In the late 1970s, Sarah-Ji and her family left Seoul, Korea and relocated to Chicago’s north side. This move sparked her interest in photography as a way to remember the past. She made her first photographs as a teenager. According to Sarah-Ji, “photography became a natural medium to capture mementos of the life around me.” She photographs to remember, to hold time in her hands.
Sarah-Ji, "WormfarmD-Tour051," 2009, photos by permission.
A&L: Photography is a way to remember, and I am curious to find out what you think your photographs reveal about yourself?
S-J: An artist who was viewing my work once commented that my photographs have a very nostalgic quality about them. I don't know why it never occurred to me until that moment that my photographs, to a large degree, are the manifestation of my deeply sentimental side.
Sarah-Ji, "County Mile," 2008, photos by permission.
I capture the little moments of every day life with the people I love in the places I cherish, and to me, these images are my collection of ephemera so that I won't forget the beautiful mundane slices of life.
Another common thread running through my photography is my love of night-time images. Hands down, this is my favorite time to shoot. I think one of the reasons for this is that I am extremely shy and would prefer to be invisible most of the time. Although in a big city like Chicago, it never gets totally dark, the night does provide me with somewhat of a cloak of anonymity that frees me up to shoot with more abandon.
Another reason I enjoy shooting at night so much is that I love seeing details that would otherwise go unnoticed. You would think that it would be easier to see such details by the light of day, but surprisingly, I have found that my eyes become more attuned to the subtle aspects of my environment when it isn't flooded with the all-revealing glare of daylight.
A&L: On your web site, you talk about how photography became a medium for you to “capture mementos of the life around you.” In what ways do you think the photographic medium expands or limits the art of storytelling?
I personally think that photography enhances the art of storytelling because it leaves room for the imagination. A photograph, in general, captures one single image of one single moment in one single place. How can that tell a story? On the surface, it may not seem to, but if it can draw in the audience, it's only natural for the viewer to ponder What's going on? What happened before? What happens next? Who are these people?
S-J: And before you know it, the viewer weaves together a story in an attempt to make sense of the photograph. Even an entire series of photographs cannot capture every single image of every moment. If it did, what you'd have is video or film, and not a photograph. In photographing a series, the photographer chooses which elements of the story to include (and thereby establish a concrete plotline), and which to leave up to the viewer's imagination.
A&L: Do you remember taking your first photograph? What camera did you use?
S-J: I can't say I remember my very FIRST photograph, as I was a kid, but I'm pretty sure it was of flowers. The camera was an old Canon Compact that used 110 film. This was the camera that my dad bought back in 1978 at the airport in Tokyo while changing planes between Seoul and the United States. I believe we had to run to make our next flight because of that camera purchase.
A&L: How would you describe your photographic style?
S-J: I consider myself a narrative photographer, which I suppose is in the vein of documentary photography. Storytelling is very important to me in all aspects of my life. Photography is one way I capture the stories that are meaningful to me personally.
A&L: Tell us the story behind this photo (Working Late)?
S-J: This photo is of a shop window for a waxing salon called Trim in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. I used to live just a couple blocks away during the time in my life when I began to take photography seriously, and coming back to this neighborhood is always soaked in nostalgia for me, even though so many of the storefronts are new since I moved away. When I took this photo, I was in the middle of one of those full-on nostalgia sessions, and that is reflected in the way that I chose to process the color in post-editing.
A&L: What makes a photograph great?
S-J: I don’t think there is a universal set of standards that a photograph must meet to be considered great. For me, personally, the photos that stand out are the ones that spark my curiosity and make me come up with a story to fit with the photo or to ask all sorts of questions about it.
A&L: Who are your favorite photographers and artists?
S-J: I've never studied photography or art formally, and I have to admit that I haven’t spent much time looking at the work of other photographers, at least not as much as I’d like to. As a result, this list is probably quite limited in scope, and I’m definitely open to suggestions on photographers and artists I should check out.
I am a big fan of Dorothea Lange, the documentary photographer who poignantly captured the extreme hardships suffered by so many during the Great Depression. Probably more than any other photographer, she has shaped my long-term goals for photography.
Other photographers whose work I admire are Marc Riboud, Bruce Davidson, Lisette Model and William Eggleston. I am particularly attracted to photographers who portray ordinary people, objects and places in visually captivating ways.
One artist who has had a profound effect on me is a good friend of the family, the American painter Tim Lowly. He has been doing more photography lately, and what I find interesting about his work is that his paintings often look like photographs (and many were painted with photographs as the source), and his photographs often look like paintings. His art often leaves me speechless but makes my heart full.
A&L: What is your favorite photograph and why?
S-J: My FAVORITE?! Wow. That's hard to say...I guess this one from the Migrant Mother series by Dorothea Lange is an image that has haunted me ever since I first saw it. The worry, hunger and exhaustion are written in the lines and furrowed brow of this mother and further revealed in her faraway look and hand resting on her chin. She is framed by her children, two of whom seem old enough to realize how desperate their situation is and who have turned their faces away from the camera, while the youngest sleeps in his mother's arms. The wooden pole that is holding up their tent in the right hand corner suggests that we as the viewers are removed from their situation, no matter how much compassion we may have for them. I can't help wondering so many things. What calamities did this family endure? What does the mother tell her children or herself to get them through the day? Is there a father/partner in their lives? Did they overcome their hardships? What lives did they end up leading? These are questions I still ask myself whenever I look at this photo.
A&L: Name three things in your “digital darkroom.”
S-J: I use Adobe Lightroom 2 exclusively as my digital darkroom. The tool I use most would be Lightroom presets (similar to actions in Photoshop). Mostly, these are creative processing settings that I save and use on other photos as appropriate. I've really enjoyed creating my own presets, and they can be handy for quickly editing photos. A more specific tool that I use a lot in Lightroom is the Split Tone function, which allows me to add a specific hue to highlights and/or shadows. It's a really easy way to add just a tad of warmth overall or to get creative with the colors.
A&L: Tell us about your greatest adventure.
S-J: In my later twenties, I spent a week in the Canadian boundaries waters of Quetico Provincial Park. We canoed and camped, and it was my first time being out in the wild like that, having grown up in the big city my whole life. That trip taught me the value of solitude and quiet, as well as the priceless treasure of pure natural beauty. I don’t do a lot of nature photography, and I still spend most of my time in the city, but that trip planted in me a deep respect for our environment, which in turn has influenced my personal values regarding social justice issues due to the havoc wreaked upon the poor around the world as a result of environmental degradation. This is related to my ultimate goal as a photographer, which is to document the stories of the most vulnerable and powerless among us, be they in the big city or the most remote, rural parts of the world.
Find more of Sarah-Ji's work on her daily photoblog and website. You can also find her work on the Shutter Sisters and Kimchi Mamas blogs, where she is a regular contributor.