From refugees reaching the Sicilian coast after turbulent Mediterranean crossings to protestors scaling Paris’ Place de la République following the Charlie Hebdo shootings, designer and photographer Donghwan Kam creates VR environments based on world-changing events. With a homemade VR point-and-shoot camera developed from sensors and a shutter mechanism, he explores these carefully constructed landscapes, capturing alternative images to the much-repeated photographs circulated by the international press.
The idea for After Photography first came to Design Academy Eindhoven grad Donghwan when he was wondering through online virtual world Second Life and was suddenly struck by a sense of the uncanny. Following signs that read ‘No guns’ along a path to the shore, he discovered a dense, black building, hovering in a liminal zone between the land and the sea. “I was so shocked because I already knew this building, this image,” the Donghwan tells It’s Nice That. It turns out that the architecture in question is a real structure, located on the Mexican-US border in Tijuana. “I found the real and virtual merging together so I started to try to find more clues like this,” Donghwan explains.
Around the same time, the tragic death of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, and the image of his small, fragile body washed up on a Bodrum beach captured by Turkish photographer Nilüfer Demir, was making international news. Donghwan was deep in Susan Sontag’s seminal work The Pain of Others, and was interested in the effect that viral news images were having on the human psyche. “With the repetition of these photographs we are losing our ability to react,” says Donghwan. “Things have become normal that really shouldn’t be, so I started trying to defamiliarise these images through 3D renderings.”
Part of Donghwan’s drive was personal. During his military service stationed in Iraq in 2006, Donghwan worked as a photographer, capturing similar images to those he now recreates in VR. “Images can become so familiar that they start to lose their meaning,” he explains. Showcased as part of Design Academy Eindhoven’s excellent Milan Design Week show Not For Sale, another element to the After Photography project is footage of Donghwan at work in VR, showing how a photographer dances through space when capturing an image, but divorced from its visual context.
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