The awakening of adolescence has been a recurring theme that has always fascinated a great many visual artists; conflicts of identity, physical change, psychological instability, and emerging sexual and emotional sensations within young people are all themes which, in particular, have appeared in photography ever since it’s development. From Lewis Carrol’s “perverse-innocent” girls to Larry Clark’s problematic “Kids,” a long and tortuous path has been paved. Alongside these, the latest work of Jae Kim could also deservedly be included. Jae’s collection of photos consist of adolescence, photographed throughout his youth in Leonia, NJ, Flushing, Queens, and Little Neck, NY up until now.
[I was] The total opposite [of the Asian kid stereotype]. Not going to school, smoking weed, doing all that shit.
There’s something serendipitous about Jae’s marriage with photography. It all started with a camera Jae found, or if you’re a romantic, a camera that found a photographer.“I was hanging out outside the school smoking and I find this camera, this film camera just sitting there; the kind that the school rental gives out and the kid happened to leave it, some random person. Stuck it in my backpack and went home and just left it there...I did stacks and stacks and stacks. It’s depressing looking through it, but it’s still memories. We used to go out and shoot, just around the old neighborhood. We had a beautiful spot and we’d go spend days just shooting.”
Jae began photographing his girlfriend at the time. Being young at the moment and being around people that hold closely similar values, he was and still is able to portray the intimacy. Jae developed the remarkable ability to use photography’s strength as an objective record of reality to first access, and then highlight, those images that most clearly express essential social relationships. His subjects confront the viewer directly, occasionally holding a defining tool of their trade; the formative influence of an individual’s social position is inseparable from who he or she is, making itself felt in his or her intimate nature no less than in public persona. Social class stands before us in all its detail and specificity.
As a result, we have the subtle and complex depiction of many social types as well as of more traditional ones in a new and sharpened light. Taken together, they succeed in being a mosaic-like portrait of youth in New York. In Jae’s work, people see things that they see in themselves. Photographs are part of your memories of people, so you don’t imagine them in action, you imagine them as a still, almost a sculpture; static, defined by this one moment. It becomes an icon of that memory.
Jae shows the complexity of identity, within unfamiliar territory – both emotionally and physically – where the simplest of emotions are amplified and everything is lived out with an intensity that adults will never again be able to feel. We are talking here of a kind of parallel reality, a territory which doesn’t understand any of the geographical spaces Jae has moved through. It no longer belongs to a completely true reality, nor to a conceived fiction, but rather finds itself fed by its own codes of behavior, where the dividing line between good and bad, happiness and sadness, innocence and perversity, and reality and fantasy, is blurred.
Young people instinctively know that the severe visual intrusion adults have subjected them to is linked from their physical changes and their sexuality, to that vague emotional territory where they have entered, which adults are unable to access, and which they themselves will have to leave before very long. Here’s to staying young.
This article and more is in our Dedication issue.