Decades have passed since the Korean War, a sad period in Korean history. The nation now approaches its 70th anniversary since the end of the war. The current status of the nation exists thanks to the soldiers who fought at that time. One person today is keeping up the memory of that time through his camera. This person visits soldiers from all over the world hoping to capture their image so that they are remembered more and longer. The Sookmyung Times met this renowned photographer who had captured the images of numerous forgotten heroes from the Korean War to connect Korea's past to the present.
Would you please introduce yourself briefly to our readers before we start the interview?
My name is Rami Hyun, and I am a photographer working on the project 'Project-Soldier: Searching for Korean War Veterans' to thank the soldiers and veterans by taking their pictures and writing up their stories to pass them down to the next generation.
How did you get started in a photography career?
I studied in the Department of Humanities originally. It was only after serving in the army did I become interested in photography by encountering computer graphics. I started to study art after being discharged from the army, and in 2004, I entered the Academy of Art University in San Francisco to learn about computer graphics. Studying abroad, I changed my major again to photography. After majoring in Documentary/Editorial Photography, I found my career path.
You are currently taking pictures of Korean War veterans. Why did you begin to take pictures of them among many people?
When I returned to Korea, I started taking photos of classical music performances to be used as advertisements at Seoul National University Hospital as well as photos of current fashion. One day I happened to visit the first Army Division. I did a lot of work there and learned a great deal about the soldiers. I came to understand their language and got to know the reality of their world, which differed greatly from my thoughts. That's when I started the project of filming soldiers. During a 2016 exhibition where I displayed pictures of the soldiers, Salvatore Scarlato, a U.S. Marine veteran, came. Meeting him, I became intrigued by the expressions in his eyes as well as his pride. My curiosity began from this. I wondered 'Where does this sense of pride come from?' That led me to ask him. That's the story of how it all began, how I became determined to take photos and learn all I could about Korean War veterans.
What would you say is the most important consideration when taking photos of veterans? What is it exactly you are trying to capture?
First of all, I take their photos candidly, just as they are. For the most part, they are already prepared. I'm not looking at any one particular image such as the fathers they became or the ideals they hold. I'm just shooting them as Korean War veterans. They lived the period of history, known only to the world as the Korean War. It is not easy to visit with them and recall the past, but it is quite simple to meet them and press a shutter button. In other words, I capture them as they are.
What is the most impressive photo session you've ever done, or the one that is your favorite?
I would like to say all are memorable and each person has a unique story. The most memorable aspect of taking the photos is the talk that follows after taking pictures. I can recall this one veteran, who said, "I've often been treated as a veteran, but just as it sounds, I was treated as just another veteran. However, seeing myself in your photos, I feel like a true hero." Because a photo only tells the outside story, I include the inside through talks with the veterans. Often they call themselves cowards, for reasons of surviving the war. They say the real heroes are their fellow soldiers who died on the battlefield. They've lived their whole lives feeling guilty, feeling sorry for having survived, thinking, "Why was I spared?" I can see their outlook change when they see themselves in the photos. In each image, I ensure their eyes are showing the emotion of a true soldier hero, not a coward. When I show them their photos, I see them change. That time fills me with energy and satisfaction, so I keep taking pictures.
You must have a lot of impressive episodes during photo shoots. What are some of those episodes and who are some of those memorable persons?
I clearly remember Captain Christopher Coldrey who I photographed in London, England in July 2019. He came to the shoot in a wheelchair and was unable to stand at all. However, during our session, he wanted to stand and salute his colleagues, so we helped him and I captured that moment. He said he did not want to take any photo seated, so with the help of his wife and daughter, he stood up for each photo. I distinctly recalled him laughing during the shoot. I returned to London to present him with his photos but to my deepest sadness, I learned that he had passed on just 5 days before my arrival. His behavior and persona will remain forever in my memory.
You operate an online store for support. What issues have you encountered running the store?
Many people have offered support, but as a private not-for-profit organization, I cannot receive any formal support. I try to financially support my project by making goods and books. The shop is not for 'selling' items, but for earning financial support so that I can continue with my project. Honestly, I need to create many more products, but I am burdened by a lack of money and human resources. Nonetheless, I am grateful for the people who surround and support me.
Recently, 'Project Soldier Book Searching for Korean War Veterans' was published. How do you feel now that it has been published?
One of my supporters, Kang Kiho, an ex-United States Air Force officer, asked me to publish a book and provided me with enough money to make 500 copies. If I'm honest, that's the reason I created and published the book. I actually gave away 100 of the copies to war veterans and my supporters. The remaining 400 copies sold out within just 10 days, which really eased my worry that they would not sell. Also, the project, which started in 2016, was able to see some of the materials get published in book form and given back to the people that made it possible, the veterans themselves.
You must encounter a lot of difficulties trying to visit veterans directly. What is the most difficult aspect of your project? How did you overcome it?
Most people think it is money, but money is actually the second problem. The first problem is locating the veterans. I personally only want to express my gratitude to the veterans, so it has little to do with money. Some people have asked me, "How much do you charge per photo shoot?", "Why do something that doesn't earn you a profit?" or "Why focus on a time of war when others are enjoying a time of peace?" Those questions are disheartening, so I brush them aside by ignoring them. I do my best with the thought that this might be my last session.
Listening to war veterans' stories must surely be impressive. Does it make you think about current policies or welfare systems for war veterans?
Most of the veterans I have met consider themselves "forgotten war veterans" from a "forgotten war," so society needs to let them know that they are not forgotten. We need to instill the ideas that no one has forgotten their sacrifice and service. This is something they want and need. They just want other generations to know that they fought in that war. A lot of the younger generations have forgotten, and others choose simply not remembering it because it happened long ago. Before they leave this world, the veterans need to be thanked and the younger generations need to know about them so that they are not forgotten and their sacrifice was not in vain. I visit elementary schools to teach and have students write letters of thanks to the war veterans so that knowledge of their sacrifice and important values are passed along.
What are your plans for the future?
I will continue with this work with Director Hedy who took part in this project from 2019 until the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War in 2023. I hope to host a large exhibition that celebrates the 70th anniversary by bringing the past to the present and letting veterans know how their sacrifice affects the present day. After that, I am looking at visiting the 22 countries that participated in the Korean War and giving lectures on the Korean War through exhibitions and education. Also, I will continue to speak of the veterans' achievements, what they left behind, and how we must inherit their sacrifice.
Would you like to leave a few words for Korean War veterans?
I would like to say, "Thank you. I will never forget your sacrifice, the values you held dear, and what you have left behind." Also, I would like to say that I promise to protect the freedom and democracy we have because of you.
Last, do you have any words you would like to share with Sookmyungians?
It's not too late yet. Many Korean War veterans are still alive, both overseas and domestically. Take a look around. You can easily find people wearing hats of national merit in subways, on buses, and at hospitals. Please say, "Thank you for your service." These are the valuable words with deep meaning to their lives.
- Graduated from AAU (Academy of Art University) in 2010
- Student in the Department of Applied Art at Hanyang University Graduate School
- CEO of RamiStudio
- Working on the 'Project-Soldier: The search for Korean War Veterans' for recording Soldier and Korean War veteran
Sang Lim Hyeji / Editor-in-Chief
Park Gil Yeonseo / Cub Reporter