In 2015 on a trip to Seoul I visited the National Folk Museum of Korea for a special exhibition of the work of Korean photojournalist and documentary photographer Kim Soo-nam. In the 70’s Kim started photographing traditional shamanic rituals, concerned that the tradition was in decline in rapidly industrialising and modernising Korea. In 1982 he said, It’s for sure that the Dodang-gut (ritual) practiced in the southern Hangang River will disappear in a few years. When the shamans die, it’s the end. I feel lucky to have photographed those who have aged along with their practice for 60 to 70 years.
He continued to photograph these traditions until his death in 2006 amassing more than 170,000 images. Kim spent days living and talking with local communities, building trust, in order to gain access to these highly personal ceremonies: Sad stories are abundant at the scene. I often forget about taking photos and just listen to their stories, shedding tears. It is often my subjects who tell me to snap out of it and get to the business. I owe many of my photos to my tears.
Following his death his family donated his entire archive to The National Folk Museum and this exhibition shows around one hundred of his works covering shamanic rituals linked to the human life and death in all their diversity.
The exhibition is a superb advertisement for what photography does best. It is a comprehensive documentary record of a largely lost way of life and, beyond the documentary element, many of these photographs have a wonderful aesthetic quality whether from the play of light, the quality of Kim’s composition or the intensity of the human emotions on display.
The exhibition focused on Kim’s earlier work shot in black and white, but Kim continued to travel across Korea photographing these rituals throughout his life and later worked in colour also. Sadly, Kim died in 2006 at the age of 57 but he left behind an invaluable record of a way of life that has largely disappeared.
At the entrance to the exhibition is a glass case with Kim’s camera. All of his images were shot — on film obviously — using a simple enthusiast SLR (a Nikon, an FM I think) and a 24mm lens. This only confirms once again that great photography often arises from simplicity and familiarity — keep your gear simple and make yourself familiar with it.