On The Record

Interview with Ki-Ho Park

The Rock & Butter from Seoul

Born into a family of creative souls, young Ki-Ho Park was advised to stay clear of the arts. But when he found his true calling in photography, there was no turning back. Over a bowl of noodle and a cup of coffee in Seoul, he shares his long journey with POY Asia Co-Director and Founding Advisor Kay-Chin Tay.

From 2014 to 2018, Ki-Ho Park worked on a project on empty houses in Seoul, cumulating in a book and an exhibition at The Museum of Photography, Seoul.

You parents advised you to stay clear of the creative industries, and yet you become a photographer. How did that happen?

My father was a very famous artist and my mom a well-known fashion designer. And I have two brothers who are in the design business too. They know how tough and uncertain it is to be in the creative industries and convinced me to study business instead. I was at the University of Maryland and my grades were really bad. Studying wasn’t really for me and I was running the photo lab and spending more time in the darkroom than in the classrooms.

Then I met a girl who told me that I should listen to my heart and switch to studying photography instead. She told me about the Rhode Island School of Design(RISD) and encouraged me to apply, which I did.

Somehow, I got accepted but the fees there were very expensive and there was no way I could have afforded it. Fortunately, the admission folks told me they had scholarships.

Between 1984 and 1986, Ki-Ho Park worked on a project on the Cambodian refugees in Providence, Rhode Island, while still a student at the Rhode Island School of Design.

After graduating from RISD, you could have stayed on in the United States to pursue the American Dreams. Why did you come back?

After RISD, I got a job as a photographer at a graphic design firm in Cleveland and was also freelancing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer magazine. Things were okay and picking up.

Then one day, I saw the German chancellor proclaiming on CNN that Seoul was not ready to host the Olympics because of all the protests. He also boasted that Germany, with all their stadiums, could take over. That got me really upset and I decided to go back to South Korea.

I called Bruce Davidson, my mentor during my internship at Magnum Photos and a father figure to me, and said, “Dad, I want to go home.”

And Bruce supported your decision?

Oh yes, he more than supported. Bruce just picked up the phone and called the editor of Time Magazine. He didn’t just call someone from the photography department, but he called the very top guy. Imagine a young photographer getting the chance to meet the big boss.

Despite the intense competition between Time and Newsweek, the folks at Time also called Jim Colton at Newsweek to recommend me. I also visited Fortune, BusinessWeek and other outlets. So before heading back to Seoul, I have already gotten some useful leads for assignments.

Doing Polaroid tests was a daily affair while assisting Magnum photographer Bruce Davidson. On the last day of his internship, Bruce signed “for Brukey", a nickname he gave Ki-Ho in 1985. In his honor, Ki-Ho named one of his sons, Bruce.
Student protest in Seoul, 1987-88.

And you plunged right into action the day after returning home?

At that time, Yonsei University was on the main road from the airport, and Yonsei was the most active in terms of protests.

When I went to the campus the day after I arrived, I was at the main entrance and ran into who else but James Nachtwey, who I had also met at Magnum.

Nachtwey recognized me instantly and asked, “Hey Ki-Ho, what are you doing here?” and I replied, “I just arrived, and want to take pictures.”

At that time, I had no mask, no protective gears, and he told me very sincerely, “You should not be in the front, you should be in the back just to be safe.”

Being competitive and fearless, I thought that he was trying to kick me out so I told him firmly, “No, I’m staying.”

You can see in my pictures how close I was when the protestors were throwing rocks. When the tear gas landed on me, I couldn’t breathe, and I almost collapsed.

The next day, I went to Namdaemun Market and got myself a mask and some protective gears.

Every other day, I would be back at the protests at the universities, at City Hall, etc. The students were protesting the corruption of then-President Chun Doo-Hwan.

By then I had protective gears on me but most of the students only had toothpaste under their noses or saran wrap. They were really brave.

Student protest in Seoul, 1987-88.

But I guess this isn’t just about photography. You are Korean, and you were angry that your country was portrayed in a certain way by the foreign press?

I won’t say I was angry. But I studied photojournalism at RISD and I felt that I needed to record it without showing my anger. I was upset, but I think I was more sympathetic towards the students. And I was also very sympathetic towards the riot police because they were just kids who got drafted. The only thing I was really upset about was President Chun.

Student protest in Seoul, 1987-88.

Were you also missing home?

Yeah, I think so. I went to USA in 1973 and was away for 15 years. So come to think of it, I was missing my country without realizing it.

Student protest in Seoul, 1987-88.

Perhaps you also wanted to do something for your country? To document it from a side that was not seen before?

I don’t think what I did qualify as doing something for my country and I don’t think I had that big dream. It was mainly just for me. I learned from Bruce that the moment after I’ve taken a photo, the moment is gone forever. But I will still have the photo to remember.

I think I just wanted to have the time and opportunity to be a witness to what was happening. And it didn’t really matter whether my images were good or bad because there was a satisfaction of just being there.

It is really a myth that we make good pictures all the time. We can be shooting for 100 days and not all images will be good. But what’s more important is that you were there for that 100 days.

And if you were lucky, you might have a few good images.

Magazine assignment for Asiana Airline — Namdeamun Market flower shop, 1991.

Do you remember if there were any significant differences in the way you worked, compared to ‘local’ Korean photographers?

Most definitely. I was fortunate that in the US, I was exposed to both sides of photography. RISD was more experimental but my journalistic approach was more straightforward. I always have aesthetics in mind, so it was really good to have that balance.

I didn’t like a lot of the images I saw in the local media. Soon, some publishers noticed my works and they would say to me, “You’ve got the butter flavor” which was really a compliment. It was their way of saying, “You’ve got the American flavor”. They could recognize the differences in my pictures.

Time magazine cover of President Roh Moo Hyun, 2002.

What’s KISTONE? Or should we say, “Who is KISTONE?”

When I first came back to Korea, I was working with JB Pictures for a short period but we soon parted ways. And then I started KISTONE.

My older brother, who was trained at Pratt Institute, came up with KISTONE, which is Ki’s Tone, my tone, my black and white tone.

In the beginning, I thought he meant a rock, and that he was making fun of me. In Korean, when we want to say someone is very stupid, we say, “You have a rock brain.” But my father’s middle name is ‘rock’.

There’s a stone, and there’s a tone and they all belong to me. I really love it and stuck with it.

In an 1996 advertising assignment for Samsung Insurance, Ki-Ho cast a real blind person with his blind aid dog.

Commercial job or editorial job. Which one do you prefer?

I got asked that a lot. In commercial jobs, there are more restrictions because of the number of people involved but I will approach them with the same amount of creative energies I apply in journalistic jobs. I never say no to commercial jobs because they pay the bills.

Advertising assignment for SK Telecom, 2000.

How did you get your first commercial break?

Some of my works were featured in an inflight magazine and an editor in the movie business saw them on a flight to Japan, and she recommended me. They like my documentary approach, gave me my first break and there was no turning back.

From 2014 to 2018, Ki-Ho Park worked on a project on empty houses in Seoul, cumulating in a book and an exhibition at The Museum of Photography, Seoul.

You have been in the business for so long. How do you stay motivated?

Bruce Davidson taught me so much. He has so much energy in him, and he never stops working. I wanted to hang out with my girlfriend on Sundays and he would call and said, “Ki, why don’t you come work?”

My family always struggles with money. My mom supported the family when my dad was struggling with his art, although he would become very famous subsequently and sold lots of paintings.

Whenever I made money from a job, whether it was $200 or $1000, it was exciting.

I was paid and given the opportunities to see the world. I would never be given these chances if I were just an average Joe with a boring job.

Recently, I was given access to photograph a Covid-19 ward at the Severance Hospital. People thought I was crazy, but I was so excited.

How did that Covid-19 project come about? Did you write to the hospital?

For a long time, I photographed for hospital brochures and got to know the administrators quite well.

I had an exhibition at the gallery at Severance Hospital and the former director, public relations manager and gallery manager invited me to lunch during the peak of Covid-19.

I asked them if anyone was documenting the situation at the hospital and they told me, “Oh no, no way. No one is allowed to get in.” And I was shocked.

They told me that the new director had not even visited the hospital café for a year and ate every meal in his office, so granting access to a photographer was out of question.

I pleaded with them to just try ask for permission for me but they insisted it would be impossible.

But I knew the new director from past dealings and he remembered my photographs.

He said, “Ki-Ho wants to make pictures? Let him in.”

The next day, I was there and went back every day.

I had to undergo training, and also stayed away from my family during that period.

My wife thought I was crazy but I loved it.

In the end, not only did I gain access, the hospital also gave me a small fee for my works.

Ongoing commission for the 50th anniversary of Hanmi Pharma.

What is your latest project?

I am always looking for things to do and when I found out that Hanmi Pharma was going to celebrate its 50th anniversary soon, I asked the director to let me photography their operations in a documentary.

It turned out that they are also building a new museum for photography and I am also shooting the construction.

Installation of Silent Boundaries at The Museum of Photography, Seoul in 2018.

Will you ever retire and what would you do when you retire?

If they let me shoot, I will shoot. But I’m sure I’ll get kicked out soon and then I can safely say, “I’m retired.” But I don’t know what I will do then. That’s my dilemma. I’m always looking for things to do. Perhaps open a small photography shop in the countryside.

Born in 1960 in Seoul, Ki-Ho Park moved to the United States as a child and studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design(RISD), graduating in 1986. After returning to Korea in 1987, he worked for various international magazines including Time, BusinessWeek, Fortune and Forbes, and operated a very successful commercial photography business. In 2007, he had his first private exhibition called Photography & Texture, which was a combination of large photographic prints with three dimensional objects. After his solo exhibition, he returned to RISD to earn his master’s degree. His thesis project Everything Must Go, a documentation of empty storefronts across the US during the 2008 financial crisis, was exhibited in New York and Boston. After returning to Seoul, he began documenting deserted old towns that were about to be demolished for new townhouse projects. The resulting project — What We Left Behind — was exhibited in France in 2016. In 2018, his monograph — Silent Boundaries — was published by The Museum of Photography, Seoul, which also hosted the exhibition. Besides his own photography, Ki-Ho also teaches at Yonsei University Songdo International Campus and Graduate School.