Mossless in America is a column featuring interviews with documentary photographers. The series is produced in partnership with Mossless magazine, an experimental photography publication run by Romke Hoogwaerts and Grace Leigh. Romke started Mossless in 2009, as a blog in which he interviewed a different photographer every two days; since 2012 the magazine has produced two print issues, each dealing with a different type of photography. Mossless was featured prominently in the landmark 2012 exhibition Millennium Magazine at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; it is supported by Printed Matter, Inc. Its third issue, a major photographic volume on American documentary photography from the last ten years, titled The United States (2003–2013), was published this spring.Yeon J. Yue is an NYC-based photographer born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1979. After serving alongside US Air Force troops while in the Korean Air Force stationed at Osan Air Base, in the city of Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Yue became interested in documenting the lives of American military families. He came to America to attend Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and went on to receive an MFA in photography from Columbia University. We talked with him about the family album as an art form, life on military bases, and the sometimes sad, ironic beauty of soldiers' domestic lives.VICE: You’re from Seoul, South Korea. When did you move to the United States?Yeon J. Yue: I came to Los Angeles the day after Christmas in 2006. It already has been almost eight years now.Where do you call home?Neither Korea nor the United States. I think we are all thrown around by the world. We often think we are making decisions, but we just do what we can do, live where we are thrown to live. It's all unexpected. Especially after I got married and had my son, where I call home really does not matter to me anymore.At 22 you enlisted in the Korean Air Force to fulfill your national duty and served alongside the US air force for two and a half years. What was that time in your life like?I served my national duty from March of 2001 to September of 2003. Shortly after I joined, 9/11 happened. Actually, the environment of working at the US base was not very new to me, since I lived there for couple of years while my father was serving for his national service. But 9/11 and all its political, financial, and social aftermath was quite striking to a 20-year-old Korean man, and certainly to these young American men and women who lived abroad.I was a troublemaker, though. I didn't like all those strict regulations, or the unfair gap in working conditions between American and Korean military. I remember I was angry all the time. I didn't even know what I was angry about. I fought a lot, I argued with lots of people, both Koreans and Americans. But strangely, some people really liked who I was, what I did, and supported how I thought. It was a very interesting time in my life.After the time you spent with the US Air Force, you started to document the lives of US military families. What about your time serving alongside the US Air Force compelled you to start this series?I became very interested in vernacular photographs and family snapshots when I was living in Glendale, California, attending Art Center College of Design. The family album is very basic form of photography, and I was interested in its unique qualities and characteristics. It has no style. It has no message or direction. It just exists. I liked it. I liked the simplicity of it. So I started to photograph my neighbors. And after a couple of years spent on the West Coast, I decided to study further in an MFA program, and luckily I got accepted at Columbia University. I always wanted to do this cross-country. And I started it as an expanded project of the family album photographs.When I thought about America, and what America meant to me, it always reminded me of my childhood, when I first moved to Osan Air Base: Scary K-9 dogs stood in front of the main gate. Visiting an officer's house that had a nice staircase and a huge fake chandelier above my head. His magic show, where he pulled my mom's underwear out from over her pants, which I thought was very cool. McDonald's signs, Kentucky Fried Chicken signs, and all the drunken soldiers at night. And lastly, the smell of Tide from the laundry.One of our favorite images of yours is Gun in a Vase. The photograph captures a bedside flower arrangement with the gun kind of hidden among the flowers. It’s quite an alarming image. What is the backstory here?It is my friend Tony and Lisa's bedroom. I met him when I was serving at Osan, and he worked many times with me at the main gate. We have been friends ever since. He was 19. I was 22. We both were young. Since he got deployed to Afghanistan, we had not talked for five years. I don't even remember how we got back in touch again, but I remember that the day we talked for the first time after five years. He was on his honeymoon in San Diego.He invited me to Shevlin, Minnesota, where he lives, when I was on a cross-country road trip. I really wanted to meet him, and I decided to sleep in my car for a week to save some money to buy the flight ticket. Luckily it was summer. When I arrived there, it was a surreal experience to me. We all had gotten older, were in our 30s, and our fearless days were gone.The next morning, after Lisa went to work, I saw their bedside. I saw there was gun in the vase next to their honeymoon photograph. I thought that was America. It was sad, but ironically, it was beautiful.What's next for you?I am photographing and filming at acting schools in New York City. I'm also photographing with all kinds of digital cameras for another kind of family portrait, which will be made of photographs of the families near where I live.Yeon J. Yue received an MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University in 2011. His work has been exhibited in solo shows in New York City and Birmingham, Alabama, and shown in various group exhibitions in Los Angeles, Säo Paulo, and Seoul.
How did you start photography?
To be honest, starting photography was a spontaneous decision. Growing up in a family of doctors, I did not have the opportunity to be exposed to other job fields nor did I have the interest.
Naturally I believed that I was going to become a doctor until I saw this TV show in Korea.
To my recollection this show introduced works and life stories of Western photographers such as Henry Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, Robert Capa, Alfred Steiglitz. For someone who was planning on becoming a doctor solely based on his family's expectations, their passion and movement behind their photographs were fascinating and truly inspirational. That's when I confronted my father and told him that I no longer wanted to become a doctor but wanted to pursue photography. He was supportive at the time but looking back, it probably wasn't pleasant news for him.
Perhaps even after starting my studies in photography, I probably didn't think I was going to become a photographer. In such Korean society with strong hierarchical rules, a point of view from a young and inexperienced student was not of others' interests nor were they willing to explore what my interests were. I simply enjoyed moments when people approached with questions, intrigued by what I photographed, thus showing interest in what I was interested in. After all, photography was a tool for me to say, "Please, hear what I want to say..".
For me, photography is a gradual evolution – it’s a record of trace from a repetitive cycle of progression and regression, success and failure. Ever since I came to the U.S. five years ago, photography has become an integrated language of my photographic gesture, writing, speech and my way of organizing complex thoughts.
These thoughts are always intertwined and transferred between time and space, reality and fiction.
That is why I need to constantly keep records – unplanned and improvised records that I could look back on and easily organize what I once thought. I still make decisions spontaneously, just like I have when I first started photography and organize my records of trace in a way to say, "Please, hear what I want to say..".
Can you tell us about your project The Grey American Landscape and The Afterimage of Mono(dia)logue? What do the titles mean and what are the projects about?
First of all, in order to talk about Gray American Landscape I would have to explain what the medium of photography is to me. Photography is a way to explore the world and the most important tool to understand people. As I mentioned before, it was 5 years ago when I moved to California from Korea, since photography turned into a desire to get to know people from merely being a tool to say “Please, hear what I want to say”.
At the time, I had no connection here nor were there anything that I cared about. So, I began taking photographs of my first neighborhood and slowly started to build relationships with people here. This process allowed me to build sincere relationships with others and created an excellent opportunity to think about people.
Meanwhile I was admitted to Columbia University in 2009. Taking a five hour flight from California to New York seemed most ideal but I didn’t want to do that. How exciting is it to be able to photograph the U.S like Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld! I had to take the opportunity and plan a 3-months long cross country road trip. However, upon vaguely deciding on taking a road trip, I couldn’t help but wonder what the U.S meant to me – I was so confused. I came to a point where I was on the verge of giving up on the trip, but realized that I rather had experience with the U.S early on in my life both directly and indirectly.
I spent my childhood in Song-Tan, Korea where my father worked alongside the U.S. Airforce for 3 years from 1984. I also spent my 3 years of national duty with U.S. soldiers at the same location during my 20s. This is how I experienced American culture through the U.S. Military during my childhood and my most sensitive times during my early 20s.
I wanted to depict U.S Military families and the area under the subject of American Landscape and that is how my first project began. These military families played a significant role in my project as my curiosity was drawn to their direct and indirect experiences from their America's long history of wars.
I came up with the title Grey American Landscape when I visited military bases to get permission to photograph these families by Googling different locations. They were indicated in grey – a mere coincidence of it being a neutral and achromatic color.
Afterimage of Mono(Dia)logue is a project that came across during the time when I was most mentally (or psychologically) exhausted. After the completion of the Grey American Landscape project, I not only began to agonize over figuring out an identity for my project but also for my own identity.
I reached a point where I thought it was meaningless to get to know others when I clearly did not understand who I was. I felt like a liar.
That’s when I began to take photographic records of my daily life moment by moment without a defined subject matter. When I came to edit these images, the only things left behind were the reality of what I once saw and emotional residues.
I wanted to portray these structures of fiction and non-fiction, existence and presence, and further reflect my assimilation to American life exploring encounters of illusion and reality as a photographer living abroad.
Under my hypothesis that photography is an afterimage of my memory, I attempted to edit with a monologic tone. In reality, monologues are usually used in fictional stages like plays or movies as a way to communicate with the audience, excluding moments to express extreme excitement or anger. Although an audience may or may not exist while I am taking pictures or even when I am editing the images, I thought my project was a way to communicate my photographic narrative to virtual audiences. That is why I made this project titled Afterimage of Mono(Dia)logue.
The editing of the two projects seem really different from each other -- how did the edits and presentations come about for the two projects?
Certainly, two projects have completely different contents and results from editing, but, there is no big difference in the process of editing. To me, photography is closer to literature among all kinds of writings. Literature is especially different from theories or dissertations. Photography is a subjective outgrowth based on reality the photographer has experienced. In other words, it has to contain myself and something related to my life. I don’t think my photography has reached that level, yet and that’s why I always question whether my images are from my life and my curiosity.
In Grey American Landscape, I talk about the American landscape by looking at military families, and try to find a balance between American landscape and those families.
In Afterimage of Mono(dia)logue, I try to create a photographic narrative of my memories by using repetition, sequencing, and spatial perception. With this project, I was especially open to explore various options of installations. When an image is projected in one's head it unconsciously slides to the next image and creates a memory loop. The focus of editing this project was on the process of memory based on several images overlapping through repetition created from my own memory loop. Exploring different options for installation was critical in order to relay this process of memory.
In the meantime, I realized that the viewers had their own way of perceiving these images based on their diverse experience and complexity. Thus, these images were constantly reproduced into different narratives based on when, where, how and who these images were presented to.
How do you feel your life in Korean culture play into your current work?
I never intended to directly incorporate ‘Korea’ into my projects. However, my first attempt was in Afterimage of Mono(Dia)logue where I tried to incorporate the characteristic of Oriental letters into the installation. In Oriental lettering the letters do not pass under the bottom line (unlike alphabets y, g or p). The project was installed aligning the bottom line of all images as a reflection of this characteristic. On the other hand, Western lettering was incorporated by visually emphasizing certain images. I guess this is rather a stretch to say Korean culture played into my current work.
As much as Korea is geographically exposed to opportunities of invasion as a peninsula, different Asian cultures are melted within the Korean culture. Moreover, the best way to describe Korea is by using metaphysical things, Ki (Sprit/Energy), Heung (Joy/Pleasure), and Jung (Affection/Attachment). Honestly, I don’t know – it’s indisputable that I’m Korean. And as a photographer who believes that photography is not from change or challenge but an evolution, the Korean side of me won’t show at once. I believe that as multiple projects accumulate, a hint of Korean culture will be played in my projects, entirely.
You seem to be getting a lot of access -- how do approach your subjects and become a part of their lives?
Even though I’ve lived here for five years and am married and waiting to become a dad, the most difficult thing for me is to earn other’s heart (including my wife’s-You will know this as well hehe). Approaching others with a camera which people tend to be afraid of and speaking to them in not-so-perfect English, there’s really no reason for them to welcome my presence when I take pictures of them. That’s why I tend to spend a lot of time with them before I start shooting. I put my camera away and start by making a conversation. I start by asking how long they’ve been in the area, suggestions on where to visit and simple things that simply interest me. I am always intrigued by stories our conversations will lead to.