On The Record

Interview with Yehyun Kim

Going Places, Thanks to Photojournalism

From teaching English in her native South Korea to winning College Photographer of the Year, an award that includes an internship at the esteemed National Geographic, photojournalist Yehyun Kim has come a long long way. Many will say that she has a blessed career but nobody will deny how hard she has worked to get to this stage.

Stephen Diederich looks at a fallen tree after flooding on his farmland in Wilton, Missouri on Nov. 2, 2019. High levels of water from the worst flooding since 1993 broke nearby levees. Water and sand that came with flooding swamped many trees on his land. Cornstalks on the land still remain because Stephen was too busy with other tasks to recover from flooding.

Having studied English at a university in Seoul, Yehyun Kim had two choices when she graduated – to either become a public school English teacher in South Korea or to become a journalist.

Before moving to USA, she taught English as a trainee teacher at a public school, and then as a teacher in private English academies. She also interned as a reporter at several Korean newspapers and translated Korean to English and vice versa for foreign journalists based in Seoul.

In the end, the Dongduk Women’s University graduate was convinced that journalism appeals to her more. Both jobs will allow her to inform people, but she feels more alive and fulfilled working as journalist.

When she uprooted herself from South Korea and moved to the United States in 2014, her aim was to become a top journalist.

After a year in New York City where she was a translation and reporting intern for Voices of NY(now part of City Limits), Kim decided that she wanted to learn more about the journalism profession and applied to the graduate program at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

In the fall of 2017, Kim attended a photojournalism class which changed her life and opened up a brand new world for her.

“I was mesmerized by the new world that I just stepped into. I used to enjoy photography only as a hobby. I was surprised that what I loved so much can be helpful to others and become a career choice.”

When was the first time you used a camera?

I grew up being photographed. My father would carry around a film camera wherever we went, photograph my siblings and me, and put the printed photos into photo albums.

When I went to middle school and became a teenager who didn’t hang out with my family anymore, I thought I’ve got to document this time in my life and make a photo album. So I began to take photos of my friends and myself, and had the photos printed out, even if they were taken with phone cameras.

But I wasn’t thinking about becoming a photographer.

It was more to document, to continue my family tradition and to remember those moments.

Stephen and Robert clear away fallen trees as a result of the flooding. “We’ve worked together since we were kids,” Stephen said. At 32, Stephen bought the current land with Robert. “Everybody around here expected us to go broke,” Stephen said.
“I knew it was a tough business from a little boy on just seeing how hard the other farmers work,” Stephen said. “But I always have really enjoyed hard manual labor.”

Having worked in South Korea and the US, what do you think are the differences between the two?

I haven’t worked long enough in Korea as a photojournalist, but the impression I got was that photography isn’t being used as a creative storytelling tool in journalism in Korea.

When I was a teenager, I read different newspapers each morning at school, and photos in different papers looked pretty similar. I thought photojournalists were supposed to photograph famous people in the same way.

Many photos in Korean media show public figures, like politicians or businessmen, straightforward in a plain background. If the background includes people who are not main characters, their faces are often blurred by using Photoshop or by shooting out of focus. Long-term documentary photo stories about average people are uncommon in Korean media.

Another aspect is that it’s harder to get into someone’s private life and express the person to the full extent, not just the side that the person wants to show. The culture is changing slowly, but traditionally, Koreans in general care a lot about how they are viewed by others.

After photographing K-pop fans in Denmark and the U.S. in 2019, I went back to Korea to photograph K-pop fans there. When photographing in the public space, it took longer to make people forget about me as a photographer and to document the subjects as themselves.

In the U.S., I can easily approach strangers and many people are fine with being photographed. In Korea, it’s not typical to talk to strangers, and people tend to be shy about being photographed by strangers. Photography has become a part of many Koreans’ daily life. But being photographed by a photojournalist who they don’t personally know is a different issue.

Stephen sits alone in the evening. His mom passed away on Nov. 15, 2019. “My whole life revolved around her here,” Stephen said. “So, there's a big hole now. I must either walk over to the living room to look into the chair or walk back to her room a dozen times every day without even thinking.”

What do you care about most when you’re telling stories through photos?

It’s changing a lot. Before, I care more about what I should photograph. I was most concerned about the best way to deliver the information.

But these days, I think to myself that information is not the only thing I want to convey.

I want to share my own perspective, feelings and the atmosphere.

Instead of finishing up after photographing what I’m expected to photograph, I pay more attention to observing the situation closely and listen to the feelings that stand out to me.

I care more about leaving the viewers with lasting feelings, going beyond information.

Do you have any advice for emerging Asian photographers?

First of all, don’t limit or over-evaluate yourself based on your background as an Asian. Because what people actually see is not you but your photos.

I also want to say that your story and voice matter.

Growing up in Korea, I loved visiting photo exhibitions.

The highly reputed ones that I remember were usually from the western world, including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Life Magazine photos.

The photos seemed like the “right” answers.

If other Asian photographers grew up admiring photos of a world far away from themselves, like I did, I want to advise that you can find such valuable stories in your own community.

You can photograph your family and your neighborhood.

If your passion lies in another place far away from you, sure, go for it.

Don’t limit yourself based on your background.

What I want to say is that you don’t have to go somewhere special to create great visual work.

At the same time, I’d like to emphasize looking at a wide range of photos, not just the ones created in Asia. I think it’s always beneficial to broaden the view by looking at a variety of photos.

From left, Shayla's mom, Willishia Rudd, Jessica Kolle and her daughter, Kynlee, 6, help Shayla, 16, try on a dress for the Night to Shine prom event. Jessica nursed Shayla for six years since when she was six years old and couldn't talk or eat without a feeding tube. Their families have stayed close ever since. "We are like some of their family here," Jessica said.

How do you get your subjects to open up?

I think of working on a photo project as building a relationship. While asking someone to open up, I also open myself up and share my vulnerable sides so that my subjects know who I am.

It will be easier to open up if my subjects know that I’m trustworthy and that I’m also a human like them, not a machine taking photos.

If they still refuse to open up after spending much time together, I put myself in the person’s situation to understand why they are hesitant and directly ask them as well.

Based on the understanding, I try to find another way to tell the story while my subject feels comfortable.

When my subject says no, I think it’s my role to figure out how else I can express the story.

Shayla and her dad, Kelvin, say hello to their neighbor before the prom. "She really wanted to [go to the prom]," said Shayla's mom, Willishia Rudd. "We always encourage at least [to] try something first. Give it a couple of times." Shayla's neighbors and friends visited her house on the prom day to celebrate the event.

Why do you think POY Asia is important and necessary?

If there is a competition with a good reputation, and awarded photos are shared with the people across Asian countries, more people will realize how photojournalism can enrich their lives.

They reflect on themselves, their community and others through the photos.

Understanding the concept and value of photojournalism will help people become open-minded about sharing their stories.

And hopefully, this will motivate people who love photography to dig deeper into their own community with a camera in hand.

I believe that will in turn benefit people in Asia by letting them experience their own world through photos and videos – not just visuals of big and tragic events, but visuals about different stories that give insight into their communities.

Shayla clenches her fists because she feels nervous on the way to the prom with her long-time friend, Kaden. For Shayla, the prom is not just an exciting event. It is a nerve-racking challenge. Because of her autism, ADHD, and sensory processing disorder, even her family doesn’t know how she will respond to the abundant stimuli at the event. Her whole family and friends devote their time to her preparation. They want to make sure that the prom is a memory of success that will help her grow into an independent adult. “When she’s a grown-up and we’re no longer in her life and she fails, then she’s failing on her own,” Shayla’s dad, Kelvin, said. “I think the best way to learn is to let her try and do it. And, then, she succeeds. Then she understands that she can do things without having support from her family all the time.”

What does it mean to you personally winning College Photographer of the Year?

It reinforces my belief that if someone sincerely wants something and makes the effort, most likely, the person can achieve it.

When I studied at the Missouri School of Journalism, I always looked forward to the judging season of the Pictures of the Year International and the College Pictures of the Year. Sitting behind the judges, next to my photo friends and professors, we looked at the photos in silence in darkness. I felt like the photos were speaking to me.

The photos shown in the dark room, the captions being read out and interpretations by the judges would thrill and touch me. I loved the experience of communicating with the photos so much that if I ever get a break between classes, I would go sit there. Being in awe, I truly wanted that one day, I can move someone like that with my photos.

The fact that I received the award tells me that my photos touched someone. It is as valuable as emails or texts from my readers and subjects telling me how meaningful my photos are to them. They altogether motivate me to continue to work to touch people in a more memorable way.

Yehyun Kim grew up in South Korea, and took a risk when she was 21 to live a life doing what she’s passionate about. After living in New York, D.C., Missouri, Maine, Texas and Denmark as a documentary photojournalist, she is working as a staff photojournalist at the CT Mirror in Connecticut as a corps member of Report for America. Her work focuses on religion, immigration, criminal justice and family. She is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and the Danish School of Media and Journalism. In 2020, she was named College Photographer of the Year and will be headed to National Geographic for an internship as part of the award.