The Different Faces of Korean Heritage at the Portrait Gallery

Artist CYJO discusses The KYOPO Project, a portrait ensemble of more than 200 individuals born in Korea, but living abroad

Feedloader (Clickability)

KYOPO Composite, © CYJO

Born in 1974 in Seoul, Korea, but raised in Maryland, artist CYJO sought to explore the lives of Koreans living abroad in her breakthrough series “The KYOPO Project,” currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery. Kyopo refers to any people of ethnic Korean ancestry who live outside Korea and is a reflection of a diverse diaspora. The work consists of a collection of pictures of more than 200 people of Korean descent posed head-on, looking directly at the camera. They are both straightforward and intimate portraits ranging across professions from bankers to students, and ages from the very old to the very young. Accompanying every photo is a short autobiography. The pieces are displayed one after another, juxtaposing a variety of subjects and a wide range of experiences, all helping to define “what it means to be Korean and a citizen of the world.”

I corresponded with CYJO via email to get some insight into her project, her process and her part in the exhibition, “Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter,” at the National Portrait Gallery.

What motivated you to start the KYOPO project?

I didn’t see any photography books in 2004 that covered contemporary issues and the Korean culture. I also was curious to see how individuals who shared the same ancestry contextualized themselves in their societies. And so I decided to create a platform that explored how ethnicity and culture of residence/citizenship related to identity through photographic and textual portraits.

You photographed many different types of people—young and old, white collar and working class, well known and unknown—for the KYOPO project. How did you find each of your subjects and how important was it for you to represent a wide variety of people?

In November of 2004, a random stranger at the time, Sebastian Seung, stood in line behind me at the Cooper Hewitt Museum. He inquired about the exhibition, and I inquired about his ethnicity. After confirming he was Korean, he became the first subject for the project. He recommended a couple of people who recommended others. There were chance meetings with other people who became participants, and the group organically grew into over 200 people over the course of six years.

What was important was to make sure that the group was a sincere sampling and random, not researched. From this grouping, a variety of individuals surfaced. It was a nice surprise to obtain such varied results.

You studied fashion at both New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and Istituto Politecnico Internazionale della Moda in Florence. How does your fashion background inform your photography?

The process of producing a collection under a theme/idea was definitely exercised through a photographic and textual medium. A concept was developed, and pieces/portraits were created to flesh out the idea. Expressing a concept through a cohesive collection can be applied to many forms of art which include fashion and photography.

Who are your favorite subjects from the series? What about them stands out to you?

It’s hard to say which are my favorites, but below are some of the many memorable participants. Steve Byrne and Bobby Lee—Their fearlessness, surprise, semi-nudity and humor (Bobby had requested that I do an additional personality shot with only his socks on as he squatted and pointed to the sky. And Steve unexpectedly whipped off his shirt last minute before I took the shot). Daniel Dae Kim, Chang Rae Lee, Juju Chang—high profiles in the media who were distinctively humble and modest. Linda Vestergaard—her introduction to Korean cultural exposure in her late twenties, her history as an adopted individual of identical triplets in Denmark, and her journey with embracing her ethnicity where she and her Danish family eventually met her biological parents. Cera Choi and Patricia Han—their courage to defy the odds, overcome extreme challenges and make a difference to better affect their communities. Cera from Anchorage, Alaska, is a single mother of four children, with her youngest suffering from a severe disease, Prader-Willi syndrome. She has helped to create some policies in her community to help families who have family members with special needs. Patricia Han from NYC had lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks. And she took this tragedy as a reminder that she had a purpose in this world to positively contribute, as she still had a lot more than many others did. In turn, she created an orphanage in Bangladesh to help provide a supportive foundation where children could grow and become productive individuals in their societies. Linda Volkhausen and Aiyoung Choi—the earlier pioneers of civic activism and community involvement in America. Suk Pak—He grew up in the Canary Islands and is the co-founder of, the first major portal to bring English sub-titled Korean soap operas into the American vernacular. KYOPO Consultants and Supporters—They provided instrumental support to help realize this project.

In describing the project, you say the goal was to challenge “the idea of a monolithic, ‘authentic’ Korean identity.” How do your subjects’ stories compare? Did you find any similarities besides their shared Korean heritage?

One resounding similarity with most participants was their respect and curiosity for differences due to their bi-cultural/multi-cultural background. They identified with a universal human race. There were definitely generational similarities where children of those families who immigrated in the 60′s and 70′s had certain societal and cultural pressures instilled in them, different from some who had grown up later where ethnicity is celebrated much more.

There were also different types of relationships people had with their ethnicity. One participant, Cabin Gold Kim had parents who wanted to provide the best American experience and environment for him to thrive in their newly adopted American culture. He loved his mom’s grilled cheese sandwiches growing up and didn’t care much for kimchi. And I can still hear his Rochester, New York, guffaw that erupted during our interview.

This contrasted to other participants who visited Korea regularly, spoke the language fluently and preferred to receive their news through Korean media portals.

Other individuals exfoliated their Korean culture off of them to better integrate and assimilate to American society growing up only to come back to it at a matured age, understanding that part of being American was to embrace your heritage.

In the end, each story was individual and uniquely their own.

What would your KYOPO statement say? Has your own Kyopo identity changed over the course of working on this project?

Bits and pieces of my thoughts can be found in select participants’ answers in the KYOPO book published by Umbrage Editions. My identity has not changed but strengthened and expanded over the course of working on this project.

Are there any figures you wish you had the opportunity to add to the series?

The project was done to produce an organic and spontaneous result within a certain framework. My wish was for that element to be maintained. The KYOPO Project illustrates a sampling of individuals, mainly Korean Americans, and does not represent all Korean Americans or KYOPO, but provides a flavoring over a course of time.

What are your thoughts on the Portrait Gallery’s “Portraiture Now: Asian American Portraits of Encounter”? What are your impressions of the work of your fellow exhibitors?

I’m honored to have The KYOPO Project in such a venerable institution and grateful for the opportunity. I’m also honored to be among the six artists represented in the group.

It’s an important and unprecedented event, the first time in the Smithsonian Institution’s history in which an art exhibition of this kind has been executed. The exhibition explores expressions of being Asian in America in a national museum institution that is not defined by a specific ethnicity, but by the American culture.

“Asian American Portraits of Encounter” reinforces the diversity and multiculturalism which partly defines American culture today. And the global audience of over one million visitors that experience this exhibition over the course of the year will be reminded of what makes this country so special and unique, and how cultures continue to evolve as the immigration phenomenon continues.

CYJO will be speaking more about the KYOPO Project during a Gallery360 lecture and book signing at 2 p.m. on September 17 at the National Portrait Gallery.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.