© Goseong Choi
“Umma”—which means “mother” in Korean—is a photo series by South Korean-born, Brooklyn-based photographer Goseong Choi. Ostensibly a meditation on his grandmother’s sudden illness and lingering death, “Umma” is at once austere and intimate, brimming with undercurrents of loss, family and filial duty. Eschewing easy sentiment, Choi’s images lay bare the wrenching power of a matriarch grieving for her own mother.
In December 2010, Choi began photographing his family in their daily domestic routines. His previous work was conceptual and carefully composed, but Choi was eager to step outside of his own box. “I challenged myself to take more personal … raw images because the work I used to do in the past was very quiet,” he explains. “So I started to make snapshots of my family.” As fate would cruelly have it, a month after he turned his lens onto his family, Choi’s grandmother was struck down by a stroke and slipped into a coma from which she would not recover.
All of the images in “Umma” were taken in the three weeks between his grandmother’s hospitalization in Yongin, South Korea, and her burial at the family cemetery in Paju: The sterile purgatory of the hospital waiting room, anxiety thick in the recycled air; his mother, captured in a bedroom mirror, numbly smoothes makeup around her heavy eyes, her gaze far away; as mourners greet kin in the funeral home’s soft light, a coffin sits at the edge of the camera’s focus, heaped with wreaths and flowers; stubborn patches of snow cling to frostbitten grass as men shovel turned red earth into a grave.
During that time, although Choi kept his camera with him, respect for his family and an intrusively loud shutter on his DSLR led him to shoot sparingly. He admits that the camera also served as an emotional shield—even the simple act of observing and waiting for the right moment to shoot was an escape. Unsurprisingly, his own process in creating “Umma” was fraught with internal conflict.
“Perhaps I hid myself behind the camera. It was an escape to have some distance from this intense situation,” Choi explains, “but at the same time, guilt came over me. As an artist, I was happy to be making artwork out of this powerful occurrence, [but] there was a conflict between [the] roles of an artist and a grandson.”
For a photographer whose previous work included muted still-life photographs, finding a way to capture the raw emotion of a family tragedy was difficult. Simply taking portraits where he was physically very close to his subjects made Choi feel uncomfortable. Despite all this, Choi says his family was very supportive. His father especially encouraged the project, lamenting the fact that he never had any photographs of his own mother’s funeral.
After those three weeks, Choi did not immediately examine the images. “I think the fascinating part of photography is in the gap between projection and realization. I work intuitively and I don’t look at images for a few days, and sometimes a few weeks,” he explains. “Especially for this work, it took even longer. I needed time to digest overflowing emotion and have an objective point of view.”
After a month or two, Choi returned to the work and determined that, given the small number of images, careful editing would be key. He wanted to focus on his mother’s grief. He also knew that he didn’t want “Umma” to become a presentation of a traditional Korean funeral. As such, Choi explains that he excised images that were “too descriptive,” instead seeking to highlight the “universal language” of loss.
Choi took the work to the Photolucida portfolio reviews in 2013, held in Portland, Oregon. He was able to get the series in front of several curators, editors and publishers for valuable feedback, something that often doesn’t happen in small group shows. Choi was also was elated at the opportunity to interact and compare
work with his photography peers in the U.S.
Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, which hosted Photolucida’s closing reception, caught Choi’s eye. Impressed by the esthetics of the space and the quality of the art they were showing, he made a formal submission. Blue Sky’s exhibition committee had already noted his work during the event’s Portfolio Walk and eagerly accepted his application. “We have a rolling online submission process for exhibitions,” explains Blue Sky’s executive director Todd Tubutis, “so it is helpful to the committee when someone has seen an artist’s prints in person and can attest to their quality.” “Umma” and another of Choi’s series, “Meji” (photographs of burned and cropped fields in a rural village), are showing this month at the gallery.
Given that “Umma” was shot and edited in 2011 but is only now finding a wider audience, Choi has had plenty of time to move past his initial inner conflicts with the work and see it in a new light. He credits this project with having pointed him in a new direction as an artist. “I learned that I should face things uncomfortable and unbearable,” he says. “This attitude and sincerity amplified my voice in the work.”
The pain that surrounded the creation of the images has been replaced with a certainty that his grandmother’s spirit was working through him. Eventually he worked up the courage to invite his family to see an exhibition of “Umma.” “I was afraid that it could hurt my mother’s heart,” Choi says. “She slowly walked around the gallery and looked into each piece, and said only one thing: ‘Look at the wrinkles on my face!’”