Blog: Inspiration Between the Lines

Q&A with Photographer Soonchoel Byun on the exhibition, “Eternal Family,” at The Korea Society 

The lasting effects of the devastation of war and the displacement of civilians transcends generations in many cases. For photographer Soonchoel Byun, the legacy of the Korean War (1950-1953) lives on in the everyday lives of many people in his home country. In a project that utilizers new technologies to reunite families separated and lost to each other as a result of the war, Byun creates virtual reunions in the exhibition, “Eternal Family.” Through a mix of portraiture and old family snapshots reimagined digitally, family members separated by the war are united in a virtual space, embodied in black and white photographic prints. We reached out to Soonchoel to find out more about his process and the project.

 

DUGGAL ART SCENE: What inspired you to create the series, “Eternal Family,” and how did you select participants for the project? 

SOONCHOEL: The “Eternal Family” series was carried out in 2015 with a corporate sponsorship based on the concept of reuniting the "separated families" or "isan gajok" in Korean. The term refers to those who left their home in North Korea and came to the South as war refugees during the Korean War (1950-1953). The official numbers vary, but it is estimated that over 8 million people were displaced during the war, and they were never allowed to visit or reconnect with family back home in the North, unless through very rare occasions arranged by the government. Through the Red Cross of South Korea, I was able to reach out to about two thousand people. From the volunteers, I chose those who actually owned old family portraits, which were very few.

 

DUGGAL ART SCENE: Although it is quite complex, can you explain a bit about the fallout from the Korean War and its impact on families for readers who may be unfamiliar with the topic?

SOONCHOEL: It is inevitable that after any warfare, not just the Korean War, the civilians suffer the consequences of physical conflict. After the war, Korea was divided into two, and so many people were displaced and families separated forever. They never saw each other again, and many of them never found out whether the other family members had survived the war or not. The trauma is still ongoing. While I was working on this series, I heard so many stories of the moment they left their home and never got to return, not even for a visit, and how the family unit was torn apart. It was not easy to hear those stories; it was truly heartbreaking.

 

DUGGAL ART SCENE: What has been the reaction from family members and North Korean and South Korean society in general to the project?

SOONCHOEL: The old family portraits were converted digitally through 3-D aging technology. The results were virtual, digitally rendered images, a family portrait from a dream. Yet, for those in South Korea, I think it offered them some comfort. During the exhibition in Seoul, I remember this one person who was a subject, who said he would not go home. How could he go home when his parents are in the gallery? Why can't he take them home? It was devastating. It also pains me that I have not yet been able to show this series in North Korea. I do hope there will be an opportunity to do so. 

 

DUGGAL ART SCENE: How is this series different from your other works?

SOONCHOEL: My previous series, such as “Interracial Couple” and “National Song Contest,” are portraits of individuals who are self-aware and based on reality. This series expands on the idea of what is real vs. what is virtual, incorporating the new technology in the process.

 

FIND OUT MORE HERE: www.koreasociety.org/arts-culture/item/1426-soonchoel-byun-eternal-family

VIEW MORE WORK BY SOONCHOEL BYUN: www.sooncb.com 

 

Due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the Korea Society's gallery is open only by appointment. The appointment must be made at least 24 hours prior to the scheduled visit. To make an appointment, please contact info@koreasociety.org. All visitors will be required to wear a mask as well as complete the safety questionnaire upon arrival.

 

Gallery Hours: Monday-Friday 10 am-4:30 pm

By Appointment Only

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