Men in Uniform: Capturing Soldiers at the Border of North and South Korea

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Heinkuhn Oh North South Korea border DMZ soldiers men
Heinkuhn OH, Four soldier before a mock cavalry battle, May 2010, 2010Courtesy the artist

Shortly going on display at the Korean Cultural Centre UK, Heinkuhn OH’s series Absurd Play shows a different side to life in the DMZ

“The military to me seems like one grand, totally absurd play,” says South Korean photographer Heinkuhn OH. The theatricality of the military has been widely commented upon throughout modern history – most notably in Carl von Clausewitz’s renowned book On War. With his series Absurd Play – which will be on display at the Korean Cultural Centre UK’s upcoming group exhibition Negotiating Borders from 1 October – OH adds to this ongoing conversation. His photographs of young men patrolling the hyper-militarised border between North and South Korea reveal soldiers’ paradoxical outlooks on martial life and highlight the farce of contemporary warfare.

The idea to photograph South Korean soldiers came to OH in 2008; until then the photographer had focused his camera on exposing the commonplace sexism of Korean society. But after a year of trying to gain access to military bases OH gave up. “Then, in 2009, I received an unexpected proposal from the Ministry of Defence to photograph soldiers in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Korean War,” OH tells AnOther. “I gladly accepted the proposal and worked on the project for three months. After I had completed the official assignment, I made a request for a one-year extension and fortunately they granted it. This in turn made it possible for me to finish what is now Absurd Play.”

It is the conflict between individual identity and group loyalty faced by many soldiers that fascinates OH. “The series reflects on the tension between ‘I’ and ‘us’ – the ‘us’ that Korean society incessantly imposes upon people. It seemed to me that the soldiers today have antithetical attitudes towards it,” OH says. “In the past, soldiers were more amenable to patriotism, to anti-communism, and to the eradication of it. This normalised the endurance of the injustices that they were subjected to. By contrast, soldiers now have a heightened awareness of human rights and more access to television and the internet, which has diminished the authority of the controlling structures of the past.” Absurd Play casts a light on the this emotional paradox between the officers who served during, in OH’s words, “the no-nonsense era” and the young soldiers of today. But rather than depict military life as fractured, OH presents it as ridiculous, as nonsensical, through his sharp, satirical gaze.  

OH’s photographs are honest, incisive and unapologetically theatrical. His shots of young men in marine uniforms either smiling at or posing for the camera, for example, emphasise the performativity of martial life. But OH is clear about his opinion on the military, even if his pictures allow for interpretative ambiguity. “The fact that I perceive the military as absurdist doesn’t mean that I view it as being immoral,” OH says. “It just means that I discovered a contradiction that I wanted to explore – the riddle of ‘I’ and ‘us’.  But it’s not like I am trying to provide an answer to this through my work. I am not even proposing that we look for one. As a photographer, I don’t think one needs to explain or educate. I simply suggest.”

Negotiating Borders is on at the Korean Cultural Centre UK from October 1 to November 23, 2019