Our art co-editor Mike Sweeney recently had this exchange with Ken Hohing, our Issue #22 featured artist. Here’s what he had to say about the layers of story behind the South Korean photographs, his path to becoming an artist, and the “magic” he looks for in a photograph.
What drew you to explore the aging of memories? Was this a concept you had been exploring, or at least thinking about, before coming upon these photographs and seeing their relevance? Or did the discovery of the photographs themselves spark the idea?
My interest in the “aging of memories” probably came out of something I wrote on a postcard titled “Versions” back in the early 1980s, several years after Korea. It was a rambling thought on how, when not confined by any means of verification, a recounted experience or reality could be endlessly fictionalized for the sake of good ol’ story-telling and that, at some point in the far future, the “aged memory” of that tale would be as factual to the teller as it is to those it was created for. But “memory aging” and their effects on versions was not a conscious thought when the Korea photos were taken so I will address that in a later question.
When I was living in Germany in the late 70’s thru the mid-80’s my interest in versions came mostly from two circumstances. First, to justify to family and friends my leaving everything behind in the States, I found it necessary to construct a version of my existence that would seem “worth it” to them. I assumed an undeserved artist identity and one of a foreign student as ample justification. At first this was a widely exaggerated romantic version of my actual reality since I was working for minimum wage as a furniture mover for the U.S. military base nearby. My workmates were all teenage military dependents.
I was however making pseudo art in the form of photo postcards, obsessively mailing several a week, mostly to my closest friend back home. I was also actually a student but in a far less romantic sense than my version implied. I attended the local German language school where I was by far the oldest student in a program designed mainly for the children of foreign workers.
The second factor came from my love of hyperbolized story telling I’d had since I was a kid. The postcards presented an opportunity to weave exaggerated tales relating to images from the countless rolls of film I shot and developed each week. Facts just never seemed as interesting or exciting as a good yarn.
Not long after returning to the States in 1985, the friend who had received the vast majority of the postcards handed me a large box. It contained hundreds of the cards I’d sent him and it seemed to him appropriate that this picture journal stay with me.
And ironically, after reading this bombastic “version” of my life in Germany, I realized the curious “fact” that most of it had actually materialized albeit the absence of any intention or goal-setting. Fact had somehow caught up to the fiction. Through good luck and happenstance, by the time I left I had been the project photographer for a World Health Organization (WHO) grant studying the German heroin scene, had been house photographer for the world famous Frankfurt Book Fair, had worked as a graphic artist, had collaborated with well-known artist/playwright, Einar Schleef, had several exhibitions of my photos, and had received diplomas in photo design and visual sociology from two universities.
“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it” and “I have the photos to prove it.”
What do these photos mean to you, personally? Can you take our readers back to when you took these photographs—in 1975 South Korea—and give us an idea of the lens through which they were taken? Were you a practicing fine art photographer at that time?
Aside from my somewhat undeveloped skill in drawing, I had no affinity with the arts when I arrived in Korea. The discovery of any “artistic” passion I might have had was purely serendipitous. My first camera arrived atop a poker game pot I won shortly after arriving at Kunsan Air Base in far south Korea. It was a fully manual Pentax and it took many months of trial, and even more error, until I eventually could make consistent exposures on 35mm slide film, the only available film in country.
The photos were of the memory collecting, ”snapshot” type. Landscapes, friends, the local town and its people, the air base. Of the thousands of successful exposures I would end up with I would consider all but a scant few devoid of anything “artistic” about them, including those in this series.
I do remember one photo, the single image I ever actually had printed to 8X10. It was of a fishing village taken at sunrise not far from the 38th Parallel, the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea. There was something about the light, the silhouetted figures standing on the old boats, the engine smoke rising through the morning mist, that revealed something about the power of a photograph to expose things that can’t easily be discussed in a literal way. Let’s call it Magic.
What was your reaction when you discovered the photos in this state after Hurricane Sandy? When you look at them now, what impact do they have on your memories of the actual events you were photographing? Does it make them less tangible or perhaps free the mind up for remembering beyond the pictures—or something else entirely?
It was several months after Sandy that I discovered the carousel in my garage. The water had risen to several feet inside and the slides were on a bottom shelf of a cabinet I’d never thought to open until then. The slides had paper mounts that were still soaked and warped. Black mold covered every slide and the emulsion was cracked and peeling away.
My first reaction must have been sadness, but not because I considered those images part of any art pile. It was more the sadness one feels when one loses a family album from fire or flood. The record of one’s existence. The “vacation pics” so to speak.
What they mean to me now is a great question. I’d always been aware of the tremendous impact that year in Korea had on me but the photos did little to reinforce that awareness until the mold altered them. The photos didn’t show the very dark things I was witnessing for the first time in my very sheltered suburban life. The exploitation and degradation of the women and often men in those towns–and even the act of my photographing them was a form of that exploitation–is not evident in the smiling faces in those photos. I think renting a room from a local farm family and living among them and not on base is what allowed me to be accepted by those living both inside and outside the wall, and permitted that exploitation. They knew full well what the captions of such images would normally read back in the States and I believe they trusted that my captions would be different.
Before the flood all I thought about when looking at these images was of the exact moment I snapped them and not the greater context within which the subjects existed. Or I would be seduced into evaluating them on the merits of their photographic quality; the focus, the light, the angle I had chosen. The memory of any deeper meaning of what they represented was pushed back until Sandy obscured the faces, abstracted the landscapes, and destroyed any literal interpretation. Only then could I really remember.
Did you immediately see a potential for an artistic concept when you found these? And can you take us through the process of how you brought the images from their state when you discovered them to how we’re viewing them now?
Not at first. My immediate reaction was to throw them away for fear I was breathing in every mold spore that dusted off of them. But I relented and dried them out between paper towels and then tried removing the mold with Q-tips and film cleaner which was disastrous since it removed the emulsion as well, so I gave up trying to clean them.
Once they were dry I scanned them on a high res. film scanner just to see what was left of the images. I remember that at the moment I brought up the very first digital file on the screen I saw some “magic” there. I experimented with Photoshop and Lightroom enhancements but in the end decided against any. Sandy had given them life and I thought it best to give her all of the editing kudos.
Scale was decided by plain economics; as big as I could afford to print them. Medium was a bit trickier but since my last body of work was self-printed on aluminum roof flashing I knew its ephemeral qualities and decided a di-coupler process on brushed aluminum would suite the images well.
Speaking of artistic potential and photographic process: you’re a photography professor at Rutgers University. How do you guide your students to approach photography in terms of identifying artistic potential in different subjects, and then bringing that potential to light through the various techniques and tools available to photographers? Any overarching principles to share with our readers?
Another tough question. I’d like to believe that I push my students to go beyond the literal whenever possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean I am an advocate for “conceptual” imagery, whatever that means. But when I witness a student seeing something, that “magic,” in an image for the first time, and I figure I had something to do with that seeing, I’m pretty happy about it.
I’m not a purist about “straight” photography or perfect printing or highly developed technical craft. Certainly they must exist on some level; a carpenter has to know which hammer to use for the job. But I know from my own experience that technical perfection alone is not the path to meaningful imagery. It starts with the “taking” and flows along an evolutionary path of “making” that must be constantly evaluated and assessed. Sometimes things just jump out without much coaxing but I find that to be rare. With the exception of the Destructed Memory series there’s a reason why every one of my other “chosen” images have many “versions” in the folder along with many very annoyed friends and colleagues who have been subjected to my incessant critique requests. The more eyes the better until someone “sees” something worthwhile and it isn’t always the artist who sees it first.
Funny, perhaps my fascination with “versions of memory” coincides nicely with a medium that so easily allows for many “versions of photo.” Again, “I have the photo to prove it.”
I find the actual setting of these images very intriguing from a historical perspective. There’s so much there in terms of parallels to our collective societal memories and how they’re shaped by natural and geopolitical forces. I’d like to dig into that a little more if you don’t mind. One thing I was particularly struck by, in my research for this interview, was the extent of South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War, second only to the U.S. in the number of troops sent, at 320,000. Can you give our readers some background on how America Town (A-Town) came to be, starting in 1969?
Looking at the facts you mention I’m pretty sure you’ve learned more about Korean history than I can claim to know. But I do have a few insights I can add about the number of Korean troops sent to Vietnam.
Korean men and women are for the most part much shorter than your average American. But the ROK (Republic of Korea) Army is made up primarily of elite soldiers who are taller than our average 5’8”, and closer to 6”. But even with their intimidating height and physical strength they proved to be less intimidating to the opposing North Korean soldiers posted along the 38th Parallel (the DMZ), than the U.S. troops, and frequent skirmishes broke out along the border during their deployment in the late 50s and early 60s. So they were reinforced with U.S. Army and Marine forces who remain as the overwhelming majority of forces along the border today. That left a huge ROK force that had little role in defending its own peninsula country. Assisting their savior and defender in Vietnam was the natural political outcome. Again, my analysis should be considered merely anecdotal as I make no claim to having much knowledge of Korean history.
As to the creation of A-Town and towns much like it throughout South Korea I don’t have much to offer. However, I can recount something that might apply in the broader context. Historically, the biggest detriment to a ready and effective U.S. military force has been alcohol. Drug use and the military’s battle against it is very recent and didn’t take hold until post-Vietnam when thousands of soldiers returned as heroin and morphine addicts, in part because alcohol wasn’t readily available from the local population or at least not as available as heroin or marijuana.
Korea, like Vietnam and several other duty assignments worldwide, is termed an “unaccompanied duty tour” meaning no wives, husbands, or family members allowed. That means celibacy for up to 12 months, the historically established morale breaking point for most soldiers, especially when drugs and alcohol are discouraged or unavailable.
So traditionally the best way to curb alcohol and drug abuse while still boosting morale was to provide availability of, and easy access to, prostitution, the lesser of all evils from the military’s perspective.
“Camp” towns were created, often walled off from neighboring rural communities, offering tailor shops, souvenir and local craft stores, restaurants, and lots and lots of nightclubs. The clubs were packed with waiting young women recruited from rural communities all over the host country who were usually promised a respectable, and even patriotic, waitress job that supported the morale effort of the U.S. defender force.
Instead they found instant debt from travel, clothing and housing expenses and a pimp, usually in the guise of a brutal elderly woman, hired by the recruiting agency. The military, in league with authorities of the host country, would subsidize birth control and weekly venereal disease testing verified by stamped photo ID cards every “waitress” had to carry at all times. Once implemented, this strategy greatly reduced the cost of penicillin and other antibiotics, shortened the daily long lines of soldiers at the base clinic awaiting treatment, and saved many hours of lost duty as a result of waiting for that treatment. Curiously, condom use was rarely encouraged by the base authorities as far as I can remember.
Also interestingly, these towns, at least those I saw, were patrolled by U.S. Military Police, not by the host country’s police force.
In reading about the recent name change of “A-Town” in 2010, I came across an unexpected motive for the name change, beyond respect for the South Korean residents. One article spoke about the fact that city leaders were looking to rework the area’s image from a place for American servicemen into a major port and tourist destination for Northeast Asia. That rebranding impetus, along with the urging of a U.S. colonel, led to its new name “International Culture Ville.” From your artist statement, prostitution was also banned in the city at this time. But both soldiers and local business owners interviewed for the article seemed skeptical that the environment would change. Some laughed and said that nobody calls the place by its new name—that it will always be “A-Town.”
What are your thoughts on how this relates to the idea of destructed memory, in terms of how the memory of a place changes as its purpose and inhabitants change?
When I was there in 1975, the farmers and other local inhabitants living outside the walls of A-Town despised the town and everything it represented. As far as I know they didn’t benefit financially from it unless they were willing to work inside the town itself. But I knew of no one who ever had, and every woman and man who worked and lived inside the wall had been recruited from far away and never mixed with the locals.
Any effort to address the disdain of the surrounding locals seems to have come long after I was there; I saw no attempt back then. I have read that in recent years the recruitment of Korean women has ceased, replaced with importation from the Philippines and Russia. Perhaps this was an attempt to “be more respectful” of the locals since the exploitation of “their” womenfolk had ended.
As to the military’s attitudes on prostitution changing I can say that back in ’75 soldiers received Article 15 punishment after contracting VD for the third time. I’ve read that now it’s the first time, and court martials deal with repeat offenders.
I’m curious to know how this dynamic applies to our current “unaccompanied” tours in the Middle East where Islamic intolerance of prostitution and the dangers of any off-base activities eliminate the possibility of camp-towns. Without the historically established morale boosters of readily available alcohol, drugs, and women, I would not be surprised if some of the issues specific to those troops could be tied in somehow. But those are battle theaters, and I think it’s a safe assumption that camp towns exist mostly to combat the boredom of peacetime.
I might add that while living in Germany I held, on and off, positions as a civilian “recreation specialist” for the U.S. Army Morale Support Division. Part of that mission was to find a “sweet spot” of alcohol consumption for the single and unaccompanied troops in an environment without camp towns and organized prostitution. Whenever we planned an event, there was always a budget for beer that could never exceed 4 cans per soldier.
Regarding the destruction of memory, any attempt to change the image of a practice employed by military forces in “unaccompanied” areas throughout millennia will be met with the nostalgia of those who were there in the good ol’ days. No matter what the present reality may seem to be, or whatever sign is hung at the entrance, it will always be shadowed by those memories and will define places like A-Town.
I guess in the end I find myself making a case that some memories can’t be destroyed after all, in spite of efforts to do so. Long live the “Cultural” revolution or in this case, Ville.
In the book America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire, author Mark L. Gillem comes at this topic of A-town from the perspective of American Imperialism. One particularly interesting quote from U.S. servicemen to his soldiers about the way they interacted with people in A-Town was this: “What you do is remembered by the local people and, over time, dictates how all of us are treated and welcome.” What are your thoughts on how interactions with—or even images of—a country’s soldiers or other representatives can shape the impressions and memories of their larger country throughout the world?
It’s interesting that I never got the sense that local disdain for A-Town was focused on the Americans. By living outside the wall with poor farmers I was fully embraced as family, probably because I rarely went into the town and preferred the shabby “Mokley” rice wine bars the locals frequented.
Clearly they held little respect for the soldiers’ drunkenness and lewd behavior in town. But I never sensed they blamed them or held them at fault. Ultimately it seemed that most local resentment was directed toward their own government for allowing towns like A-Town to exist rather than toward the Americans they were created for.
And a clear sense of gratitude felt by most toward the American military should not be underestimated. At least in Korea’s case, not only had we saved them from, and continue to protect them from, a repressive China-supported communist dictatorship that the South wholeheartedly rejected, we had also liberated them from the sufferings brought on years before by the Japanese in WWII. Our imperialistic agenda surely was involved along the way but I don’t think very many Koreans saw it that way.
I find a very interesting geopolitical metaphor in all this. Hurricane Sandy came in and wiped out entire shore towns in New Jersey and remade the shoreline, completely changing the reality of the area and the people who lived there–much like the events leading up to the state of affairs in 1969 when A-Town was created. The conflict between ‘Communism with direct rule’ and ‘Capitalism with spheres of influence’ emerged as the dust settled from the wars between the European imperialist nations and became a question of who and what ideology was going to remake the reality of the new world. What role do you see these kinds of tidal forces, whether natural disasters or human conflicts, playing in the destruction of our collective—and individual—memories?
Wow, this is pretty deep. I’m hoping my previous answer might have answered this one at least for the most part. I’ll just say that ultimately we remember what we choose to remember. We all have a right to our own versions especially when they make for better stories.
Switching gears here, I’d love our readers to learn about your latest projects. I understand your recent work centers around investigating societal taboos associated with our ever-increasing disconnect with nature. Can you tell us about the work and where it’s going?
I see a movement away from that fascination. These days I’m more interested in societal behaviors and how they impact me directly. For example, I think I’m pretty sociable and drawn to people but for the past year or so I’ve been struggling with the WAWA doors. The forced interaction they create has me sitting in my car, waiting until there’s no one coming in or going out. When it’s clear I dash to the door only to be met by someone suddenly holding the door for me where thanks and you’re welcomes are begrudgingly exchanged. I mentioned this “issue” of mine to a student a while ago. He came into class with a list of measurements and design aspects that made a strong case that the engineers of those doors had something in mind, something they felt would be better for business. WAWA might be that “third place” for social interaction in an otherwise isolationist community. The new barber shop in town maybe.
I’ve thought a lot about how I would approach the subject and other examples like it that might shed light on this kind of forced interaction. Video perhaps. Time will tell.
In the meantime I’m preparing for an exhibition at the Rutgers Stedman Gallery on Camden, NJ neighborhoods. Some of the hundreds of large format B&W images I took in the late-eighties while following the Hargrove demolition crews will be involved. They will be hung alongside digital images of the same locations, as they are today.