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[Herald Interview] ‘S. Korea should not just commemorate, but also record war history’

Photographer takes pictures of Korean War veterans, stresses importance of recording history

While the Korean Peninsula remains divided, the war that led to the division is now only a faint memory in the minds of the elderly.

But Rami Hyun, a photographer, is putting the spotlight on the aged veterans who dedicated their youth fighting for a free country here.

Holding a firm belief that the history should be recorded, Hyun takes pictures of veterans who fought in the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Korean War veterans pose in the US on April 14. (Rami Hyun)
Korean War veterans pose in the US on April 14. (Rami Hyun)
Korean War veterans pose in front of the Korean War Memorial in London on Saturday. (Rami Hyun)
Korean War veterans pose in front of the Korean War Memorial in London on Saturday. (Rami Hyun)

“I wish to record the reality of the war. There are a lot of commemorating events, but not much has been recorded,” Hyun said at his studio in Seoul during an interview with The Korea Herald.

Since he began to photograph soldiers in 2016, he has taken pictures of around 6,000 former and current servicemen, including about 1,100 Korean War veterans -- 200 South Koreans, 200 British and Irish soldiers and 700 Americans.

On Saturday, Hyun took pictures of war veterans in London, England, at a commemoration event marking the 66th anniversary of the Armistice Agreement that led to a cease-fire.

All expenses, including the flight tickets and picture frames, are from donations and his own pocket.

His ties with the military started by chance -- a successful advertisement video he made for a client led to a similar project commissioned by the Army’s 1st Infantry Division in 2013.

So he interviewed more than 80 soldiers, thinking that the advertisement video must deliver the real voices of soldiers. But, from what could have been a one-time task for the military, changed his career when one sergeant major said he was honored to have served his country for 28 years, but was ashamed of himself as a father.

The sergeant major, who had two sons in their early 20s at the time, teared up as he told Hyun that he only had one album of photos with his children.

“Serving three years at the general outpost, he went home for less than 200 days, the sergeant major told me,” Hyun recalled. “It hit me hard. I realized that the soldiers are sacrificing their lives to protect the country, but there is not much respect and often disregard toward the military.”

Rami Hyun poses at an interview with The Korea Herald on July 15. (Jo He-rim/The Korea Herald)
Rami Hyun poses at an interview with The Korea Herald on July 15. (Jo He-rim/The Korea Herald)

That event led him to start taking pictures of military uniforms. He realized that South Korea was not very good at keeping records. While other countries, such as Sweden, take pictures of all of the uniforms every year to record, no one in the South Korean military could tell him how many kinds of uniforms they had. There are about 140 garments alone for the South Korean Army, Hyun said.

In 2016, he started the “Korean War Veteran Project.” He has traveled multiple times to countries, including the US and UK to take the portraits of the war veterans, who are now in their 80s and 90s.

Though the work is not easy and he often struggles from financial strain, the stories of the wise war veterans have become the driving force for Hyun to continue his project.

Former Col. William Weber, 94, had fought in the Korean War as a first lieutenant. During the war, he lost his right arm and leg, but the old veteran held no resentment.

“When I went to the United States to take his picture, I told him we came to pay the debt for his dedication. He said I was wrong. He said every country that has freedom, carries the duty to spread what they have,” Hyun recalled. “Weber also said that South Korea also has a duty to give freedom to their brethren in the North.”

Portraits of American and Korean war veterans. (Rami Hyun)
Portraits of American and Korean war veterans. (Rami Hyun)

Hyun also told of the experience of a war veteran who still remembers the moment when a 5-year-old was held in the arms of his young sister, who was missing an arm. Holding the amputated arm, the soldier took the children to a nearby hospital, but the child died. Decades have passed, but the 89-year-old war veteran still feels the hand strangling his neck from time to time, he was told.

Hyun set the motto of the project, “Let them smile, let them remember,” in hopes to show appreciation for the war veterans’ dedication. The motto also sends the message to future generations to remember what the war heroes have done for them.

“South Korea does not record, but only commemorates. There are so many commemorations and memorial events. And depending on your personal wish, you can commemorate or choose not to,” Hyun said. “But South Korea is not used to recording history -- maybe because it has a sad history. But recording is different from commemorating, and it is necessary.”

Hyun’s portraits are in black and white, because he believes that it is important to record with objectivity.

“Color can bring out different feelings to the viewers depending on where and who they are. But I want to show the legacy and pride of the war veterans, the values that do not change depending on other factors, such as the era.”

This year marks the 69th year since the Korean War broke out on June 25, 1950. Seeing that time is running out, Hyun seeks to take as many portraits of the war veterans as he can, to leave the legacy of their dedication.

He has applied for a long-term US visa (O-1) and plans to rent a camping car and visit all the states in the next two years. After that, he plans to visit the other 20 countries that participated in the Korean War.

“I wish to exhibit my entire work in 2023, the 70th anniversary of the cease-fire,” Hyun said.

By Jo He-rim (