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Seoul eye: We're happy together

Photographer Kim Ok-sun takes photos of interracial couples

When Happy Together (1997), Wong Kar-wai’s film about a turbulent romance, was playing in Seoul theaters, photographer Kim Ok-sun was exhibiting her photo series “Happy Together” (2002) at an art gallery in Jongno. In 2002, the local papers had a lot to say about interracial marriages in Korea and Kim, who married her German husband in 1994, was there to observe it all. “As it takes a lot of courage for a Korean woman to pursue her love, marry a foreigner and live in Korea, I decided to photograph interracial couples residing in Korea with the Korean woman as the protagonist.” That is why the women of “Happy Together” stare directly at the camera as requested by Kim, while their husbands carry on watching TV or eating supper.

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To get a natural and honest depiction of these marriages, Kim started by capturing her own using a self-timer and a film camera. Then, she moved on to contacting friends and mutual acquaintances, interviewing them first and then carrying on with the daylong shoot to capture their everyday lives. Kim ate meals with the families to foster a casual atmosphere. As there are no obvious clues to the couples' background, except for their names, the viewer is invited to create their own backstory about the marriage. For instance, a keen observer may decide that Hyunsoon and Kip are modern nomads, based on the bulky suitcases lying around in their bedroom—and in fact, these musings are not too far from the truth. “Kip teaches English at a school in Jeju, and the couple lives in a house provided by the school,” the photographer explains, as she talks about her most memorable couple. “But as Kip signed a year-long contract with the school and it’s almost finished, the landlord won’t fix the peeling wallpaper and the two won’t do it either. Their entire lives in Jeju literally fit into three suitcases, because they could move out any day.” Had Kim ended the project with her self-portraits, “Happy Together” could have felt like an intimate photo essay. But the photo series goes beyond the photographer’s personal dilemma and is an investigative body of work. “Happy Together” isn’t just about happy interracial couples, but is another unique portrait of South Korean marriages.

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