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Hankoo Lee

Hankoo Lee, From the series Military Use, 1989-1992
 Courtesy of the artist.

Military Use

I wanted to be placed on the front line. If I had to serve in the army, I wanted to go to the front and take pictures. I was twenty years old at the time, and I was so attached to my camera that I even slept with it by my bedside. My heart leapt when I thought about going to the front line to take pictures like a war correspondent after I enlisted.

In 1989, I joined the 15th division of the South Korean Army and took my place on the front line as I had wished. It didn’t take long to find things that I wanted to shoot. At first, I’d thought I would be photographing big and dramatic things and that I would mark them down in my notebook as a “Red Balloon.” (I think I did this because using code had become routine in my day-to-day life.)

It wasn’t easy to get hold of a camera. So I began taking pictures with my eyes, and I got into the habit of winking when I encountered scenes that I wanted to photograph. I developed these imagined photos on the ceiling at night while lying in bed with my eyes closed.

When I finally got my hands on a camera, I couldn’t take pictures freely.I once went to field training with a camera stored in my gas mask case, and my commanding officer later punished me by sending me to the gas room without a mask.

Each time, I put the film I had shot in a plastic bag then buried it. I stayed up on rainy nights worrying about what might happen to the film. I took the rolls home very secretively every time I went back for a holiday. Those holidays always ended when the photos had finished developing.

What was the “Red Balloon” that I so desperately wanted to shoot at twenty years of age? Was it something anxiously inflated to the point of bursting, something dirty and radiant, or something like a suspicious and mysterious rite of passage? Is it possible to explain it in just a few words? I hope these photos do their job in showing the things that can’t be expressed so easily in words.

Though more than twenty years have passed, I still remember these things. My photos also remember as clearly as I do.

Hankoo Lee


As a member of The Truth, a documentary photography group, and as a photographer for Men and Mountain, a monthly photo magazine, Hankoo Lee has traveled to over a thousand villages in Korea. He has climbed many major mountain ranges in the world, including the Korean mountain chains of Baekdudaegan, Honam-jeongmaek, and Nangnamjeongmaek; Khan Tengri of the Tian Shan mountains in China; and the southwest wall of Mt. Everest. From the vertical heights and horizontal expanses of the Korean Peninsula and beyond, he has built his own photo world.

His photographs have been shown in solo exhibitions including Military Use (2012), Ryugaheon’s Mainly Photographs Gallery, and Microlandscape (2011), Canon Plex Gallery, both in Seoul. He has participated in numerous group shows in Seoul including Go Out in 18 years (2004), Yechong Gallery; Korea – Japan Mountain Photo Exhibition (2000), Japanese Culture Center, Korean Embassy; and Korean Mountain Photographs (2000), Sejong Center for the Performing Arts.

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