My image of a soldier had been strongly impressed on my mind as the icon of a real man, like a father with tough spirit. But it was impossible to find that kind of men when I joined the army. ‘A private’ was treated merely as a child only because of the fact that he has just enrolled. He had to be accompanied by a superior whenever he wished to go to the bathroom or take a shower. It meant he was stripped of all controls, even of his natural desires.
Soldiers were different from what I had in mind and it seemed doubtful they were loyal enough to devote their lives when a war ever broke out. As I was discharged from the military service, my two brothers were about to enter the army too. I felt sorry to see them experience everything I had gone through during the service. Ever since, soldiers were no longer brave and sturdy men to me but pitiful beings treated as nothing in the society. As a man born in Korea, whoever he was or whatever he did before the enrollment, the moment he puts on the military uniform the individual being he was evaporates into thin air. Through forced depersonalization he becomes a fragile child, a nothing.
The project intended to capture them living through such ironic conditions. Their body did not move so much as an inch while I worked with them. It was almost as if I was taking pictures of the dead who’s existence had already perished.
A Reserve Soldier
After I was discharged, my faded military uniforms had to be worn once again for ‘reserve force training’. It was strange to wear a field cap with longer hair, the uniform awkward on my body. At the training camp, I was stunned to see people so different from the days during the service, as they were not the same soldiers as before. Although they were in their old uniforms, they had a personality and style of their own.
When dismissed, they took off their field caps and replaced them with baseball caps. Despite their uniforms, every one of them tried to rebel against the army in ways small and big. I saw a guy changing into red Nike shoes, putting on several bracelets, and a necklace in his style instead of a dog tag. Everything about him caught my eye and drew my attention. In the end, I couldn’t resist myself but talk to him. I took two photos of him with a Polaroid, gave one to him and kept the other for myself. It was the beginning of my project, ‘A Reserve Soldier.’
In their military uniforms to receive reserve force training, these men who have already become a member of the society with established lives and styles were no longer soldiers. Despite the monotonous military uniform, the ‘reserve soldier’ was glowing with his own color and the experience became an extraordinary path for me to grow out of ‘A Private’ project which were images full of spiritless person.
It was probably when my 6-week boot camp training was about to come to an end. Some 2~300 new recruits were lined up at the training field to have their portrait shots taken. When it was my turn after a long wait, the soldier with a camera started to shout at me, “Back straight! Hold up your chin!” The soldier did not give me time to think but pressed the shutter anyway and yelled, “Next!”. Utterly unprepared, the picture was taken instantly and during that short period of time I was so nervous that my head was a blur for awhile afterwards.
After the training was over, I was assigned as an army photographer. During their time in the army, soldiers are required to have their identification pictures taken on several occasions. Unlike pictures taken outside the military base, they are neither high quality nor natural. When a buck private is assigned to the barrack, a top sergeant brings him to the photo department as if they are father and son. Top sergeants who are about to be discharged from the service too often visit the photo department to take a picture with close peers.
In the army, pictures are taken with two or three soldiers standing next to each other to save films. After printing and trimming each soldier’s portrait in standard size, I collected left-over photo papers instead of throwing them away. I too took several portrait pictures with fellow comrades before being discharged from the service but I don’t remember their faces because they have been cut out from the pictures: identification with names but no faces only remains.