The last month of the semester; the month you feel worn out from all the team projects, reports and tests; the time you grow tired of the unending cycle of life ─ December.
However, looking from a distance, the thought that life could end at any time makes today more priceless than any other thing. Here is an artist who brings out the topic of “death” for the youth, Hong Saan, 24 years of age. Hong takes funeral portraits for herself and visitors who are similar to her age. What is the possible reason for such an early preparation? For this month, The Argus rendezvoused with death to shed new light on life.
The Argus: Please introduce yourself.
Hong Saan (Hong): Hi, I am a photographer Hong Saan. I major in Art & Technology at Sogang University. I am now proceeding with the project “Portrait Studio of the Deceased for Youth.” I started this project to create an opportunity to think back on the meaning of death. By this, I thought we could prepare the escape hatch for better lives.
The Argus: Why did you start to take the funeral portraits?
Hong: There are friends around me who are suffering from depression, and I was one of them, too. I thought that sharing ideas on death with others is a better solution for those feelings than keeping them inside me, since I assume there is no one who has never thought about death. While I was thinking about how, I came up with the idea of expressing it through shooting photographs, which I am good at.
The Argus: What is the process of the project you are now pushing ahead?
Hong: It is all the same as what is done at other photo studios except for writing a will before taking a picture. I thought that it is necessary because the theme is the portrait of the deceased. There is no special format for those portraits, and I planned the process of writing a will to add significance. I usually do not direct poses or facial expressions while shooting photo because I think that it bars from expressing the distinct personality of each visitor. Similarly, after shooting the photos, I edit the photos with our visitors.
The Argus: What do you want people to feel from that process?
Hong: The main difference between this photo studio and the others is that the youths in their 20s could choose their funeral portraits themselves. I want to give a full experience of preparing for death. Before writing their wills, I ask the visitors to read a portion of Martin Heidegger’s “Being and Time.” It is a book that I love which claims that people can find who they really are and overcome the hollowness existence brings by confronting themselves according to their will. Thoughts are merely scattered pieces in the mind unless they are written or spoken out loud. Because of this, I think that writing a will is a more concrete expression, and it therefore organizes one’s thoughts via self-confrontation.
The Argus: What do you think is the reason many people in their 20s visit the studio?
Hong: I think that the sense of shame of not fulfilling the criterion for success that current society sets prevails in people in their 20s. I guess preparing for death is thought as one of the deviant behaviors, and youths tired of these standards are therefore trying this experience. I think youths in their 20s visit here to rethink the idea of death, which can seem obscure and vague. I anticipate that they empathize with the possibility of that experience.
The Argus: Do you have anything you have felt or learned while encountering visitors?
Hong: I get more things than I give while I am working. First of all, meeting various people from work is an irreplaceable opportunity and an experience that widens my point of view. The most memorable visitor I met was a woman who was leading a labor union in a private hospital that bans such groups. She said that she was fighting for the labor rights of herself and her colleagues, and came here as she thought that she might get killed while leading it. I realized that like her, I should live this one life as one that changes society we live in. Another visitor that I remember is a teenager who dropped out of school. I used to stereotype out-of-school adolescents to be disordered, but she was a diligent person. I never thought of dropping out when I attended school and respected that courage of hers in choosing her own way of living.
The Argus: How can “death” be helpful to a life and what does it mean to you?
Hong: When a university club calls me, I go there and give lectures to students on my stories during the project and always mention this: “Recognizing death can provide us a joy we have endured and a chance of feasibility to live for our whole self or to break away from the routine of daily life sometimes.”
There might be many things we have postponed under the influence of everyday life. If we die tomorrow, we might want to do that all because of the regret. For we do not know when death will come, let us take care of today as today, not sacrificing it for tomorrow or five years later. To me, death makes me promise not to sacrifice myself at present for the future of myself or others.
The Argus: What would you say to the people who are uncomfortable talking about death?
Hong: I bet those who shun talking about death still spend time thinking about it. I personally think that those who could speak out loud about those dark parts about life are people who live life more fully. We all die after all.
The Argus: What do you think is “dying well”?
Hong: Thinking of “living well” first, I think it is a good life when every scene is satisfactory and not shameful no matter what scene I pick from the timeline of my life. The state that is not shameful indicates being true to one’s own philosophy. I think life, where I can confidently say my choices are not embarrassing, is regarded a good life, reflecting the self, based on philosophy. Similar to this, I think dying well is to leave the world without lingering affection in the ending scene of our life, saying, “Well done, I am satisfied, and I have lived well.”
The Argus: Do you have any future plans?
Hong: My life motto is divided into two. First is to live a life that I am not ashamed of myself, and the second is to live for the disadvantaged. This project is a part of my first motto and therefore, for my next work, I want to do a job that shines light on the second-class citizen. My mother was a teacher in a poor village. I heard that more than half of the students in her class were North Korean defectors, orphans or kids who were raised in single parent families. She has a lot of concerns about those who are handicapped, and I guess those concerns have influenced me too.
The Argus: What kind of photographer do you want to be remembered as?
Hong: I want to be perceived as a warm and friendly photographer. I usually try to have some conversation with visitors. Contrary to the dark image of the portraits of the deceased, I hope many people remember me as a tenderhearted person. The studio will be open whenever there is a need or demand. My studio would be great to visit if your life is boring or when it does not seem to work out in your own way.
We live in a movie called life, and we each write different scenarios. At the end of the movie, there always is death. However, we, the main characters in the movies, are afraid to face the ending. Porthait studio of the Deceased for Youth makes us face our own life, forcing us to ask some questions: If you lived for yourself today, what would be one scene of your movie? Would the scene make you proud of yourselves at the end of the movie? If you can say “Yes” to these questions without hesitation, it is certain that you are living a fine life even if it is not a grand life. The reporters wish for every moment of your movie to be the most beautiful and happiest time in your life.
By Seo Eun-sol and Kim Hannah
Associate Editor of Campus Section & Staff Reporter of Culture Section