Capturing the world in his lensKim Jung-man, a leading Korean photographer, defies his age. With his hip dreadlocks, Mr. Kim, who was born in 1954, has the infectious, innocent smile of a child ― too innocent for a person who has had an eventful career spanning more than three decades, including being banished from Korea twice by the Chun Doo Hwan military regime of the 1980s.
Beyond the naive look in his eyes, Mr. Kim exudes a gentle yet strong charisma. Standing in front of his Nikon camera, his subjects, ranging from movie stars to average people, all surrender to his power as a photographer.
Despite establishing a reputation with the public as a star photographer through a series of celebrity pictures, that’s not quite what defines Mr. Kim’s world.
From lions in the savannah wilderness of Kenya to “still-life” photos, Mr. Kim has sought challenges in his work, something that continues today. Listen to Mr. Kim, who is better known as a fashion and advertising photographer, saying, “A photograph that doesn’t sell is a good photograph.”
But this principle does not apply to his latest photo exhibit, at Topo Haus in Seoul, titled “It’s Alive for Every Child,” part of whose profits will be donated to help children.
For the exhibit, proposed by Plan Korea, a member of a worldwide association that supports children in need, Mr. Kim traveled to Nepal and Kenya for about 20 days. “I’m not much of a philanthropist, and I think helping someone out should not be done too easily,” Mr. Kim says. “ Also, I thought photographs of children didn’t quite fit me. But after it all, I learned a lot.”
Lee Sang-joo, the director of Plan Korea, says, “Based on his good reputation and rich experience in Africa, Mr. Kim was the only photographer for the job, so we took months to persuade him.”
Mr. Kim traveled to a small village in Kenya, where he met a 4-year-old girl named Tiffany who was born with AIDS. From his photographer’s mindset he almost automatically asked Tiffany to smile, only to regret it after watching the girl’s big eyes reflect nothing but despair.
“Pressing the shutter, I found myself crying for the first time in my career, and so did Tiffany,” he says. A local Plan official later told him that he was the only photographer, out of about six from other countries, who tried to get close to Tiffany. Others all arrived, took photos and left in a flash, never making friends with the children.
That was not the case with Mr. Kim, who has had his share of despair in the past.
Born in Cheolwon, Gangwon province, Mr. Kim left the country as a teenager in 1971 to follow his father, a physician who dreamed of healing the world by volunteering in Africa. At the time, countries like Kenya had plenty of people who needed medical help, but no high schools. So Mr. Kim traveled to France alone, where he entered the National School of Decorative Art in Nice (Ecole Nationale d’Art Decoratif de Nice), to major in Western painting.
Working on the same monochrome painting for three months, Mr. Kim felt happy, since fine arts was what he thought he wanted to pursue. But it didn’t take him long to find out he was wrong.
One day, a Japanese friend at his school asked him for help in developing photographs. Being in a darkroom for the first time, Mr. Kim decided then and there that he would spend his whole life doing photography.
“A thunderbolt hit me hard in the head,” Mr. Kim recalls. “Watching photographs being developed within five minutes was enough to make me realize what I needed to do for the rest of my life.”
He soon changed his major, against the advice of his professors, only to find that it was not so easy to follow a dream. “Photography back then was not much of a thing to pursue,” Mr. Kim says, smiling. “Also, I had no budget for a camera, not to mention film.” So he borrowed a camera from his Japanese friend until he got his own, which he was never apart from except while sleeping and eating.
A few years later, he found himself gaining a reputation in France as a photographer, receiving awards and recognition, along with French citizenship. In 1979, he decided that it was time to come back to Korea, a place he once called home, where he had many things he wanted to do, including staging a solo exhibition. The journey back home, however, was far from happy.
To this day, he vividly remembers the strength in the arms of the men who dragged him to the airport to deport him in 1985. Not knowing why, Mr. Kim found himself in an economy class seat on the first available flight out of the country.
He was not unaware of the power of the military regime of Chun Doo Hwan, but Mr. Kim was only trying to open a solo exhibition in Seoul in 1985, expecting a hearty welcome from his home country as a successful, promising young photographer from France.
One thing he did not know, however, was that he had to first file a report with the government to have any type of exhibition, something he did not do. That was sufficient reason for the regime to exile Mr. Kim on the first plane out of the country, and he found himself in Tokyo, penniless.
Walking out of Narita Airport to find the closest motel, Mr. Kim begged the owner to allow him to stay a night until his friends could come and get him. From his small room, through tearful eyes he saw an empty pool, which drew him outside, where he noticed thin grass growing between rocks nearby. At that point, he thought he was as insignificant as the grass. He took a photo of the scene, which marked a turning point, he recalls.
“Before that, I drew more than I took photographs,” Mr. Kim says. “Cameras were only substitutes for brushes and colors for me, because I arranged everything beforehand to make the scene look perfect for a photograph. From then on, however, I learned to take a photograph of something as it is, like the grass.”
He found himself in another predicament in 1986, soon after he returned to Korea. He was living with a star actress of the time, Oh Su-mi, who had an affair with a movie director, Shin Sang-ok, who was kidnapped to North Korea. But one day that year, he found a man in a black suit, apparently from the all-powerful intelligence agency, at his door, saying, “Director Shin escaped North Korea.” Mr. Kim only murmured, “Great.” The next thing he knew, he was again forced to the airport to take the first plane leaving the country. This time he ended up in Los Angeles.
After landing in California, he managed to stay first at a motel, then at the homes of acquaintances. Too upset to move on, he lived with his camera as his only joy, taking pictures almost every moment. Now he can joke about it, saying, “I’m thinking about buying the motel someday.”
Although he returned to Korea in the 1990s, he still finds it painful to remember the mid-1980s, when he suffered from controversies over drug use that led him to be taken to a mental institution against his will and his dual French and Korean nationalities.
Yet, he considers that the time spent in pain added a lot to his career and life. “It was a toll that I had to pay to be an artist, after all,” Mr. Kim says. “And I don’t think I was too far ahead of my time, or anything like that. I just guess that I might have been a pain in the neck for that age. That’s it.” Then, smiling, he adds, “I’m quite an optimist.”
He has reasons to be positive. Decades later, he sits in his studio, tucked into a corner of upscale Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul. Time has passed, and his country has belatedly yet warmly welcomed him.
He’s one of the busiest people on the scene, with his cell phone’s ring tone, “Shape of My Heart,” sounding every few minutes. After last year’s well-received solo exhibitions and an invitation to the Gwangju Biennale, and with his current exhibition, which he thinks would have pleased his late father the most, Mr. Kim is now a sought-after photographer.
In publishing a number of books, Mr. Kim has shown a diversity of interests, with more projects coming in the future. Among many are a book about his 1999 journey to Africa to photograph wild animals without using a telephoto lens.
Getting as close as he could to the animals, ranging from zebras to lions, is his happiest memory. “When I appoached a lion to a distance of only about 10 meters (33 feet), I was in the middle of a fantasy, feeling the electricity all over my body,” he says.
His future projects include taking a new set of postcard photographs of Korea, to present the positive side of his home country. As a figure in the forefront of the photography scene, he says he is trying to remain in the field as long as he can. “People retire too soon here, which does not lead to any further development,” Mr. Kim says.
What are his photography secrets? He does not hesitate to say, “When I photograph a person, he or she is the most beautiful being on this earth to me on that day. Of course there are people I don’t like, yet I try hard to like even just 1 percent of the person. Only then do I take a photograph.”
Then he adds, “A photographer does not make something out of nothing. He has to learn how to deliver what’s real. Be it Nikon or Canon or Pentax, [the camera] is never important. It’s the heart of the photographer that counts. You should not take a picture unless your heart moves first.”
Mr. Kim says he always asks himself, “Can I be mad about this? Can I die for this?
“You have to pose these questions to yourself seriously, then decide. You never know what will happen tomorrow. Though I’m drawn to a flower today, I may be completely enraptured by pebbles on the street [tomorrow]. C’est la vie.”
Then, wearing the brightest smile of the interview, he says, “For the first two decades of my career, I was dying to have enough film. Now I do, which makes me happy as I am.”
by Chun Su-jin