“Higher education studies have found that to be considered for promotion, female faculty members must perform better than males”, said curator Oh Soon-hwa on the sidelines of the Singapore International Photography Festival held at the National Museum.
Soon-hwa, who curated “Human Faces: Contemporary Portrait Photography from Singapore and South Korea”, also happens to be an assistant professor at the School of Art, Design and Media, at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Her curatorial of this exhibition is very much a reflection of her interest in self-examination through the portrayal of others.
Her curating of this joint exhibition of works by photographers of two worlds, South Korea and Singapore, may also refer to her journey from the realms of a small village in South Korea where she was born in 1970, to the wider world.
Leaving your home country often brings you back to your personal identity, and this is revealed in portraits or images made with the camera.
Soon-hwa’s curatorial of the “Human Faces” exhibition includes works by photographers like ChanHyo Bae and Dorothy Yoon, whose highly staged and manipulated images were inspired by their own move from South Korea to Western countries, while Nanda Kim created images of the cloned self in Western settings to find her own identity.
As a girl confined to living in a small village, Oh Soon-hwa had heard about the outside world, and had dreamed of going out to see it for herself.
“I wanted to get out and see the world.”
But that was easier thought than done as Korea still holds on to traditional gender roles. She was determined to see her dream through, and eventually managed to do so by promising her parents she would not marry a foreigner. She eventually broke her promise by marrying a French man.
“I waited until I was 35, an age when no Korean man would want to marry me.”
She first visited the US in 1994, intent on studying painting, but loved her photography courses.
“I ended up pursuing two degrees at the same time: an MFA in Photography at the School of Visual Arts and a Doctorate in College Teaching of Arts at Columbia University.”
She found the camera liberating. A free spirit, she can walk the streets in Delhi and Veransi from the early morning to sundown, all by herself, without fear.
Driven by her experiences as a Korean woman, her focus on Korean or Asian women living in other cultural environments is as if she wanted to explore her own journey.
Social and cultural explorations led Oh Soon-hwa to India and the island of Tan Loc in the Mekong delta, spurred by the small sign “Vietnam Bride” she had come across while vacationing in the south Korean countryside.
She discovered that many Vietnamese women had come to South Korea by marrying Korean men, but could not approach these brides as social stigma prohibited newlyweds to speak to outsiders.
On the small island of Tan Loc, she also encountered many girls who had tied the knot with foreigners.
Earlier, in Darling, she had gone through great lengths to interview Korean women who had emigrated to the US by marrying American citizens.