As part of an introspective look at her life as a Korean-Canadian, photographer Hannah Yoon takes portraits of other Koreans who challenge the hyphen that so often defines them.
"Since I grew up in a small city with 90 percent of the population being white, I found myself wanting to blend in," Yoon says. "Naturally, I ended up being the token Asian in a lot of my social groups and I enjoyed the attention. I didn't realize I was being tokenized and was just happy to be acknowledged."
In her community, Yoon was introduced as the "little Asian friend," with her skin, eyes and jet-black hair serving as perpetual reminders of who she was. "No matter how much I tried to blend in, I realized I wouldn't," the photographer says.
While sharing her experience, Yoon introduces the South Korean concept of Han and how it fits into her life and work. "It translates to a collective sorrow, angst and pain. Han simultaneously expresses a longing for an end to silent suffering and a sense of hope and humble perseverance. In many ways, Han captures the spirit of postwar South Korea and its people, including those who grew up outside the country."
In 2017, Yoon started featuring more Asian faces on her Instagram account. She realized that looking inward, into her own experience as a Korean out of Korea, was a powerful tool when working with the people she photographs.
"Photography has always been a way for me to connect with others. It's an opportunity to listen to and exchanges stories."
"It was good to know that I wasn't alone in my experiences. I felt a sort of camaraderie with each person I photographed, even if we had different experiences. I especially learned a lot from the few adoptees I spoke with, and it challenged my own understanding of the label markers of being Korean-American or Korean-Canadian."
Connecting with other Koreans abroad, establishing personal relationships and collaborating in her photography work evolved in a deeper understanding of her own identity and sense of belonging, a shared feeling of Han.
"Photographing people has led me to dig deeper into Korean history and how we collectively have been impacted by what the country has gone through, even if we didn't grow up there," Yoon says. Photography has given legitimacy to her multifaceted identity — something that society wouldn't necessarily provide to her or to those in her pictures.
Her collaborative work is a sort of multimedia soliloquy — soft and humble portraits, accompanied by strong statements. The series acknowledges that the hyphen is its own identity that should be celebrated. "This label [Korean-American or Korean-Canadian] is like a spectrum, and each person relates to it in their own way."
When looking at her pictures, we are looking at Koreans who are self-possessed rather than commodified or fetishized. Their gaze is often present, but focused inward. These are the looks of those who are thinking about who they are rather than of who we want them to be. Yoon's works challenge our views of what hyphenated groups go through.
"I wanted to show a diverse group of Koreans from age, gender, career and experiences. It's only recently that Koreans have been getting attention, but I wanted it to go beyond K-pop, Korean barbecue and skin care regimens. My hope is that by hearing even a little bit of our stories, people will explore the depths of their own stories and identities. When we can take ownership of our stories and who we are, it brings diversity to the table."
Editor's note: As of April 1, the AP Stylebook guideline dropped the hyphen when describing the Asian American community. We have decided to keep the hyphen in this piece since Yoon's work is directly addressing it and using it as a way to explore identity. The Hyphen is part of how people were defined and part of their stories.
Hannah Yoon is a documentary photographer based in Philadelphia. You can follow her on Instagram: @hanloveyoon
Laura Beltrán Villamizar is projects picture editor at NPR. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @lolabe