On The Record

Interview with Arin Yoon

The Outsider

A photographer who lives in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas with her husband and two young children, Arin Yoon exemplifies the spirit of ‘pointing the camera inward’.  As a military spouse herself, her current work deals with the everyday lives of military families. Often alone with their children when her husband is away on long assignments for the Army, the South Korea-born artist who immigrated to the US when she was five uses her camera to tell her story, as well as the stories of others.

Arin Yoon takes self-portrait through her husband’s night vision goggles in 2012, San Bernardino, California.

American, Asian American or Korean American. Which one describes you best?

I’ve come to realize that these labels have existed more for others than for me. When I visit Korea and people notice that my tongue is “crooked” as one person has pointed out to me, they call me “gyopo”, a word Koreans use to describe Koreans who grew up outside of Korea. So even though I feel the most comfortable in Korea in the sense that I share a history and culture with those around me, I am not “Korean Korean” as gyopos say. When I lived in Georgia, people would remark at how well I spoke English. No accent at all. To them, I was Asian. Once, even Oriental. Asian Americans have been labeled the “model minority” because we weren’t supposed to disrupt this dominant narrative created by mainstream society, but it’s all been unraveling how harmful and marginalizing this label has been for us. This false narrative has been used as a tool to manipulate the dynamics between Asian Americans and Black Americans and it’s being used to create unreasonable expectations from members of our community. Labels can be marginalizing but they can also be liberating. Identities are empowering if they are on your own terms. I am glad that discussions are happening around how we use words, which essentially become ideas, on the terms of those who want to represent themselves.

Jiyeong Laue cares for her daughter, Serenity, behind their home in 2014 in Fort Irwin, California.

You studied Political Science and English Language and Literature in university. When did photography come into your life?

When I was eleven, I went on a trip to Wyoming to visit my friend who had just moved from New Jersey. I brought a point and shoot camera and realized I could use photography as a tool for self-expression. Then in my senior year of high school I took a black and white photography class and won the photography award that year – the prize was a book called History of Women Photographers, which I still have today. In college, I didn’t even consider majoring in Art or Photography. Being the child of immigrants and an immigrant myself, it wasn’t really an option. So I double majored in Political Science and English Language and Literature. But I took as many photography courses for electives as I could. I started color photography and used medium format cameras borrowed from friends. After college I worked at a law firm as a paralegal in New York for a year and a half and I applied to law school. I wrote an essay that had nothing to do with law school and I think I even submitted photos with a couple of my applications. It was very obvious that that was not the right path for me. Luckily, I was rejected from every law school I applied to. At that time, my parents were going through a messy divorce and a good friend of mine was doing field work at a biology station in the Andes and that just sounded like the perfect place for me to be. I bought my first camera – a Mamiya 7II and as many rolls of film as I could afford. When I told the workers at the camera shop my plans, they gifted me with dozens of rolls of film about to expire. I used the work from that trip to apply to grad school for Photography and I haven’t looked back. But I’m thankful for my education in Political Science and English. Writing is an important skill in any field and my Political Science education has come in handy especially in my recent work with military families.

Kim Hwa Seon Halmoni is reflected in a mirror in her room at the House of Sharing, a residence for former “comfort women” in Gwangju, South Korea in 2010.

It seems to us that a lot of Korean photographers still work on the issue of “comfort women”, tell us why it is still an important issue for you.

I started that project as a way to know more about and connect with my Korean roots and history. It was one of those things that came about organically. When I got to the House of Sharing, the residence where many of the Korean survivors live, one of the staff members asked me if I wanted to pose them in their hanboks, the traditional Korean dresses. I said no. I just wanted to capture candid moments and get to know them and their stories. He seemed surprised as that is often how other photographers had wanted to portray them. I soon learned from the “halmonis” (a term of endearment, meaning “grandmothers”) that some photographers who had taken their pictures of them in their hanboks had sold their images. That was devastating for them, who continue to deal with the trauma of being treated like commodities rather than human beings. As a Korean woman and a survivor, I felt like our stories were connected and I wanted not only to learn about their histories but also preserve them from colonial revisionism and the continued denial of their testimonies. Each photographer has their own reasons why he wants to portray a community, and some of these reasons can get tied to sensational purposes, but for me, it was a part of a personal exploration and journey.

My mother, Young Na, poses for a portrait in a traditional Korean hanbok at night in Leonia, New Jersey in 2005.

Your paid jobs are mostly journalistic and personal works artistic. Is it hard to navigate the two ends or have you been able to combine them?

Even though my work has always been in the realm of documentary photography, I’m fairly new to working in photojournalism. It wasn’t until just over a year ago that I decided to pursue it as a career. It was almost like a light bulb went off in my head when I realized that this was a perfect career path for me because I move a lot and working as a freelance photojournalist, I can be anywhere. I worked primarily as an arts educator after receiving my MFA. But marrying a US Army officer really limited my options. I was moving a lot and then I had my children and I would interview for jobs while pregnant and it just seemed impossible to get a job and my career just kind of stalled and it was tough. During that time, I had this recurring dream that there was this incredible scene or feeling and I wanted to capture it, but I didn’t have my camera. But I kept working on my personal project about military life throughout that time. I worked really slowly, but I kept it going. And now I feel really fulfilled having recently published it and it becoming a community project. It just shows you that it doesn’t matter how slowly you move towards your goals as long as you keep moving.

Teo draws close to his father, who wears a hearing aid, in 2021, in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Service members are statistically more likely to suffer hearing loss than their civilian counterparts, a result of exposure to loud sounds during training exercises and deployments.

Is it hard to stay rooted and how does that affect your projects?

I think military families don’t often root themselves too deeply in one place. Because the reality is that you’ll have to move again soon. It’s interesting to watch the social dynamics within the military community. I currently live in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where there is an influx of new families every summer. When they first arrive, everyone is very social and makes efforts to create community. But by winter, there is less of that. People tend to have established their networks and they don’t want to get too emotionally invested in more relationships. I noticed it because when we got here, we arrived in the winter and it wasn’t easy making new connections, but by summer, it was no problem. I’ve been really lucky in that at every duty station, I have made incredible friends who have supported me. They are my military family. All these dynamics and experiences are what I have been exploring with my project, ‘To Be At War’ about military life. I’ve always photographed my life and what I know so in that way, it has been interesting to be in this life as a documentary photographer.

John Principe and other service members return home to Fort Stewart, Georgia, in the middle of the night in 2018.

What’s the most common reaction when people hear that you are married to a military officer?

I’ve lived in mostly rural or suburban areas in the midwest and the south for the past eight years so the first reaction is usually a story about someone that person knows, usually a family member who served in the military. I love hearing these stories. Sometimes people say please thank him for his service, and thank you. I think sometimes people don’t know what to say so that’s an easy thing to say to someone.

Teo Principe climbs in an 1117 Armored Security Vehicle during a family day visit to Fort Stewart, Georgia, in 2016.

You document your own family a lot. Is it harder or easier compared to photographing strangers? Do you ask for their permission every time you want to make a picture?

My husband, John, is easy to photograph. He knows that photography is just a part of who I am and what I do and he trusts me in the process. Or at least he’s never complained. Actually one of his buddies recently told me John was an avid photographer during deployment and he was known to take a lot of pictures, more than other soldiers, so maybe we have more in common than I thought. My kids have begun to notice this is something I do not just as a mom but as a photographer. My son usually participates but sometimes my daughter pushes back. Even as a toddler she’d say, “No selfies!” That was her telling me to give her some space and maybe put down my camera and engage with her instead of documenting the moment. So I’m very aware of this balance and want to respect their boundaries. I am also aware of representation and that they want to be represented or not represented in a certain way. Once I took a photo of my daughter crying and she saw me on my phone about to share it and she got very upset with me. Like why would I do that to her? Take this vulnerable moment and share it? Now I make sure they are okay with the images I share. Even though they are young, I want to affirm their self autonomy and power. In that sense photographing strangers can be easier, but usually I’m drawn to people I feel close with and in using photography to explore our connection. But what’s the same in photographing my family and strangers is that I want to portray everyone in an honest way and it’s important how they want to represent themselves.

Denise and Andy Buissereth sit on their porch in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 2015 before his deployment.

You still work a lot with film when most people have gone 100% digital. Why?

I guess it’s just how I started. I love the visceral aspect of shooting with film, advancing to the next frame, you can feel the film move. Rolling it up and labeling it. And because it’s way more expensive, taking more time with the photography. Being more intentional with the frames. I also love the darkroom. It’s always been meditative for me to be in the complete dark, depending on my other senses to create something. Listen to music. Look at photo books. Even after I got a serious digital camera, I would continue making work for my personal projects with my medium format film camera and my freelance work with my digital camera so there was a boundary. But after having children, it’s become more about what camera I have around, which was often my phone. The digital SLR just became too heavy to carry around with a bunch of baby stuff. But I recently invested in two mirrorless cameras- one medium format so I’m finally making the switch over more to a digital practice. They are lighter so I can carry them more easily and now I have less baby gear. My poor Mamiya is failing, but I’ll always continue to work with film. It’ll just depend on the project.

School children in the Kichwa village of Huino, Ecuador in 2003.

What’s the best and the worst thing you have heard about your work?

The best and worst thing was probably the same comment. I had an interview with faculty at a prestigious MFA program. I flew there with my portfolio of 16×20 prints. I spread them over the table. It was all men. I started to explain my work as I had written in my artist statement but they didn’t seem very interested in what I was saying. Then I kind of broke down and just started talking about random stuff and they seemed more interested. One reviewer said, “It’s very National Geographic,” meaning my work was not conceptual enough. The others all nodded in agreement. I knew then I wasn’t getting in. But having recently published my long term project, this labor of love, with National Geographic, I can’t help but think back to that comment and smile.

Arin Yoon poses for a self-portrait at a B&B between duty station assignments in 2014, Leavenworth, Kansas.

Tell us about the Arin Yoon in the year 2031.

That’s such a hard question for me because I honestly don’t know where I will end up in a year. That’s the thing about military life. The families sacrifice a lot. They most often move where the military sends the service members- so, even though we don’t work for the government or are a part of it, we still go where they tell our spouses or parents to go so we can stay together as a family and we follow the rules on the military bases. But let me envision my ideal scenario. Professionally, I think the same. I love the work I am doing now with my personal projects and my community engagement projects and freelance work. Maybe traveling more for personal projects and assignments and doing more video. By 2031, John will likely be out of the Army and we will be in our forever house with a beautiful garden immersed somewhere near nature, have a dog and live near family for once.

Arin Yoon is a Korean American documentary photographer, visual artist, and arts educator. Her work focuses on the military, families, and women and issues of representation and identity. Arin is a National Geographic Explorer and currently a grantee of We, Women and the National Military Family Association. She has been a recipient of the Darkroom Residency Program through Baxter Street Camera Club of New York. She is a member of Women Photograph and an alumna of the 72nd Missouri Photo Workshop. Her work has been featured in National Geographic, Reuters, ProPublica, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Korea Times. Arin has exhibited at venues such as the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul, Daegu Arts Center, Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Anthology Film Archives and A.I.R. Gallery in New York City. Her work is currently on view at the 14th Biennale at the Krasnoyark Museum in Russia in a group exhibition called ‘Mapping the Multitude, contemporary photography of Korea’.