Kim Ki Chan

kim1Every once in a while, I will just pick a book off a library shelf and check it out without quite knowing what’s inside. The University of Michigan is a great place to do this.

This time, I picked up a book of works by Korean photography Kim Ki Chan. Kim passed away in 2005, but spent the brunt of his adult life documenting Seoul, and its (and Korea’s) transformation into one of the richest areas in the world.

His pictures, rather than focusing on rampant consumerism and youth culture, center on the back alleys of the urban poor. Mostly black and white, his portraits of local Korean families struggling to get by are stunningly beautiful. I’m positive that the pictures appeared vastly different at the times they were taken, but looking at them now and thinking about how Korea has grown, one can’t help but thinking that the subjects are filled with anything but optimism.

Kim’s subjects are overwhelmingly poor. This presents a challenge to a photographer, who can often run onto dangerous ground of portraying the poor as sad and helpless, or romanticizing poverty as cute and adorable. Kim does neither. It’s clear that many of the subjects know Kim already, probably as a friend. He probably saw some of the kids he photographed grow up and have their own over his long career.

My experience in Korea is really quite limited. I went there a couple of times in the late 90’s but my lack of Korean kept me from venturing out to the areas in which Kim operated. I’m sad that I never had the chance to see them, but suspect that some of it still remains.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

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