Mossless in America is a column featuring interviews with documentary photographers. The series is produced in partnership with Mossless magazine, an experimental photography publication run by Romke Hoogwaerts and Grace Leigh. Romke started Mossless in 2009, as a blog in which he interviewed a different photographer every two days; since 2012 the magazine has produced two print issues, each dealing with a different type of photography. Mossless was featured prominently in the landmark 2012 exhibition Millennium Magazine at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; it is supported by Printed Matter, Inc. Its third issue, a major photographic volume on American documentary photography from the last ten years, titled The United States (2003–2013), was published this spring.
Yeon J. Yue is an NYC-based photographer born in Seoul, South Korea, in 1979. After serving alongside US Air Force troops while in the Korean Air Force stationed at Osan Air Base, in the city of Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Yue became interested in documenting the lives of American military families. He came to America to attend Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, and went on to receive an MFA in photography from Columbia University. We talked with him about the family album as an art form, life on military bases, and the sometimes sad, ironic beauty of soldiers' domestic lives.
VICE: You’re from Seoul, South Korea. When did you move to the United States?
Yeon J. Yue: I came to Los Angeles the day after Christmas in 2006. It already has been almost eight years now.
Where do you call home?
Neither Korea nor the United States. I think we are all thrown around by the world. We often think we are making decisions, but we just do what we can do, live where we are thrown to live. It's all unexpected. Especially after I got married and had my son, where I call home really does not matter to me anymore.
At 22 you enlisted in the Korean Air Force to fulfill your national duty and served alongside the US air force for two and a half years. What was that time in your life like?
I served my national duty from March of 2001 to September of 2003. Shortly after I joined, 9/11 happened. Actually, the environment of working at the US base was not very new to me, since I lived there for couple of years while my father was serving for his national service. But 9/11 and all its political, financial, and social aftermath was quite striking to a 20-year-old Korean man, and certainly to these young American men and women who lived abroad.
I was a troublemaker, though. I didn't like all those strict regulations, or the unfair gap in working conditions between American and Korean military. I remember I was angry all the time. I didn't even know what I was angry about. I fought a lot, I argued with lots of people, both Koreans and Americans. But strangely, some people really liked who I was, what I did, and supported how I thought. It was a very interesting time in my life.
After the time you spent with the US Air Force, you started to document the lives of US military families. What about your time serving alongside the US Air Force compelled you to start this series?
I became very interested in vernacular photographs and family snapshots when I was living in Glendale, California, attending Art Center College of Design. The family album is very basic form of photography, and I was interested in its unique qualities and characteristics. It has no style. It has no message or direction. It just exists. I liked it. I liked the simplicity of it. So I started to photograph my neighbors. And after a couple of years spent on the West Coast, I decided to study further in an MFA program, and luckily I got accepted at Columbia University. I always wanted to do this cross-country. And I started it as an expanded project of the family album photographs.
When I thought about America, and what America meant to me, it always reminded me of my childhood, when I first moved to Osan Air Base: Scary K-9 dogs stood in front of the main gate. Visiting an officer's house that had a nice staircase and a huge fake chandelier above my head. His magic show, where he pulled my mom's underwear out from over her pants, which I thought was very cool. McDonald's signs, Kentucky Fried Chicken signs, and all the drunken soldiers at night. And lastly, the smell of Tide from the laundry.
One of our favorite images of yours is Gun in a Vase. The photograph captures a bedside flower arrangement with the gun kind of hidden among the flowers. It’s quite an alarming image. What is the backstory here?
It is my friend Tony and Lisa's bedroom. I met him when I was serving at Osan, and he worked many times with me at the main gate. We have been friends ever since. He was 19. I was 22. We both were young. Since he got deployed to Afghanistan, we had not talked for five years. I don't even remember how we got back in touch again, but I remember that the day we talked for the first time after five years. He was on his honeymoon in San Diego.
He invited me to Shevlin, Minnesota, where he lives, when I was on a cross-country road trip. I really wanted to meet him, and I decided to sleep in my car for a week to save some money to buy the flight ticket. Luckily it was summer. When I arrived there, it was a surreal experience to me. We all had gotten older, were in our 30s, and our fearless days were gone.
The next morning, after Lisa went to work, I saw their bedside. I saw there was gun in the vase next to their honeymoon photograph. I thought that was America. It was sad, but ironically, it was beautiful.
What's next for you?
I am photographing and filming at acting schools in New York City. I'm also photographing with all kinds of digital cameras for another kind of family portrait, which will be made of photographs of the families near where I live.
Yeon J. Yue received an MFA in Visual Arts from Columbia University in 2011. His work has been exhibited in solo shows in New York City and Birmingham, Alabama, and shown in various group exhibitions in Los Angeles, Säo Paulo, and Seoul.
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