For a photographer who has accomplished so much with her life, Yunghi Kim is shockingly honest in her humility. “Oh, no, I was scared shitless the whole time,” she says plainly when asked if she’s simply fearless. In 1992, Kim was kidnapped and held for ransom on an assignment to Somalia, returning to the area to finish her coverage only four days later. “I mean, you have to be because, if you’re not, then you don’t know the dangers of it. But it was something that I had to do.”
Born in South Korea, but raised in New York since the age of 10, Kim points out that English was a struggle for her. This was one of the reasons why she found herself working professionally as a photographer. “I think photography became a natural way of communicating,” she explains, “and something I discovered early on that I was good at.”
Kim began her career in 1984 with a local newspaper in Massachusetts before quickly moving on to The Boston Globe in 1987 and becoming a full-time freelancer in 1995. She was working for the Globe when she was sent to Somalia. She says that, in the ’80s, there had been a big push for companies to hire minorities and women, and as a representative of both classes in photojournalism, she felt a particular responsibility not to cave under the intense pressure that comes with being a photojournalist in a conflict zone. That’s why she chose to return to the field after the harrowing experience in Somalia.
“So I went back in,” she explains, “but I was scared the whole time.”
Kim was runner-up for the Pulitzer for her work in Somalia. There were numerous other accolades, including World Press Photo Awards and being one of only two women to have won the historic title of Magazine Photographer of the Year from Pictures of the Year International. For over 30 years, Kim has covered everything from Rwanda to Kosovo to Iraq to Afghanistan, and even Hurricane Katrina. She has also produced several personal projects, like her South Korean Comfort Women exposé in 1996, which centered on the aftermath of forced prostitution during World War II. Currently, Kim mentors five students, and she spent 13 years working with the Eddie Adams workshop, as well as faculty work for World Press Photo and the Missouri Photo Workshop. In 2012, she was awarded the United Nations’ Leadership Award (The International Photographic Council) in the field of photography.