.
Whereas the character of the visibility created by the flash light that depicts the
subject as captured and exposed in an unprepared circumstance has been
considered to be inappropriate to photography as fine art, Weegee’s and
Arbus’s flash light exploding right in front of the subject purposefully resists
such a meaning. It is not certain whether Weegee’s photographs of nocturnal
criminal scenes of New York City could belong to the realm of fine art or not.
Indeed, he rather worked as a photojournalist that used to overhear the police
radio communication to follow and record spots of crime. His photographs
belonged to the discourse of criminal investigation. Therefore, from the start, he
did not have any motivation to take artistic photography at all. However, the
visual trope of Weegee’s photographs that took away any aura that could be
attached to the photographic image could certainly be posited at the other pole
of the then existing artistic photography dependent upon soft, diffused light. In
other words, the resistance to the artistic character of photography came from a
non-artistic aspect of photography. By the same token, the people appearing in
Arbus’s photographs equally look abnormal. Although Arbus created her own
kind of images with the help of her interest in the psychic aspect of the people
and surrealistic settings of the image, what defines Arbus’s people is the
unforgiving flash light that deprives them of any chance to appropriately stage
themselves in front of the camera. So, a certain person becomes an Arbus’s
person. Although there is an incessant accusation that Oh Hyoung-kuhn’s
photographs resemble Arbus’s, the main characteristic of Oh’s photographs is
also this burdensome light of the flash.

However, instead of exposing people in an unforgiving manner, Oh Hyoung-
kuhn’s flashlight works to put them in a different context. That is the point at

which Oh Hyoung-kuhn can be relieved from the burden of Arbus. That relief
comes from Oh’s habit of purposefully forgetting the distinction between the real
and the fiction. In several cases, he produced pictures in which this distinction
was unclear.
For instance, when he worked for the poster of the movie, , which was
about the Kwangju People’s Uprising, he took picture of a lot of spectators
watching the movie making scenes in the street along with actors who were

acting as demonstrators, soldiers or spectators of demonstration. Even though
those actors were real, they were not real demonstrators or soldiers. However,
their ‘acting’ as

situation. Even more, it was impossible to tell some of the spectators from the
To purposefully forget the distinction between the fiction and the real means
that the method for such a distinction is purposefully not employed. In other
words, the method of documentary photography was used but the images
did not
look documentary. In the pictures Oh
produced in America, there are many instances in which it is impossible to tell
whether the subject is a real person from rural America or an actor. Even in
the case in which he or she is a real rural person, it is uncertain whether he
or she is willingly acting in such a manner or just taken picture by chance.
For example, some people are agape with astonishment

as if encountering a UFO. But it is uncertain whether they are really seeing
a UFO or just surprised by something else.
Such an uncertainty is emphasized more by a totally unorganized gaze working
in Oh’s photographs. The subjects of his photographs stage their expression as
if the camera were never in front of them and their gaze is free from the camera
lens. The gaze of the lens is not directed toward the subject, but to other things
in the background. Such a gaze was not intentionally endowed by the
photographer. Since the viewfinder of the Graflex camera Oh Hyoung-kuhn
used for these pictures partially hid the periphery of the picture frame, the
camera played a trick of putting anything it wanted within the frame of the
photograph against the photographer’s will. That means, the photographer does
not have the total control of what is captured by the lens. Therefore the
camera’s gaze exceeded the photographer’s intention. Such an excess,
demonstrators and soldiers was a real

however, resulted in producing interesting spectacles to the viewers. They are
the things like a cut-off signboard that is illegible and strangers who accidentally
appear inside the picture frame. In most of the cases, their look is directed to
something else and they don’t seem to feel guilty of ruining the ‘proper’
composition of the photograph. But in Oh Hyoung-kuhn’s pictures those ruined
images offer us visual pleasure.
Perhaps many of us have experience of attempting to paint a picture but
ending up in ruining it due to a mistake or a lack of skill in our elementary
school days. Even when such a ruining is neither a result of fundamental
misconception of the rules of painting nor vandalism against the masterpieces
but of a slight mistake or accident which could be revised later, children used to
despair and tore apart the paper. Oh Hyoung-kuhn had the same attitude
toward his own photographs. He once considered many of these pictures
‘ruined’ due to the unexpected interruption of a stranger into the frame or
awkward composition resulting from the limited visibility of the viewfinder and
discarded films of those pictures. The strange stain-like strips in some of the
pictures in this book are wounds from the ones saved after having been
discarded. Not only in the pictures physically ruined, but also in the well
preserved pictures, we can witness a lot of excesses of meaning since the
photographer himself does not have a total control over them. Such a meaning
resides in the form of narrative in each of the images.

For instance, a military police woman wearing a name tag, “Conor,” who has
been caught by the camera while looking at something outside the picture
frame with a rather sad, frail face looks like a character appearing in the midst
of a movie. Her short and strong sounding name gives an impression that she
must have been amovie character. Just like other American military
personnel she is well disciplined.
However, while attending to
her duty, she comes to notice a
past lover in the midst of the
distant crowd. While being unable
to forget her memory of love,
she has to go back to her
position as an official person with
a broken heart. For this
memory, she can not control

herself and becomes an alcoholic.
A man wearing mustache a polka-dotted cap and nylon pants with
suspenders looks like a farmer but is certainly a main character of a gangster
movie. His face conceals the sly, arrogant and clever feature of a cheating man
who takes

his mother-in-law’s possession
in a cunning manner. Though
the Fargo’s main character,
Jerry Lundgrun, was a
silly cheating man who got
caught by the police and lost
his wife and father-in-law
while attempting to take
his money, this man in
Oh Hyoung-kuhn’s photograph
is different. He is acting
a well-shaped cheating man.
A middle-aged man looking from behind a ticket office
is saying, “The last train to Davenport has already departed. Come tomorrow.
Unfortunately, there are not many fun spots to spend the night in this town.
Your only choice will be to sip tequila at Tamy’s Bar at the corner of the Main
Street.” Our hero leaves the station with a lonelyposture and disappears into a
rainy night street. Quite strangely, anybody who buys a ticket at this office
seems to be doomed to miss the train.
Two country farmers with stubborn face say, “they will never show up at our
town again. If they come again, I will kick their asses with this Winchester. You
will learn to respect Coldwell.” They might be the very farmers who shot Jack
Nicholson and Denis Hopper riding motorbikes without any reason at the last
scene of Easy Rider.
The astonishment of a middle-aged couple is really fictional. Their eyes are
wide as if witnessing some tremendous spectacle. “Honey, look. At last, the
Martian people in front of us. What should we do? What are those long
antennae-like organs?” The husband replies. “Don’t be too afraid. They may be
our friends. The aliens found in Roswell in 1953 were friendly.” Or they might
just be watching a fireworks

There is a voyeuristic curiosity in this type of watching into American lives. It
was perhaps possible because Oh Hyoung-kuhn was an alien rather than a
‘normal’ American in the midst of the American style of life. While working on
these photographs, Oh Hyoung-kuhn was a student of film and photography
with no ties to the American culture, institution and custom other than through a
scant position as a student. Therefore, he had no room to locate himself inside
the American life and culture. A student is basically a little bit unstable position
open to all the possibilities but for whom nothing has yet been realized. In the
sense that Oh Hyoung-kuhn was a Korean student temporarily visiting America
for study, he is doubly an alien to the reality taken picture here. For such an
alien, the Graflex camera’s wide body using 4×5 inch film must have been a
good cover to hide himself. That might be the reason why no one in his
photographs looks like a main character.
However, as is usually spoken in Korea, it is not because they are originally
alienated people that they don’t look like main characters. They are never
alienated. A cross-dressed gay man sitting on the ground in Mardi Gras with an
exhausted look is never alienated. An old couple hugging each other with rather
sad faces in a country bar is never alienated. Rather the alienation is a bad
habit of projecting the sentiment of the intellectuals, artists and students who
have failed to establish certain positions within the confused cultural mapping of
1990’s Korea. Whether in Korea or in America, living people are too busy to be
alienated. They are busy accepting the conditions for producing the subject
imposed upon the social grid systems and act as the subject within them. If the
people in Oh Hyoung-kuhn’s pictures look lonely, that is only a sentiment
projected onto the picture. Projection is a bad cultural habit. The reason why
the people in Oh Hyoung-kuhn’s pictures don’t look like main characters is
entirely because of Oh’s own method of taking picture. At home, they act as
main characters in their own family pictures in their own manner of visual
representation. They have been got rid of their status as main characters
because they were captured by Oh’s camera regardless of their will. This status
in which a person is located at the physical center of the picture yet not as a

semiologically main character is a decisive point that tells why Oh Hyoung-
kuhn’s pictures are intriguing.

The outstanding feature of Oh’s photography lies in the fact that he takes
picture without confronting the subjects head to head and captures them at the
moment when they are not ready to pose for the camera. As a result, the
subject of the photograph is evicted of his or her position as the main character.

In addition to it, borrowing the voyeuristic vision of the camera, Oh Hyoung-
kuhn looks at rituals of American lives such as country auctions and Mardi Gras

Festival with a curious eye. Although those rituals might be familiar rituals for
Americans but they can look strange and alien to Korean viewers. Korean
people think that they know America well, but the point described above
constitutes the crooked vision on the part of Korean people and this vision then
turns to cultural differences. The crooked vision here means the way of seeing
that renders what is familiar unfamiliar. Just as the shape of a thing is

transformed when we look at it with a crooked vision, the fact that Oh Hyoung-
kuhn and Korean viewers of his pictures live in different culture from that of

America renders its everyday life in a different shape. Of course, the crooked

vision also intervenes when American viewers look at the images of everyday
life of Korea.
Such a crooked vision is neither a vision of observation nor that of
surveillance. It seems that with such a crooked vision, Oh Hyoung-kuhn forgets
the people rather than ‘looking at’ them. He is forgetting who they were,
whether they are real people or movie actors, just as the cameraman for a
movie is forgetting whether he is taking picture of real person or a character of
the movie. Oh Hyoung-kuhn’s habit of forgetting to differentiate the fiction from
the real has reached the point in which he has forgotten where his real
hometown is. (I don’t know where he was born. He told me that he was born
and grew up at Itaewon, one of the tourist districts of Seoul, but I know that is a
lie. For people are not born in Itaewon. I didn’t tell him about my hometown
either. For I was also afraid he would not believe where I was born.) So he tries
to find his hometown in Ohio and locate the hometown people from the faces of
strange American people’s. Although photographs are a means to replace
memory, they are also a means to forcefully erase memory. Or, rather than a
means, they are a site of forgetting. We are forgetting something ‘in’ his
photographs rather than ‘through’ them.
In these photographs it is forgotten who those people were, what their names,
occupations and personal characters were. Therefore they have no inside.
Something we call inside, which is neatly organized and waits to be expressed
through language, behavior or art to the outside is just lacking in them. They
only have their roles to play. They appear to have their inside only because
their act coincides with the frequency of the Korean viewers’ deja-vu. Therefore
their act is ‘real’ just as the image resulting from the act of an actor is not real;
his act itself is real.
Thus, for the first time, through Oh Hyoung-kuhn’s photographs, we can see
people in their undisguised, pure state. In spite of the sly yet stupid connotation
of the word, ‘undisguised,’ Oh Hyoung-kuhn’s photographs really show people
in their undisguised condition. For he took picture of the people before they are
ready for it. Susan Sontag once dubbed this capability of the camera that takes
its object by surprise ‘soft murder,’ but such a manner of revelation is the very
aspect of photography which surpasses other media of arts such as painting,
drawing, video or computer graphics which are considered to be either
historically or technologically superior to photography. If we can not confront
the object head to head, where can we confirm the existence of this world? If
we always have to wrap the object with aesthetics, sensations and sentiments
for fear of confronting it in its raw state, nothing in this world will be felt as alive,
including ourselves confronting it. The reason why Roland Barthes disdained
fine art photography was because what is seen in it is the skill and code of
wrapping up the object rather than the courage and trauma experienced when
confronting it. We can see things through Oh Hyoung-kuhn’s photographs. That
is why people feel uneasy about his photographs. They are uncomfortable to

Written and translated by Young June Lee