Type Called ‘Middlemen’: Obscure Anxiety and Minute Rupture

Hye Jin Mun



You see
someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.”  (Diane Arbus)


When Walter Benjamin announced a new experience in visual perception to be brought by the eye of a camera with high expectation in the early 20th century, photography had already been enthusiastically capturing everything in existence for many years.  While many focused on the conventional beauty as the splendor and magnificence of nature, subtle and passing moments, and the beauty in everyday life and warmth of family, many others turned their eyes to the dark side behind the light and the world of sociopathy.  These photographers revealed the structural absurdity of a society by depicting the poor and laborers neglected by society, disclosed the glaring hypocrisy and falsity of the seemingly noble bourgeois, and exposed the prejudices and pains behind moralism by focusing on those who were outside the normality.  If we are to compare Oh Hein-Kuhn with the two types mentioned above, he surely belongs to the second group. 


From his first photographic works  Americans Them in 1991 to the recent Middlemen project, a series of portrait photographs of soldiers which was presented in 2012 at Artsonje Center, Oh Hein-Kuhn has consistently pursued social documentary through the format of portrait photography.  While his early works Americans Them and Itaewon Story were close to traditional documentary photography by which he captured the social landscape on the streets, his famous works in later years Ajumma, Girls Act, and Cosmetic Girls show images of specific social groups called ‘Ajumma (middle-aged woman)’ and ‘Sonyeo (girl)’ through a kind of a pictorial book. Like Diane Arbus who notices the flaw first when seeing someone on the street, Oh Hein-Kuhn sees through the cracks in society by means of the camera. What captures his interest are the insecure identities and anxieties which reveal themselves through superficial images of the subjects.  Ajumma “laughing rambunctiously with her red lipstick and tattooed eyebrows” and a high school coed “in her short skirt with a question mark on her face,” which Oh Hein-Kuhn considers stereotypes of middle-aged women and high school girls, show themselves in images as they want to be.  Although the subjects are depicted as they aspire to be (Ajumma as affluent ladies, high school girls as celebrities they want to look like), what is truly hidden behind such images are anxieties of passive subjects who do what they think others expect of them rather than what they want to do. Really, isnt a middle-aged womans showing off the social status of her husband and wealth? And isnt the pretension to innocence of a high school girl in a short skirt nothing but behaviors that are implicitly demanded by society because females became sexually objectified earlier on in a male-dominated society? Such absurdities arise from the insecurities of these groups, whose own identities are not firmly established. As a photographer, Oh Hein-Kuhn is intrigued by such moderate anxiety, the ‘Middleness’.


For a portrait photographer, selection of the subject is an important component which can be regarded as the beginning and everything of his/her work.  The subject Oh Hein-Kuhn chooses is someone with moderate anxiety, and all the subjects of his photographs can be categorized as ‘Middlemen’.  Americans Them are about those who are at the fringes of American society; Itaewon is a border place between Korea and the US, where the heterosexualand the homosexualmix together. And Ajumma, or middle-aged woman, is the third gender as this group is considered sexually neither female nor male;  Sonyeo, or girl, is in between childhood and womanhood.  Such nature of a border rider is also the heart of the Middlemen series.  The in-between nature of the subject evokes especially great interest because Oh Hein-Kuhn’s photographs of the soldier series do not satisfy at all societys preconception of soldiers in general.  The military, a highly hierarchical organization which is the backbone of the organized society unique to Korea, is a place where masculinity and collectivity are enforced in the extreme.  However, the identity of the group represented by ‘us’ is oddly absent in photos by Oh Hein-Kuhn.  The soldiers he chose were not those with the stereotypical look of a brave Korean soldier well trained and disciplined.  Although they are neither peculiar nor completely alienated, they seem somewhat out of place.  Not yet completely adapted to the military, they retain some aspects of civilian society, or trauma incurred outside or inside the military.  Even if they are relatively close to the archetype of soldiers, the ‘I’ is more noticeable than ‘us’.  Privates as ‘individuals’ with the still young and innocent look of people in their early twenties are in some realm in between the military and the civilian world, compliance and deviation, and adaptation and maladaptation.  Their existential anxieties are apparent in the details of the photographs, especially the positions of hands and feet rather than the facial expressions.  Their hands are too tightly fisted in an unnatural looking way; their shoes are slightly raised, showing insecure movement of feet; and their shyly gathered feet are a bit out of place, showing incomplete incorporation into the military.


The Middlemen project is Oh Hein-Kuhn’s first attempt at male portraiture and group portraiture, and the background which disappeared after his early works is definitely pronounced and a narrative revives in this project. In this regard, the Middlemen series seems to be quite different from the early works.  However, a common context strongly runs through the entire series.[1]   What is noteworthy is the psychological distance between the photographer and the subjects, in addition to his selection of models that reveal obscure anxiety.  Oh Hein-Kuhn’s looking at ‘Middlemen’ from an ‘in-between’ perspective, which is neither too far nor too close, is one of the important characteristics of all his work. Such characteristics make us realize that Oh Hein-Kuhn’s works, which are seemingly documentary or German typological photography, are in fact pseudo-documentary rather than documentary and pseudo-typology rather than typology.  Oh Hein-Kuhn uses and at the same time distorts typological approaches that record most accurately and objectively under the same conditions by excluding the subjectivity of the photographer to make a specific typological archive.  The Ajumma, The Girls Act, and Cosmetic Girls projects all used the form of a pictorial book and typological approach to sample the category of Ajumma and Sonyeo.  For example, for the Cosmetic Girls project, Oh Hein-Kuhn divided the districts of Seoul into the south and the north of the Hangang River, which are then subdivided into Apgujeong-dong, Cheongdam-dong, Migliore at Dongdae-mun, Sundae Alley at Sillim-dong, and Ewha Womans University street, and established a scope and system to get a truly representative set of subjects.  The same criteria applied to the Middlemenproject.  He photographed all ranks of army, navy, and the air force personnel, and typological classification based on the distribution ratio, applied to allocate half of all photos to the army, and the remaining half was allocated to the navy and air force.  However, the typological principles of objective sampling and recording are definitely lost by the eyes of the photographer.  Oh Hein-Kuhn keenly senses the psychological anxiety of the subject, and his sensitivity causes him to empathize with his subjects to a certain degree.  As Oh Hein-Kuhn is interested in moderate anxiety which does not reveal itself plainly, he needs to truly correspond withthe person he is photographing in order to capture his/her delicate feeling of alienation.  In this respect, Oh Hein-Kuhn is neither like Diane Arbus, who photographs obvious freaks from an outsider’s perspective, nor Nan Goldin, who photographed part of a community as an insider.  The attitude of Oh Hein-Kuhn, who keeps a certain distance with his subject while responding to the subject emotionally, is ‘in-between’ objectivity and subjectivity.  This Middleness is manifested by the mid-tone of gray and the typical medium distance of three to five meters in documentary photography.    


Ultimately, Oh Hein-Kuhn continuously notices the symptom of middlemen who reveal obscure anxiety on the surface.  Since this symptom is sociological, the larger the gray area of a society becomes, the more delicate the aspects of anxiety to be expressed become, and the more minute rupture revealing such anxiety also becomes.  This is also true of the military, which becomes more complicated as communication with the outside increases and ideology weakens. Through the Middlemen series, Oh Hein-Kuhn attempts to capture such ‘mild fever like anxiety,’ as he puts it, which arises between individuals and groups inside the space called the military.  Each and every subject of Oh Hein-Kuhn converges into one type called Middlemen and is a token which testifies to minute anxiety of Korean society, which is becoming more and more uncertain every single day.  The photographer who captures such symptom is of course one of the middlemen.     

by viewers gender rather than photograph itself. For instance, men with their own military experience respond to subtle power relation by rank much more keenly than women.  

[1] The big difference between Middlemen and previous works lies interpretation