“In 1905 around 1000 Koreans arrived in Mexico aboard the SS Ilford,” reads the opening line of the description of Michael Vince Kim’s fascinating photo series Aenikkaeng. Having departed an impoverished country under Japanese rule, this small group of people had been promised “future prosperity in a paradisiac land”. However, upon arrival in Yucután, they were sold off as servants.
By the time their contracts ended in 1910, Korea had been incorporated into the Japanese Empire. With no homeland to return to and having worked alongside local Mayans (many of them going on to marry Mayans), they decided to stay in Mexico. From this initial group, some went to find work elsewhere in Mexico and some in Cuba.
As a series that tells the story of the communities that descend from these 1000 immigrants, its title is a romanticisation of the Korean spelling for the Spanish word “henequén” – a Mexican agave used to make twine and rope – and the plant the Koreans were forced to farm after being tricked into signing contracts to become indentured labourers.
The beautifully soft yet vibrant images in Aenikkaeng offer a glimpse into a little-known world whilst also acting as a tribute to the sufferings and exploitation of the original immigrants. Michael spent a month in both Mexico and Cuba and throughout this time was able to connect with many of the families on an extremely personal level. He explains how, “given my Korean heritage, it was surprisingly common to visit a rural town in Yucatán and find a family whose surname was also Kim. This happened frequently, and naturally, we had a lot to talk about.”
Michael’s parents, who are originally from Korea, migrated to Argentina in the 1970s. Although born in California when they spent a year in the US, Michael moved back to Argentina at just four months old. “I lived most my life there so I tend to say I’m from Argentina. However, some people feel the need to correct me and say that I’m not “really” Argentinian, whatever that means,” explains Michael. This background has, not surprisingly, led him to focus largely on the issue of identity throughout his work.
Having studied film directing in his home country, Michael later moved to Edinburgh were he undertook a degree in linguistics. For his dissertation, he focused on a rare Korean dialect called Koryo-mar, which is spoken in post-soviet states. “I decided to go to Kazakstan to do fieldwork and took this chance to also work on my first photo project about the descendants of Koreans who speak this dialect,” he tells It’s Nice That.
It was here that he discovered a propensity for the medium and upon completing the project was made aware of the Korean community in Mexico and Cuba through his father and a friend at the same time. “It was only natural that I would continue the project of the broader theme of Korean migration since, being an ethnic Korean myself, I am personally invested in these stories,” he explains. This investment comes across in Michael’s tender and compassionate work, with its soft hues and juxtapositions of location and culture.
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