— I found these pictures in the bottom of a bin in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. They were taken in South Korea, in the 1970’s, they are probably of the kind that South Korean businessmen would take on business trips and bring back to the office to show to their colleagues as slideshows. This was a period when the country was rapidly industrializing and the dictator was a man named Park Chung Hee. Buildings were flying up everywhere. In these photos, a visiting Kenyan businessman is passing through a new factory, looking at the construction.
What is interesting to me about these photos is first that they reveal power dynamics that felt like they could be happening anywhere. Tensions, misogyny, moments of kindness, and the kind of general misunderstanding that can happen between people from different places. I can see the familiar performance of a workplace here and also a set of real people in the time period of a lot of the other archival material I use in my own work – the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s – with it’s optimism and its modernist idealism. There is also a lot I can’t know. I don’t know the particularities of South Korean customs, or the words that were being spoken, or what happened before or after. I’m most interested in the woman in the pictures. What was she doing there? Is she a worker? A hired escort? A wife?
I particularly like the way that the hands in the photographs are always a little bit more tense than the faces, seeming to reveal some actual human feeling in the past.
And I like these pictures most of all because they remind you that you can’t really know anything from looking at a set of photographs. I think of this line from Lacan, “you never look at me from the place I see you”. He means something a bit different, but for my purposes here, those words mean that you can never look at a picture of someone from the same experience, or subjectivity, or place from which they look back at you. Something to think about.
Sara Cwynar is a New York-based Canadian artist who uses studio sets, collage and re-photography to explore the ways in which the meaning of design and images change or endure over the course of time. Her work has been exhibited recently at the Prada Foundation, Italy, the Hessel Museum, Hudson, NY, and at MoMA PS1.