Korean photographer Min Hyun-woo first realised the power of photography when he had his own portrait taken. Recalling the emotion of holding a nice photograph of yourself and how it can empower you, he likens the moment to feeling “like someone famous”. Holding on to this feeling, the photographer became increasingly keen to enable this emotion in others, to be one of those people “who always wears a camera and consistently makes something out of it”.
First taking up the practice of photography as a hobby, it became Min’s full-time job in his late 20s. Describing his approach as a journey towards being “honest with myself”, enlightening portraits are present throughout the photographer’s portfolio. Often, they’re uniquely joyful and smile-inducing, giving you the sense that Min’s temperament as an artist puts his subjects at ease. Speaking about this approach, the photographer adds: “I think I need a heart to understand the other person, not to bring out what I want.... I do my best for the models when we spend time together. Not only do I talk to them at the moment of action, but I try to give them my time entirely – I focus on the moment, rather than expecting the result.”
There is no better example of Min’s approach than a recent shoot he completed for Vogue Korea, centring on the much-needed theme of hope. Growing out of one photograph Min took in a chance meeting, he soon developed the idea to travel to villages and take photographs in which – breaking with tradition – the models would be grandmothers, capturing their wisdom and wit in each shot.
Visiting each of his cast members a month before the final shoot day, Min’s visits were full of talking and always in a setting “where they felt comfortable,” he tells us. “Soon, it was the day of the shoot and our priority was to give good memories to the grandmothers,” just like having his photograph taken as a child.
As always, Min’s main concern was to make his subjects as comfortable as possible – a unique communication task, as the majority of the models were a bit hard of hearing, given that they were all around 100 years old. “I wanted the grandmothers to smile like girls,” he says. “I’m not talented in making others laugh, but I did my best to make them laugh.” He tackled this by dancing to set the tone or playing odd little games, and although “the viewfinder didn’t capture it properly,” he says, “I hope it is captured in the moment.”
The result is a series of portraits, one somehow more joyful than the last. Each grandmother is centre stage in each, usually placed against a calming background, like linen or the countryside of their home. What captures your attention, however, is the happiness that Min evokes, each grandmother often smiling so brightly that you don’t notice anything else in the frame at all. According to Min, it turns out that grandmothers “smile brightly when they give pocket money”.
When discussing the past year, Min admits that the difficult quarantining period when we were unable to see each other’s expressions has shifted his approach to photography. “I wanted to feel sincere feelings, and wanted my work to comfort someone,” he says. Given that parts of life have crept back to normal recently, and Min is shooting again, he says: “I feel the importance of small things and I think we have to protect them. I think it needs to be maintained rather than changed.”
Min Hyunwoo: Hope for Vogue Korea (Copyright © Min Hyunwoo and Vogue Korea 2020)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.