Interview: Phil Jung

"Couple Kissing, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

Phil Jung grew up in the Lower Hudson Valley of New York. He is currently living and working in both Honolulu and Boston. He received a BFA from The San Francisco Art Institute and an MFA from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. His artwork has been featured in numerous publications including The Boston Globe, Incandescent, The Photo Review, Mossless and Kiblind Magazine in France. He was a recipient of the TMC Kodak International Film Grant in 2009 and St. Botoph Foundations Emerging Artist Award in 2013. Jung has participated in exhibitions throughout the United States including The Griffin Museum of Photography in Massachusetts, Houston Center for Photography in Texas and the Foley Gallery in NYC. His work has recently been included in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He is currently teaching undergraduate students at the University of Hawaii throughout the school year and at Massachusetts College of Art and Design during the summer.

Artist Statement
There is a long tradition of photography focusing on the American social landscape.  Well-known images by Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Stephen Shore come to mind. They variously draw from a method succinctly articulated by Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road," to offer stark and critical exploration of the American culture.

O'ahu continues this tradition on the only state physically set apart from the US cross-country highways. Located nearly 3,000 miles from the continent these central Pacific islands also operate on their distinct set of cultural and social norms. Cultural identity, wealth distribution and social mobility of Hawaii's residents frequently contrasts with its idyllic backdrop. Staying clear of pre-fab assumptions disseminated by tourist industries, I turn my attention to the relationship between the people who inhabit O'ahu and the landscape that connects them.

"Painting, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

fototazo: Tell us a little about your background and how you became involved with photography.

Phil Jung: I think it's a combination of many things that led me down the path I'm on now. I was born and raised in the Lower Hudson Valley of New York. I became interested in art at a young age and was really lucky to have parents that encouraged and nurtured that interest. I grew up in a middle class neighborhood and went through the New York public school system. My father was an incredibly hard worker and retired from his job after 65 years without taking a single sick day. I think I got that type of tenacity from him and I think it's important to have if you're going to try and make a career in the arts and to be an artist. I heard a great interview a while back, Morgan Freeman was asked, in regards to his acting career, if he ever had a Plan B and his response was if I had a Plan B, Plan A would have never worked out, it's just too damned tough. A career in the arts is similar. I never had a plan B, my sister gave me her old camera, an Olympus OEM, when I was fifteen and I took my first official photography class a few years later. I was incredibly lucky that I had someone like John Schlesinger as an instructor early on. He taught me that photography was a very valid and serious-minded art. I'm not sure I understood that before taking his class and that paradigm shift changed everything for me. I've never looked back.

"Lemonade Stand, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

f: And how did you get to Hawaii?

PJ: It's such a beautiful place, I find myself asking that all time. I started traveling around the country photographing when I was in my early 20s and since then I have traveled extensively throughout the contiguous United States. When I visited Hawaii for the first time in 2011, I was struck by how different it was from the 48 adjoining states. When I returned home I started researching photography work made on O'ahu and quickly realized that nothing substantial had ever been created that offered the same type of critical exploration of culture that had been documented so thoroughly throughout the contingent United States. Because of this, I was eager to go back and explore the island. Our mutual friend, the very talented sculptor and artist Corinne Kamiya was living on O’ahu at the time and put me in touch with the Head of the Art and Art History Department at the University of Hawai'i in Manoa. I applied and accepted a job teaching just one class. I knew it wouldn't be easy living on such a small budget, but was willing to make a go of it. I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to explore a landscape that had been somewhat, photographically speaking, overlooked. I thought I could contribute something unique to the long tradition of photography focusing on the American social landscape. Subsequently I was given a full time position at the university as a Visiting Professor and feel fortunate that I can continue working on the project while living on the island. It's a testament that if you put your mind to something you can make it happen.

"Small Wooden House (on Stilts), Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

"Woman Sunbathing, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

f: We went to graduate school together and your thesis was a sort of typology of car interiors. You subsequently worked on another project based in zoo dioramas, another project defined by a closed container. In O'ahu you've moved out into the world, adopted a much looser structure and mixed genres. In some ways it feels like a full circle back to your earlier black and white 35mm subjects and themes. Talk us through the steps of arriving at this project.

PJ: One of the people I shared my work with recently commented that my past three projects all share a type of anthropologic inquiry into personal and domestic space. I have been thinking a lot about that and how we define domestic space. In Hawaii, because of the weather and culture domestic/personal space is extended outside the home.

I have always been curious about the American social landscape. In the late 1990s I studied at the San Francisco Art Institute with Henry Wessel. I admired his work greatly and tried to absorb as much as I could from him. You can clearly see his influence in my earlier work. After graduating from SFAI, I moved back to New York and started to concentrate on a career in photojournalism. I worked as a stringer for the New Jersey Gannett Newspaper covering local events and gave myself some tough projects to work on independently, one of which included photographing the aging patients in the mental health system and another that focused on disadvantaged children in a local community. While trying to break into the industry, I also worked as a digital technician for the photojournalism agency Black Star.

"Sharks Cove, Hawaii 2011" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

After a while I got burned out and became kind of disillusioned with the prospect of becoming a photojournalist. ASX does a wonderful interview with Gregory Halpern, "On Documentary Ethics." I could relate to what Halpern said in the interview, I had a lot of the same issues with documentary type work that he writes about so articulately. On one hand I felt strongly about the work, but felt having a clear agenda started to feel somewhat, creatively speaking, narrow. Let me be clear. I have all the respect in the world for those individuals that are out there doing strong documentary work. I just found myself questioning if it was necessarily for me.

It was at that point I started to photograph what I considered to be less weighty subject matter. I was teaching photography at a local high school at the time and began photographing proms and it was the "Prom" work that I credit with my acceptance into graduate school.

In graduate school I fully embraced, for the first time, the idea of being an artist. I shot "Windscreen" using a large format camera and a lot of the images are, as you put it "defined by a closed container." I find that limitations can often lead to creative breakthroughs.

"Washing Off, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

I really enjoyed working on the "Windscreen" images and still try to add to the project when I can.

"A Different Nature" is another project that involves closed interiors. I thought it would be interesting if I approached the animal enclosures in the same way I photographed the "Windscreen" series. There are a lot of formal and conceptual similarities between the two projects. I'm still working on the zoo series and the project has taken some unexpected turns, but that's what keeps things interesting.

I can see why you might think of my O'ahu work as a type of return to my earlier way of shooting. It has the same type of social consciousness found in my early work. I see it as a continuation of everything I have done so far. If you think about it, O'ahu is also a closed system. It's just a much larger version. I am approaching my subject matter in a way that combines all my past projects, incorporating both old and new sensibilities. It's exciting to be working in this way and to be out in the "open" again.

"Cypress Tree, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

f: When I finished my undergraduate program at Wesleyan University, I moved to New Mexico. I was a painter at that point and the light in New Mexico was a revelation to me - I know that's a cliché, but it's true. Moving there I understood just how much light quality and therefore color can shift between spaces. You're from the Northeast and you've lived there most of your life there – did moving to a very different space change your images, your way of shooting or your ideas about color and light at all?

PJ: Yes. Saying the light in Hawaii is different from New England is an understatement. When the sun is shining it is a very bright, crisp-clean light. It's also very sharp, you can see the edge on everything. I imagine this is because Hawaii is just inside the tropics. I'm not sure if it's changed the way I shoot, but I am actively trying to show how the light differs from other places.

Hawaii also has a lot of microclimates. There are certain parts of the island that get a lot more rain then others. When out photographing you can go from full bright sunlight, to a partially overcast sky, to heavy rain - all within a short driving distance.

"Car Interior, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

"Onlooker, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

f: In your statement you draw a straight line of heritage for this project back to the "stark and critical" view of American culture shared by the social documentary practices of Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Stephen Shore. What does your work ultimately present about O'ahu? Would you identify your view as stark and critical?

PJ: Tough question. The tourism industry, which has essentially been the backbone of the local economy since around the 1950's, has marketed and simplified Native values and culture through the commercialization of Hawaii. TV and Hollywood perpetuate the same manufactured image. I am staying clear of these assumptions and making images that are more honest to what is actually out there. At the same time, I want to distance myself from the work looking like some kind of personal critique of O'ahu's social landscape. I don't believe photographs can be objective to any "real" degree, but I do think there is truth buried in all the paradoxes that surround making pictures. Hawaii has a very complex social system. It has a checkered history with outsiders coming in and taking advantage of its natural resources and we still see this today to some degree. I was very naïve about the island's culture when I first arrived. I'm reminded of Einstein's quote "The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know." That sounds about right in regards to living and working here. Ultimately my photographs are an attempt to connect with the people and landscape around me. I see the work as a loose narrative about place and identity from an outsider looking in and trying to make sense of it all. The images are way smarter then I could be at explaining the complexity of the landscape here and I'd rather let them do the talking. If the pictures are somehow commenting and/or bringing attention to social issues that's great, but I don't want to add my own voice, literally, to that conversation. At least not yet, I don't know enough to feel comfortable commenting on such things and fear I would sound ignorant if I tried.

I think having visual documentation is important for any culture. It's a way to critically look at what's out there. While I'm out photographing I'm thinking about the types of information I can include in the frame that will tell something about contemporary culture on O'ahu.

In a lot of ways Kerouac's novel "On The Road" speaks to my process of shooting and making work. The book is about the fleetingness of life, the search for something meaningful and a longing for a truth larger than the self. I try to convey those feelings in my photographs.

"Family Outing, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

"Children Swimming, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

f: Also in your statement, you write that you turn your attention to "the relationship between the people who inhabit O'ahu and the landscape that connects them." Do you find the relationship between geography and people to be stronger in Hawaii than elsewhere? How would you define that relationship? Does geography serve as the single, or perhaps primary link between people there across demographics in your experience?

PJ: That's a loaded question, Tom. Let me try and explain why. The physical and spiritual ties to place are much deeper here then anywhere else I have been. Place is intertwined with identity in a way that most Americans, who don't feel any overwhelming ties to a particular place (including myself), cannot understand.

It is my understanding that with regard to land, Hawaiians believe that land is collective property and cannot be owned by any one person or corporate interest. The value of land is measured not only by the lives, memories, achievements and mana (spiritual power) that have inhabited it throughout its history, but also by its ability to sustain life via natural resources. Hence, there is a real sense of responsibility and obligation to steward and care for the life-sustaining resources that only the land and sea can provide. Additionally, Hawaiian creation theory suggests that man is in fact a direct descendant, or rather, a younger sibling of the land itself and so that sense of responsibility to steward and care for land is also akin to caring for a cherished family elder or ancestor. Because of this, there is a very strong belief that all land is sacred to one degree or another.  With the insertion of Western law, government involvement, organized religion and both private and foreign ownership of Hawaiian lands, what seems to be left is a loss of indigenous control over land and natural resources, resulting in the displacement of Native Hawaiians in their own homeland.

"Field with Irrigation, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

Right now, there are demonstrations taking place throughout the Hawaiian archipelago because of the proposed and state government-approved construction of a new 30-meter telescope atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano and significant region with regard to Hawaiian genealogy and cultural practices. Protesters, or as they prefer to call themselves, "Protectors" have continuously blockaded access to the mountain for nearly two weeks. While there is resounding opposition to the telescope being built on land considered to be sacred by Native Hawaiians, it seems as if this issue is also about ownership of land, how land is managed, who is managing it and who is benefiting from its development.

There is a continual struggle over land because of the continued attempts of colonizing entities to displace Native Hawaiians from their homeland.

Whether you are Native Hawaiian or not, you can sense the past all around you. It's an integral part of the landscape. It's a hard thing to describe, unless you have spent some time here.

f: Anything else you'd like to add, Phil?

PJ: I just want to thank Gaye Chan, the head of the Art and Art History Department at the University of Hawaii for her continued guidance. She's had a crucial role in seeing this project come to fruition. She is the real deal and The University of Hawaii is lucky to have her.

"Parking Lot with Children, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

"Keoni, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

"Water Canal, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

"Coffee Fields, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

"Graffiti, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

"Ualani, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

"Pu'u o Mahuka Heiau (Ceremonial Site), Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

"House with Scaffolding, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

"Apt Building (Moilili) Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

"Grilling in the Park, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung

"Boy at Makaha Beach, Hawaii 2014" from the series O'ahu © Phil Jung