Yunghi Kim: Core Values

  • YUNGHI KIM: CORE VALUES

By Jim Colton

In the wake of the landmark $1.2 million award reached in the Daniel Morel vs. AFP/Getty Images lawsuit for willful infringement of Morel’s images from the 2010 Haitian earthquake, there has been much discussion concerning photographer’s copyright and how to pursue organizations and publications for damages for unauthorized usage. 

Yunghi KimVeteran photojournalist Yunghi Kim is a strong proponent of photographer’s rights and offers suggestions to problems that all photographers now face as they tread through the morass of digital landmines. She also is quite vocal regarding protecting the value of one’s work. Kim says, “without monetary support, in whatever form that takes, photojournalism as an industry is dead!”

Kim espouses the adage that the best defense is often a good offense -- recommending photojournalists take pre-emptive measures in the present to prevent damage in the future. 

And in contrast to Ben Lowy (recently interviewed for Photo Journal), Kim has strong opinions about iPhoneography and its place in the professional photojournalistic market. 

Kim has been a staff photographer for the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachusetts, the Boston Globe, and affiliated with the photo agency Contact Press Images for 20 years. She’s covered major international stories from the famine in Somalia in 1992 (for which she was the runner up for the Pulitzer) to documenting the lives of South Koreanwomen who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese army during World War II.

She’s received numerous major photojournalism awards, including the Olivier Rebbot Award and John Faber Award from the Overseas Press Club and Magazine Photographer of the Year from POYi (one of only two women to receive that award). She continues to give back to the photojournalism community as a member of the NPPA board of directors and instructor for the Eddie Adams Workshop and Missouri Photo Workshop.

Jim Colton: Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself, your background and how you got started in the photography business?

Yunghi Kim:  When I was at Boston University in the 1980s, I worked as a photographer for an independent student newspaper called the Daily Free Press and covered local news events in the Boston area. I became hooked. Photojournalism became my passion. My dream was to be a staffer at the Boston Globe. At that time, the Globe dominated the industry…in the same way the New York Times dominates today. Their photographers; John Tlumacki, Stan Grossfeld, Wendy Maeda, and Janet Knott all inspired me. I wanted to be them!

My professional career started in 1984 at a small newspaper in Quincy, Massachusetts, where I covered the local community. I then landed my dream job as a staff photographer for the Boston Globe. I spent a total of 12 years working at newspapers. For the past twenty years I’ve been working as a freelancer represented by Contact Press Images.

JC: You are one of many “veteran” photographers who had the opportunity to work in photojournalism’s “glory years” as I have often called them…pre-digital, assignments on day rates, with expenses or monetary guarantees for production of stories. Has today’s marketplace obliterated that commitment that photographers used to have with their clients? What are some of the most dramatic changes that have affected the professional photography market since then…and you personally? 

YK: The digital revolution brought a lot of young people to the world of photography. The barrier to the entry level is lower, so there’s more good photography and photojournalism coming out of places where there wasn’t before. Asia is a good example of this. Globally photography has never been more popular. These are all positive developments.

Unfortunately, the young photographers entering the market have not been properly mentored like I was when I first got to the Globe or even later when I entered the freelance world. Photographers today are their own worst enemies. They don’t understand the value of their work. 

It used to be that the photo agencies like Sygma, Sipa, Gamma or dozens of others actually schooled young photographers on the value of their work. They were taught how to work in the field and made sure they got properly compensated for what they produced. The agencies’ interests meshed with the photographer’s. 

With the mega agencies, the financial burden is entirely on the photographer and the agency reaps the lion’s share of the reward.  The mega agencies today are more profit driven and have less of an interest in educating the photographer.

Magazines are struggling to stay afloat today. The first casualty was the photography budget and the champions of photography who use to work in those photo departments. At one time, magazine photography represented the cream of the crop and the directors of photography were the ones who could explain and justify the money it took to produce great work. So as publications are scrambling to hold onto their audience, I see a lot of wire images used now and very little investment in their own exclusive content. 

It used to be if you were a staffer or on contract for one of the newsweeklies it was a highly coveted position; something you get at the peak of your career. Now I see kids getting hired right out of journalism schools…and the same goes for photo editors. There are a lot of resources going to entry level positions to help sift through the bombardment of online content.

The best photography - at least photojournalism - is being produced by newspapers and wire photographers today…mainly wire photographers because they have no reason to exist if they aren’t producing images that their subscribers can’t produce themselves. They’ve also done a good job of tapping into the local talent that has emerged globally. Magazines still need this content, but there’s a difference between what works online, in a newspaper, and in a magazine. This subtlety is lost, because editors today simply can’t afford to be picky.

We’re in a period of transition, but eventually I think everything will go to the internet. The idea of marketing through social media and gaining followers wasn’t even talked about ten years ago. Now it’s all anyone cares about.

JC: You’ve produced some amazing stories over the years from your award winning work on Korean Comfort Women to the crisis in Rwanda to the “Occupy” protest movement. If you had to choose one story that you are most proud of, what would it be…and why?

YK: It would be Korean Comfort Women, which I shot almost 18 years ago. No one had taken a personal, behind the scenes look at the grandmothers. The intimate profile I produced was unique. When I heard their story on the radio, it brought me to tears. 

There was no question in my mind that I had to do it. I had a hard time getting interest or financial backing. It took six months to get access to the first grandmother and figure out how to do it. In the end, I just jumped in and did it. The work helped to introduce the Comfort Women issue to the West.

Even after I completed the work, it took six months to get it published. No one would touch the images. Finally, MaryAnne Golon, who was then the director of photography at U.S. News & World Report, took a leap of her own and published the piece as a stand-alone photo essay. Thanks to her boldness, and the diligence of Jeffrey Smith of Contact Press Images, the images were published by dozens of magazines around the world.

The Comfort Women became my most published and honored work. Recently it was exhibited at Visa pour l’Image and Ankor Photography.  Jean-Francois Leroy put a beautiful piece together with narration. I can tell that a lot of work went into it. 

JC: I understand you are currently working on an environmental story on the Gowanus Canal in New York City. Can you tell us a little about that story and why its documentation is important to you? 

YK: This is my first environmental story. The Gowanus Canal is a quaint little canal, four blocks from my house. It’s also a $500 million EPA superfund site. It is highly toxic and sometimes very stinky. It’s hard to believe that it’s right in NYC. I wanted to document it before they start dredging it next year. The canal and neighborhoods around it will change fast. I see them changing already. I am enjoying doing an in depth story so close to home.  

JC: I’d love to hear your thoughts on the following “buzz words,” that are so prevalent in today’s photography lexicon. And please feel free to expand on any tangential areas.

iPhoneography

I use iPhoneography for fun pics and as a digital postcard to share images on social media. I don’t however use my iPhone for serious work. It’s not sharp enough. It can be blurry, it’s slow and the shutter lag is frustrating. I think that’s why you see so many static, still life images made with the iPhone. Overall the quality is just not there. It’s easy to get lazy and not carry a normal camera because the phone is always in your pocket.

At the end of the day, it’s more about the look - the filtered look - rather than capturing great content…or real moments. The energy of the situation is lost. It’s easy to see this when you compare it to the rest of your work. It’s static and doesn’t measure up.

Instagram 

Instagram is quickly becoming the world’s largest archive of images. Not the best…just the biggest. One thing is for sure; it’s an addicting and seductive platform! Instagram can do whatever they like with their archive. The language that allows them to do that is in their terms of service.  No one knows how this will play out.  

All Instagram has to do is form a licensing agreement with one of the big stock agencies. Remember, low resolution makes up the bulk of internet content (another reason why watermarking is crucial). Low res has become important. I advocate photographers take some defensive measures and watermark their images. 

Watermarking

I always watermark my work. There’s a great app called Marksta which lets you do that directly from your iPhone. It was developed by a photographer. Watermarking deters theft. If your image is stolen, at least your name goes along with it. You might as well get credit for your (stolen) work. Legally, a watermarked image makes it easier to recoup fees, and if someone does remove your watermark it proves that they acted “willfully,” which helps your case.

I encourage photographers to watermark their images whenever it’s possible. It’s easy enough. There are apps for that. It takes twenty seconds; less time than what people spend filtering their iPhone images. (I suggest watermarking it across the image like I do on my website)

Branding 

People talk about branding, embracing change and exploring new platforms…which is a conversation that wouldn’t have happened ten years ago. I would advise people to look at the work and not the hype.  I think the best way of branding yourself is by making great images that have a lasting impact. The recent work I did on the “Occupy” movement is a good example; the work has energetic moments. You can’t get those moments with an iPhone. There are no tiny, square, filtered images in my story to water it down. The work I do today reflects, expands on, and is just as rich as what you’ll see in the rest of my archive.

I guess you could call that my brand. I’m not one of the “pack,” and I’m not interested in getting attention for what I call postcard photojournalism. 

Battle for content 

There’s a huge battle going on right now between those who want to keep their copyright and those who want to take it. There are many seeking to erode and weaken copyright. The internet big players, Google, Yahoo, Facebook have an interest in this because free floating user generated content benefits them.  Music, movies, authors, photographers, journalists on the other side, are all getting squeezed and robbed as their work is being stolen and used on the internet. In the last few years, there's been a big legislative push to erode the copyright law by attempted introductions of The Orphan Works Bill which would give broad meaning to “Fair Use.”   A few years ago, no one heard the term fair use, now it’s the excuse that photographers hear all the time.  

Platforms that depend on user generated content are today’s gold rush. Apps likeSnapchatand sites like Tumblr; these sites are worth billions and are completely dependent on other people’s content. The people who use these platforms are the real product. Without them, there is no product, user generated content has become important.  Individuals (and even publications) are pawns to big internet companies. 

Eventually, I believe there has to be a paid usage structure on the internet, which includes proper licensing fees for images. Without monetary support, in whatever form that takes, photojournalism as an industry is dead. There will be a few rock stars with large followers who may survive, but I’m not sure that’s a healthy thing. As traditional media continues to disappear, as print continues to die, it becomes crucial that we map out a structure for supporting paid content on the internet. The sooner we figure this out, the better.

JC: You have been a champion for photographer’s rights for quite some time….even writing a piece for the NPPA about protecting your rights as a photographer. (see link below) What are the most important things a photographer must do today to insure they are not getting ripped off by an internet society that more and more resembles the lawless wild, wild west era where bullies ruled the roost?

YK: I’m always encouraging photographers to pursue fees for unauthorized use. The fees for online use are so low that publishers have little excuse not to properly license images. From a photographer’s standpoint, it’s profitable to go after unauthorized usage…plus you’ve educated the infringer on the realities of the copyright law.

I guess what I’m saying is it comes down to education -- of both photographers and the people who steal their work. Photographers need to pursue copyright violations and publishers need to learn how to properly license images (and why it benefits them to do so). It is just as important for a photographer’s survival as it is for them to diversify now.

Along with going after unauthorized use, photographers need to directly market to the public. They need to balance that direct marketing with protecting their work. Still, I don’t think the question has been answered yet. If you have a lot of followers on Instagram does that translate into revenues?

Maybe for the few rock stars, but that doesn’t lead to a diversity of styles, or voices. It also leaves most subject matter completely overlooked. It comes back to a pay structure and stopping unauthorized use of our work. We need to help and encourage one another and use high profile cases such as Morel vs. Getty as an example.

JC: What recourses do photographers have to legally pursue unauthorized usage of their imagery?

YK: Register your images with the Copyright Office…it gives you more (and better) legal options. You have to approach each violation on a case by case basis, but when you see someone using your hard-earned work, it hits you in the gut. It’s rampant now. I saw this coming ten years ago. That’s when I started registering my work. It’s not hard. When you register images in batches before publication it’s fairly easy. Do it online at the US Copyright Office before you release your work or deliver them to a client.

JC: Lastly, what advice or direction can you give to the young photojournalist who is contemplating a career in our business? 

YK: Figure out how the business of photography works, how the industry works, as well as what your photography is about.  Put pride and value in your work. Don’t underestimate yourself. Get paid! Don’t settle for just a photo credit. Don’t get too caught up with social media or hyping yourself. Produce good work and people will reach out to you. Photographers who are doing it the right way are people like Krisanne Johnson, Christopher Capozziello, Zun Lee and Carlos Javier Ortiz. They are good examples. Their first concern is producing great work and I think they’ll be rewarded for doing so.

Editor’s Note: Yunghi would like to thank Kenneth Jarecke for his assistance with this interview.

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