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Interview with Y.Zin Kim―Underwater Photographer: Say “Cheese” Under the Sea!

In June, the month when summer begins in earnest, many Kingos plan to escape from their routines by traveling around. Among the various travel sites popular in summer, such as mountains or valleys, the sea might be the most popular one where Kingos can enjoy swimming in the warm sun. At the bottom of the sea, one might see Y.Zin Kim, a photographer who surprisingly turns the beauty of the sea into pictures. This month, the Sungkyun Times (SKT) met Y.Zin and heard some of the stories about her work and life.

A Challenger of the Unexplored Land

Q1. Please introduce yourself to the Kingos.

I am Y.Zin Kim, an underwater photographer. For many years, through scuba diving, I have been taking pictures of things related to the sea and water.

Q2. Is there a special reason as to why you decided to become a photographer?

I actually graduated in Fashion Design, which was not my own choice. As a teenager, I was talented in art, particularly in fields such as violin and Korean dance. My parents, however, worried that I could not manage to live a full life by having a job related to art. Therefore, at the age of 20, I compromised with them to enter the Department of Fashion Design at Dongduk Women’s University (DWU), which was one of the most popular majors at that time. While at the university, I seized the opportunity for success by chance. One of my professors submitted my assignment for the lesson I took to a design contest, which gave me an unexpected grand prize. By virtue of winning the prize, I started to work as a stylist at broadcast stations and had a chance to work with a lot of celebrities. As a stylist, I had to take pictures of celebrities wearing sponsored clothes and accessories. One day, a well-known photographer happened to see one of the pictures I took. He told me that I had a talent for photography and suggested that I learned more about it. At that time, I was having a hard time with my work. Thanks to his words, I soon became interested in that new genre, completely winding my job up as a stylist. It was the time when I rushed into photography, which was a totally new world for me.

Q3. It seems hard to find things in common between stylists and photographers. Did you have any difficulties becoming a photographer?

In my twenties, I wandered a lot. I was afraid of being an impatient person who never kept myself immersed in one thing constantly. Nevertheless, at some point, I realized that all the senses and skills I got from the field of art, where I once studied, were linked to photography. An understanding of music learned from playing the violin, of movement from Korean dance, and of visual aspects from fashion design all helped me take pictures more sensitively. For example, by using those senses, I can easily catch the mood of the subjects while taking pictures and communicate well with them. Furthermore, a financial problem was another difficulty. Starting photography as a profession, I was not sure if I could maintain my life by taking pictures. Most importantly, I was worried whether I could become known as a photographer in my own right, not just as a pupil of a famous photographer.

Q4. As a photographer, which beliefs or attitudes do you have when taking pictures?

I regard myself as a “messenger.” I do not think that I have extraordinary skills as a photographer. Rather, I have emphasized the aspect of communication. For me, it is communication with subjects that decide the quality of the pictures. If a picture is taken without any communication, it will have no attraction just like a stiff encyclopedia. With communication, however, a picture can have power, conveying the unique mood and beauty of the circumstances where it was taken. In other words, communication makes it possible for people to understand the picture well, even though they were not actually there at the time and place that the photo was taken. This is what I emphasize as a photographer. People can be changed if they feel that they must be changed by themselves. Therefore, I try to provide an opportunity to change through the content of my photographs which act as messages.

A Magician with a Camera Under the Sea

Q5. It is the “sea” that comes to mind first when thinking about Y.Zin. It seems that taking photos under the sea is a magical experience. Why did you start underwater photography

At first, it was curiosity that made me get interested in underwater photography. Since my teacher went to Africa at the time, I had to find my own way as a photographer. While finding my own photographic style, I accidently saw an album by Nirvana, one of the most popular rock bands of the 90s. When I was in high school, I loved listening to rock music so much that I had an album of Nirvana’s. On the front cover of one of their albums, there is a baby swimming under water, trying to catch a dollar bill. Looking at the cover, l suddenly became curious about how the shot was taken. At first, I thought that it might have been photoshopped, so I gathered all the information from friends who were studying abroad to solve that question and finally got to know the answer: it was underwater photography. I looked for more information about underwater photography then, but there was very little information related to it in Korea. It meant that underwater photography was an unexplored field at that time, so I decided to become the first person to step into it. That is, curiosity was eventually converted into the real spirit of challenge.

Q6. You have been taking pictures of the sea for a decade. What does the “sea” mean to you?

For me, the sea is my studio. Every photographer has his or her own studio, and in my case, it is the sea. I also had a large studio once in the middle of Apgujeong-dong, but I made a big decision to work without a studio. Humorously, the fact that I do not have my own studio now makes me a person with one of the largest studios in the world: the sea. In Korea, it is common for a photographer who does not have a studio to have difficulties in getting any job offers. I was certain, however, that once I became an irreplaceable photographer, people would still work with me even if I did not have a studio, and as you can see, I made it.

Q7. At the time when you got interested in underwater photography, you were told that your physical condition was not suitable for scuba diving. Can you tell the Kingos about the story?

I went to hospital and saw a doctor because of a long-lasting flu virus, which I considered to be pneumonia. I had a thorough examination to get a detailed diagnosis result, which let me realize my uncommon physical condition. The doctor told me that my heart was positioned in the middle of my chest, which was fortunately not a big deal in daily life. If I drowned, however, I could be killed by cardiopulmonary resuscitation as my ribs would start penetrating my heart. Furthermore, my lungs were relatively small compared to those of others. All of these conditions can be dangerous when I swim or do scuba diving. Despite these physical conditions, I am still a photographer who loves a challenge. My parents once tried to stop me from swimming or scuba diving, and I was also actually frightened after deciding to do underwater photography. Nevertheless, my passion towards the challenge was much bigger than the fear of death. In fact, I later realized that my small lung size could be an unexpected advantage in scuba diving at the same time. I can spend more time under water than other people, because I use relatively less amounts of air from the oxygen tank when I breathe.

Q8. Compared to photography above water, what are the differences of underwater photography?

What are the attractions that only underwater photography have? Unlike photography on the ground, underwater photography itself requires the photographer to be an explorer. It is an exploration for the photographer to understand the water, enter the sea, and take pictures while protecting his or her own life. Since photography is originally an art of light, underwater photography which is done using limited light, has a unique characteristic. As you go deeper into the sea, all light and color disappear. It is ironic to practice in the art of light, photography, in a place where there is almost no light at all. In addition, the angle of light, movement of the subject, and pressure under the water are all far different from those on the ground. All of them are unstable and unpredictable. For instance, every movement under the sea is in slow motion since water pushes a person back as much as he or she pushes. I think all these factors make underwater photography attractive.

Q9. Particularly during the working process of underwater photography, are there any factors that make you react more sensitively than others?

I emphasize safety more than all other things. While a photographer can freely and directly communicate with members of the working team on the ground, it is impossible to do so under the sea. In underwater photography, I must make every possible consultation before going into the sea and follow it. In other words, it is easy to be in dangerous situations under water, so I am sensitive to safety problems of individuals.

A Dreamer Shaping Her Own Future

Q10. In the project Happy Haenyeo, you have taken pictures of Haenyeos, Korean women divers from Jeju Island. Do you have any special reasons for photographing their lives? What message do you want to send through the project?

After about three years since I started underwater photography, I experienced a slump with my work, doubting if it was right to keep doing underwater photography or not. I did not know exactly whether I liked taking pictures or scuba diving. To answer this question, I visited U Island, Jeju Island, only with equipment for scuba diving, without a camera. When I arrived there, I found a group of Haenyeos. While observing them, I unconsciously took my friend’s camera and started to take their photos, which was a kind of instinct. Although I did not know the reason as to why I took their pictures, I could definitely feel my desire for photography, which ended my slump. The Haenyeo I saw were not the same as I thought them to be. From school, I learned that Haenyeos were old women in the fishing industry, usually living in poverty. In reality, however, they were the first career women of matriarchy, who enjoyed their job. Their mood was so cheerful and vigorous. I soon realized that things that I believed to be true may not always be true. I wanted to share their marvelous lives with people around the world, resolving the misunderstanding about them. Thus, I started the project called Happy Haenyeo. As you can see, the title of the project shows the goal of it, portraying Haenyeos as happy working women under the sea. As the project went on, some of the Haenyeos actually told me that they could have more pride for their jobs thanks to the photographs. They had been thinking they had a menial and humble job throughout their long lives, but they could be consoled through the project. One of them even cried, thanking me for helping to show her know that her job was more valuable than she thought to be.

Q11. Recently, you have started the project Shark Savers to protect sharks from being poached. Have you always had an interest in the marine environment as an underwater photographer?

As I said, the sea is my studio, so I have had a lot of interest in the marine environment for a long time. Since the sea is a precious part of nature on Earth, it must be inherited by the next generations. The sea of 10 years ago, however, and that of now, are obviously different. Therefore, I wanted to clean my studio, the sea. I thought I had to do something before the marine environment was entirely destroyed. This was the beginning of the project Shark Savers, which aims to protect sharks from thoughtlessly being poached for their edible fins. The goal of the project is also directly linked to the balance of the marine environment. As sharks are at the top of the marine food chain, the whole natural balance of the marine ecosystem would collapse if they disappeared. Moreover, I have another plan, which is to refrain from the usage of plastics. There are plenty of different types of plastics wasted in daily life, such as plastic cups or straws from cafés. All these wasted plastics do harm the environment, so it is important to reduce the amount of plastic goods we use. This plan will be an activity to emphasize the balance of nature along with Shark Savers.

Q12. Are there any new topics or events that are catching your attention nowadays? Please tell the Kingos about what kind of photos you would like to take in the future.

I will keep doing the work that I have been doing so far. Among these, I want to extend the project related to fairy tales; I am now finding stories linked to the sea or water such as Byeoljubujeon or Shimchengjeon, which are Korean traditional folk tales. In fact, I already took several photos whose themes were the Little Mermaid and Alice in Wonderland, which, I think, are a little too common. That is, I would like to direct and shoot the pictures of new stories that I found by oneself, while conducting other projects at the same time.

Q13. Based on your experiences, do you have any last words for the Kingos dreaming of a new challenge?

Keep in mind that you would have to endure 100 things you hate for one thing you want to achieve. What you pursue might seem so desirable and splendid, but there are the other 100 irritating things hidden that may be unrelated to your goal but inevitable at the same time. If you do not stand by them, you can never achieve what you desire. For example, you may have to work at a coffee shop or stop drinking alcohol to do underwater photography. Thus, I recommend you write 100 requirements as well as your final goal. You can use them to carry out your plans for accomplishing the goal every day, just as I did before. By doing so, the thing you want will finally become yours completely, and nobody will be able to refute it. In other words, your thirties will be made by your days in your twenties. And, this will be the same in your forties, and so on. How much you have strived for your dreams before decides your future.

이수연  pim545@skku.edu

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