Yunghi Kim: Master Of Standing Ground

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.

"I was very interested in the rise and the fall of the Occupy Wall Street movement and how it took on a national level," explains veteran photojournalist Yunghi Kim about her latest personal project, "but then it kind of fizzled out. The NYPD was very effective in clamping down on protests and arresting many of them. They have undercover cops everywhere, implanted, embedded with the protestors; they seem to know who the right groups are. I’ve covered protests in Europe and other places. I think the U.S. police are more about containment, and I think the way the NYPD works is arrest everyone and let the courts decide later. That’s my take on it, so things never really get out of hand as you’d see in protests in Europe, where there’s often tear gas."

Now, as the photographer and teacher is settling into her version of slowing down, she has turned her eye and cherished wide-angle lens to matters at home. Kim’s recent black-and-white series that captures the visceral intensity of the Occupy protests is all the more shocking when you realize that the majority of the action was photographed up close with her 24mm lens.

"By the time you’ve figured out if you’re going to change the lens, sometimes you’re better off running in," Kim says, "rather than trying to figure out which different lens is on your other body. Sometimes you do need to do that because the police won’t let you get close, but I wanted to be able to run with the protesters. These are, like, 20-year-old kids or younger, so it was challenging to keep up with them. They would play these cat-and-mouse games where they would run away from the cops, and I would have to go and run away with them. And, then, also, sometimes I’m running backward and shooting as I’m running. If I have a long 70-200, I don’t think I can do that."

When asked if she had problems with the police herself, Kim admits, "I got pushed down by police. I think I’m thankful that I wasn’t arrested because there were a lot of photographers and journalists who were." She quickly follows this up by saying that she wished she had been even more aggressive in her coverage. She would watch and follow the "NYPD top brass" as they moved to surveillance of many of the most active groups, which she would, in turn, document, as these were clearly the protestors of most interest to the authorities.

"I have a nose for news," says Kim. "Having been in the industry and having a newspaper background for 12 years, I know a good story when I see it," she laughs. "So when this Occupy thing happened, I came across it by accident, and it’s right in my backyard in New York City, a 20-minute subway ride. So how can you not cover it? It’s part of New York history, really."

Continues Kim, "There are photographers who focus on their work only, and there are those who want to educate others. I’m the latter. I use social media to educate and share what I know of 30 years. Also, I’m a big believer in capturing a moment as it unfolds. Position yourself to be there to document when shit is going down. This was my approach and focus with the protest. I wasn’t interested in static ‘holding signs’ images, but rather I wanted to focus on the energy within these protests."

"I like to think that if you look at the Comfort Women and the Rwandan refugee crises, there’s a certain amount of intimacy and emotion," Kim says. "Those are the qualities that are important to me, that I’m able to establish intimacy with a situation or subject, and also capture the emotions of the people that I photograph. That’s always been the signature for me; a lot of my assignments in the past are based on that. So whether a refugee crisis or a profile on a CEO or doing a story on the Comfort Women, it’s really about telling a story about who they are and what their emotions are."

Alongside teaching, Kim is working to update her considerable archive of film photography for the digital age. After finding that several unlicensed images had gone viral on websites across the globe, she has also been working to educate younger photographers on the inherent dangers of exchanging intellectual property rights in exchange for Internet traffic. She sees that most content creators, from musicians to writers to photographers, are fighting the same fight, to salvage their intellectual property rights while still being able to promote their work.

"There has to be paid content on the Internet," she says. "That’s for journalism, that’s for TV, that’s for anybody who creates original content. We have this trend where everything is free, everybody is getting a free ride, and I think the biggest mistake that newspapers made years ago was putting content online for free in lieu of traffic, and that’s the pitch that Google and these Internet companies a
lways advocate—you’re getting exposure. And that’s where we’re at, and meanwhile, no one is making enough money. I look at it as, ‘No one in this industry survives if they give away their content for free.’"

Adds Kim, "Everybody is going on Instagram because they want to get the followers, they think it’s going to be the subscription model. But there are complications with the terms of service with these platforms. They’re changing every six months with copyright grabs and privacy issues, so it seems like the technology is moving faster than the legal system is able to catch up. From my perspective, everybody is making up their own rules, whether legal or not. They’re getting away with it, and there’s not enough oversight. Sometimes I let people use my work when they’ve asked me and I’m okay with it. It’s when people think that they can take your work without permission. And there are ads on those sites. They think that they’re going to be profitable, they think that they will be the next BuzzFeed or Huffington Post, so the excuse they use is fair use. Everything is a fair use, now, and I think that all has to be challenged in the courts. Meanwhile, my philosophy is that I try to educate."

You can see more of Yunghi Kim’s photojournalism at Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

What I Use

Yunghi Kim has a signature style that’s only heightened by her primary lens of choice, the Canon EF 24mm ƒ/1.4L, an unusual selection for a photojournalist, as you must be very, very close to the action in order to achieve any intimacy in a shot. But when done correctly, as Kim has mastered, the wide-angle can capture the visceral intensity of a foreground subject while adding quite a bit of background information to a scene. Kim relied heavily on this lens during her recent coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the body of work captures a gravitas largely ignored by many of the other photojournalists who were documenting the movement, who instead chose to concentrate on glib slogans, cute signs and the drab conditions. With Kim, up close and personal is a bit of an understatement.

"I don’t work with a lot of different lenses," she says. "I have them, and I’ve used them over the years, but I like to stick with what I’m comfortable with. Because I shot the Occupy movement as sort of a personal project, I had the luxury to do that, so it’s really all shot with one lens. The 24mm ƒ/1.4 from Canon, that’s my bread-and-butter lens, and I know how to frame it really well. A lot of this is knowing how your equipment works without even having to think about it. So I know my Canon and this lens really well, and I stay with what I’m comfortable with."

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