This essay was written in conjunction with Soi Park on view at CUE Art Foundation December 8, 2012 - January 26, 2013.
It is hard to imagine the Yale-trained photographer Soi Park sharing tequila with strangers at a day labor pick-up location in Connecticut. Yet that is how she became acquainted with the workers, and subsequently their families, who figure throughout her latest body of work. While she was riding on the Metro North commuter line in August of 2010, the train stopped briefly outside Stamford, giving Park a view of men loitering in a nearby lot. As the train started up again, she watched them run toward an arriving van. The anomaly of the men's urgency within the nondescript setting led her to return to the site with a camera.
Over the course of several months photographing at the lot, she came to know the men, who were day laborers living in America and accepting odd jobs to support their families in Central and South America. They gradually welcomed her, sharing their stories and family snapshots. These were personally resonant for Park: when she was nine years old, her father left their home near Seoul, South Korea, in search of work in the United States. She followed in 2005 at age 27. Photographs sent between her father and mother in the intervening years were their most tangible form of contact.
Park's photographs address the sense of displacement she feels as a foreigner and seeks in her subjects. In the series Where Are We Going?, begun in 2007 and completed in 2010 during her first year in the Yale School of Art's MFA program, people move through parking lots and fields on the outskirts of postindustrial Northeastern towns or are framed by the equipment of transportation. In an untitled work from 2010, a figure is caught climbing over a fence that separates railroad tracks from a cluster of clapboard houses beyond. The houses appear as an arrangement of sloping roofs, sharply outlined windows, and oblique shadows that oscillates between geometric order and incoherence. Plots of overgrown weeds extend behind the figure; there is no train in sight. It is unclear how this person arrived there, but certain that this is not where he or she belongs. Many of the landscapes in the series are transitional sites like this one, where the psychology of the outsider is manifested in the indistinct layering of surface and depth, which complicates spatial organization. The limited palette of a black and white print adds to the disorientation.
At times, the distance or height of the camera in Where Are We Going? lends a furtive quality to the images, as if the photographer-like her subjects-were trying to remain unseen. At the same time, the calibrated combination of strobe and natural light attests to Park's preparation. This ambiguous mix of reality and choreography may recall the work of predecessors such as Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall, who use the tools of the studio to construct-and conceal the mechanisms behind-elaborately staged tableaux. For the photograph Men Waiting (2006), a particularly relevant instance, Wall hired nearly 20 day laborers to stand in a re-created pick-up location for hours at a time over the course of several weeks as he waited for the ideal atmospheric conditions and mood.
Like Wall, Park paid the day laborers she photographed for the series Buscar Trabajo-Looking for Work(2010-2011), in which the men act out scenarios she imagined her father had experienced as a day laborer. Though Park freely admits to directing elements of her photographs, her images speak to a collaboration between the artist and subject that differs greatly from that of Wall's precisely controlled projects. Rather than posing as archetypes in Wall's compositions, which evoke historical painting, or playing a role in Crewdson's quasi-cinematic productions, the day laborers are both "being themselves" and attempting to fulfill the artist's projection of a loved-albeit distantly perceived-family member.
The photographs in Buscar Trabajo-Looking for Work have a rawness that derives from the meeting between the artist's vision and the day laborers' individual realities of life apart from their families. The men's tentative body language and facial expressions testify to the difficulty of conjuring these private emotions. Achieving the ideal representation is not her goal. Staging is merely one tool in a multipart process that interweaves narrative, artistic intention, and participation. This is even more true of Park's current series.
While photographing Manuel, a day laborer in Connecticut, for Buscar Trabajo-Looking for Work, Park learned about his family, which remains in Sigsig, a small canton in his native Ecuador. Manuel sends money home to educate his children, the youngest of whom has never met him, and for the ongoing construction of a new house, one of many in the region similarly financed. Recalling the mementos sent back and forth during her own family's separation, Park proposed traveling between Manuel's apartment in the United States and his Ecuadorian home to photograph the family over time. She has visited several times since her first trip in 2011 and plans to return at least once more to take pictures of the family as the children grow.
The photographs of Manuel and his family shed the restless density of Park's earlier work. Muted light visually links the images made in Danbury, Connecticut, with those in Sigsig, creating an underlying atmosphere of stillness that is sustained by uncluttered compositions. The transition from foreground to background is resolved, and figures occupy clearly delineated spatial registers. A recurring pose in which each figure looks beyond the frame further connects the family members. We are led to ponder: are they daydreaming about each other? Whereas Park used disorientation to convey displacement in her earlier photographs, in these works she employs formal cohesion to engineer a reunion-albeit a visual, not physical, one.
Recently Park extended her project to Ewa, a woman who lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and has known Park for six years. Ewa won the green card lottery to stay in the U.S. in 2005 and, since 2007, has not had the opportunity to see her family in Kopiec, Poland. Park offered to travel to Kopiec to take photographs of them; she made her first trip in 2012 and intends to return there soon. The pictures, shot in Brooklyn and Poland, show a more directorial approach. In one image from 2012, Ewa's mother stands outdoors at a short distance from her house and looks back through the window to the interior, from which the camera-and, later, the viewer-looks out at her. In another photograph (also 2012), the camera now faces a window, where Ewa is revealed to be looking out from a position similar to the one held by Park when she shot the previous image in Kopiec. Though Ewa is in New York-the different frames underscore separate locations-the images together create a situation in which the family members, Ewa's like Manuel's, seem to engage despite their true separation. Window framing emphasizes the photographic conceit and evokes the printed photograph as the tangible instrument of family connection. Indeed, in Park's photograph of Manuel's apartment in Connecticut, a print of her earlier portrait of his family lies among his belongings as evidence of this exchange in reality.
In the current exhibition, pictures taken in Israel, Sweden, and Germany join the series of family photographs. Three compositions shot in Israel in 2011 and 2012 represent, in part, a continuation of Park's earlier concern with depicting transitional sites. One shows a playground in central Tel Aviv in which refugees from South Sudan and Eritrea sleep at night among the children's rides and bright lights. A photograph from Jerusalem, in which a mattress, complete with linens and a pillow, lies outside in broad daylight, is at once absurd and disturbing: does this become someone's bed at night? Having used her camera elsewhere as a tool for intimate interventions, here Park presses her investigation of placelessness to a pitch that is at once passionately empathetic and quietly political.