A Photographer’s Exploration of Marginalized Identity
“It is my belief that people are inherently worthy, lovable, and deserving of dignity no matter what the conventional/mainstream narrative says.”
Mary Inhea Kang is a South Korean American freelance photographer who believes that “dignity is often overlooked when it comes to depiction of people of color in mainstream media.” Born in South Korea and raised in Austin, Texas, Mary’s mesmerizing portraits are illustrative of her philosophy as a photographer and a “desire to understand and document the identities we construct for ourselves, which affect how we build our world.”
Mary’s roster of clients include Nike, Uniqlo, The FADER, The New York Times and many more. Outside of work, she volunteers as a board member at Authority Collective — a group which seeks to amplify talented and underrepresented visual storytellers in mainstream media. We chatted with Mary about the power of authentic representation, unlearning societal standards and ways for aspiring photographers to hone their craft.
Give us a little overview of what you do and how you got started. When did you realize you wanted to make the transition from advertising to photography?
I switched my major [in college] from pre-pharmacy to advertising thinking that it would teach me visual skills as I initially wanted to study art, but it was mostly about strategizing. What got me interested in photography was when I started working at my school newspaper, The Daily Texan. I was fascinated by the power of visual narrative while working there.
How do you identify?
South Korean American woman. Pronoun she/her.
How do you explore marginalized identity through your work? Why is it important for you to explore this narrative?
It is my belief that people are inherently worthy, lovable, and deserving of dignity no matter what the conventional/mainstream narrative says. I keep this value in mind when I photograph portraits or candid moments. Ultimately, I wish for people to feel empowered and beautiful in how they are visually represented, and it is the biggest reward to me when people I photograph love the way they look and feel in our collaborative work.
I come from South Korea where the current beauty standard and lifestyle are heavily influenced by Eurocentric standards. When I was an advertising student, I researched how many white models were being used in South Korean magazines and ads. In the late 2000s, their presence in South Korean ads was slightly more than 50%. Even when Korean models were represented, they mostly had western features. This level of exposure was not representative of the country at all, and it correlates with the insecurities that many Korean womxn felt. The ads send a message that this is how you should look; that you are not enough if you do not look this way.
Many Koreans cannot biologically look white, so those who deviate from that standard may undergo cosmetic surgery. I take no issue with cosmetic surgery, but it is telling when there is a pattern of droves of womxn chasing the same Eurocentric look, and how insidious white supremacy can work itself into minimizing our true identity as well as creating dysmorphia. I also discovered that one of the most performed cosmetic surgeries operated in South Korea traces back to the 1950s, when a white American male surgeon performed double eyelid surgery on South Korean sex workers so that they could better appeal to American soldiers stationed in South Korea. This was not the first time double-eyelid surgeries were operated in South Korea, but this particular time period gave revolution to it as exposure to white people through American militarism became rampant. The western look conveyed influence, power, and money. The standard is skewed towards colonial power and it is so easy for those who deviate from this power structured standard to feel less than worthy. However, this is not the truth. To be honest, I am still working on unlearning these unhealthy standards myself, and I acknowledge that this will be a journey. Still, I want to be a part of the narrative that reminds ourselves that these standards are lies – that even when we do not feel that way, the truth is one is still beautiful and worthy of respect and love because we simply are.
“This level of exposure was not representative of the country at all, and it correlates with the insecurities that many Korean womxn felt. The ads send a message that this is how you should look; that you are not enough if you do not look this way.”
Talk to us about your work with the Authority Collective. What is it and what role do you play in this group?
We are a group of more than 200 womxn, non-binary and gender expansive people of color working in the photography, film and VR/AR industries. We seek to empower and amplify the visual narrative works of marginalized identities, share resources, and build community. Currently, it is all volunteer-based. My main role is curating AC Instagram posts and stories with another board member, Hannah Yoon. Other areas I helped with this year include producing the Lit List 2020 with Oriana Koren (founder of the Lit List), Elaine Cromie, and Mengwen Cao, and writing a Do No Harm letter with Jovelle Tamayo, Tara Pixley, and Danielle Villasana with the support of our community. I would also like to credit Melissa Bunni Elian, Ariel Zambelich, and Danielle A. Scruggs for all the brilliant and hard works that they put in behind-the-scenes. More information about us can be founded on our website!
You’ve worked with a variety of subjects and clients ranging from music festivals for The Fader to CFGNY for Vogue. What has been your biggest takeaway from these projects and what advice would you give to aspiring photographers looking to collaborate with various brands?
In earlier years, I started photographing for the Fader when they held the annual Fort Festival during SXSW in Austin, Texas. Over the years my interest in portrait works grew and one day during the event, I asked the managing editor, Naomi Zeichner, if there was any room for another portrait photographer and if so, whether I could get a chance to perform this role in addition to the role I was already assigned. I showed her my portrait portfolio from my phone, and that was the start of my editorial portrait work. CFGNY work came about three years later, but it came as a result of word of mouth spread from Naomi’s networks.
While I am still learning this myself, I would say to aspiring photographers to persistently work on their vision and authorship. This comes with knowing your values and practicing intentionality, which builds over time as you try different things, so it’s also okay if you do not know what you want or what you are about yet. It all comes with experiencing life and learning what is important to you, so patience is key. Good things can take time. As you gain clarity in your vision, it will eventually show in your work. Moreover, it will become easier to connect with the right clients over time. Applying to portfolio reviews also helps, as they are designed for photographers to connect with and obtain feedback from photo editors and art directors. Even if no sustained relationship is made at any particular portfolio review, it still provides a great opportunity to learn and grow.
Lastly, I would say joining collectives such as Women Photograph, Black Women Photographers, Diversify Photo, Color Positive, Authority Collective, MFON, Natives Photograph, etc. provides great opportunities for connecting and developing community, as well as the ability to share resources. Such collectives often host workshops, panels, and exhibitions that are easily accessible. I myself have tremendously benefited and learned from them.
“This comes with knowing your values and practicing intentionality, which builds over time as you try different things, so it’s also okay if you do not know what you want or what you are about yet. It all comes with experiencing life and learning what is important to you, so patience is key.”
This year has taken a toll on us all mentally and emotionally. What is giving you hope right now and how are you staying inspired?
We see much hate and carelessness in this country. Sometimes it feels as though there is more hate than love in this world. But when there is love, I believe that it is so much more powerful than all the hate combined together and that makes life worth living. I am mostly encouraged by witnessing these acts of love, whether it is someone actively practicing self love (with the goal of loving others), mutual aid, and/or building solidarity to fight injustice, etc. Communal and collective efforts have especially been inspiring to me. I am personally spiritual and believe in God, so this relationship has been giving me hope as well, as it helps me to feel profoundly loved, giving me confidence to share love even though I may not be perfect at it. It’s all in the learning process and I feel that gives me purpose to live.