Meet Ssam Kim, photographer on a mission
Hello Ssam, it’s a pleasure having you today. We like your work very much.
How do you describe your universe as a photographer? What is your world?
That’s an interesting question. My world is like under water. You know this state when you can’t hear anything like a womb. So whenever I am about to do my work I need to immerse myself in this world, which is very comfortable. It’s like I can do anything I want, I can move my body where I want.
What are you trying to convey as a photographer? Is there a common denominator between your pieces?
When I started photography I was obsessed with things I can’t catch. Elements like wind, fire, water. I wanted to see how it works with humans. I really love seeing wind blowing out the hair because it is one of the most beautiful thing we have as humans. Of course dog has hair, horse has hair, but ours is different. It is beyond.
Your work sounds to be much about experiencing an inner world?
I think so… Well I can’t really put a word on it.
It absolutely makes sense. When did you start photography?
I was born and raised in Korea, then moved to London when I was twenty to study Fashion design. But I was not that talented. I knew I had to do something else. I discovered an interest for fashion styling and did photo shoots. When I arrived with a new portfolio at my interview to enter the London College of Fashion the tutor was like: “Who took the photos?”. I said: “Me.” “I think you should be a photographer”. At that time I had this small tiny tiny Olympus camera and I had no idea what photography was. I signed up to study Fashion Photography.
Fashion was the common thread in the beginning.
Yes. I studied fashion photography for three years, and it worked out. I was really lucky: I had a lot of friends working for fashion magazines. I would shoot for names such as W Korea, Vogue Korea etc…
I was happy to get to do cool works beside my studies and then I started to think bigger. I was wondering: what am I doing? I started to think I had to do my own work and I started to take photos of those untouchable things. My mom always told me: “You’re not quite right.” Because I am interested in things that people don’t really care about, like a corner in a room or shadow.
I really like shadows and lighting. Without light we can’t see colors, we can’t do anything. At the beginning I was trying to understand why this object with this lighting makes this kind of shadow, in real life and in photographs. I tried to read the shadow over faces. Some time, I even stayed a whole week in my apartment, trying to investigate pictures I found in this range of cool fashion magazines, trying to read the light in them. It gave me the envy to do it for myself.
Then I started using the wind. Once I used a fire for this product shoot. It didn’t end up very well, but it was fun.
I saw you working on this project, “The 100 most beautiful men in New York”. One thing that really impressed me was the work you did with the light. I think the videos are even more meaningful in that case.
That’s the thing. The lighting goes all the way around, revealing every single shape of human’s face, the texture of the hair…
Let’s talk more about this project. How did it start?
I started to work with an art director who hired me to realize his portfolio. He was really into men’s beauty and I was already doing men’s portraits so we thought to do something together.
As we were shooting several guys that afternoon I thought that putting random photographs in a book wouldn’t work for me. I needed an additional value. I wanted to shoot a hundred men and have an exhibition. I came up with this idea. Then I started to look around for different types of men in New York. Some were foreigners. What only mattered was that they lived plenty their lives and loved the city. I found out that there are some very beautiful people out there. I also discovered a passion for men’s backs. When you are standing behind a guy, the back of his head can let you imagine a lot about him.
Ssam, what’s Beauty for you?
Real Beauty is not something you can see. You know, I’ve been shooting guys for over a year. Some of them had strikingly beautiful face and body but they were not quite charming when I see them through a camera. They know they are good looking so they know they don't need to put any effort into it. Seriously boring! But don't get me wrong. That doesn't mean they are not beautiful. I just cannot find beauty from those kinds of guys. I think it is not all about how they look like. It is more about 'Personality'. When I tried to bring out their personality, their beauty comes out with it... It is something we cannot describe.
Do you have the same interest in taking pictures of men known for their traditional Beauty let’s say? Do you manage to extract something different?
Actually, it was the initial concept. Bringing out the Real Beauty. When I work with those men, they first behave like on photoshoots: they are just being handsome. So I try to break that face by sitting for ten minutes and talking with them, about them. Guys function quite simply sometimes. Bring a topic like love and they will open to you. This way I also get to discover their personality so that I can work. This project is one of the most interesting projects I have done.
Are you still looking for men to complete the work?
Yes. I need 22 more.
Can we help? What are your criteria?
Yes please! At this stage I need real men with a busy past, more mature men. I shot a lot of persons in their thirties for the project but I think men in their fifties are more interesting.
What is your message you want people to be left with when they see your work?
I want to say to them to look around, meet people, remember them and remember their names. They are a lot of beautiful people out there.
What other type of work do you do now? Editorial work, personal work?
I’ve been doing a lot of editorial and commercial. But now I am doing a lot of social media stuff. All those companies are crazy about it. Social media is an amazing marketing tool for these brands. They always love to shoot in New York.
Tell us about your next dream. What are you up to?
In about ten years, I will go to Africa to shoot children and animals. I will make books and exhibitions to make a lot of money so I can finance a school and hospital there. That’s my goal, that’s my dream. Before I close my eyes, I want to tell my people that I’ve done something good. And I will take photos until I die. The moment I die I will have my camera on my side.
It’s a beautiful goal. What’s the most immediate project?
The 100 most beautiful men in New York. I really want to complete it this year.
Where do you see the exhibition?
MOMA, of course! I want to see my work in a museum because they have the biggest white wall space and my work is contemporary. But I guess I could just go to a gallery or factory space somewhere in Brooklyn. But MOMA is my dream.
MOMA #1. Any other possibility?
MILK Studio. Of course. Well, anyway, I can’t wait to see my baby!
And us as well! Thank you Ssam for this inspiring talk.