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'What if today is my last day?'

Photographer Hong San takes memorial pictures of young people. Hong said she was inspired by the question
Photographer Hong San takes memorial pictures of young people. Hong said she was inspired by the question "What if I die tomorrow?" Korea Times photo by Lee Min-young, Kim Kang-min

Photographer takes funeral photos for stressed-out young urbanites

By Lee Gyu-lee

If today was the last day on earth, would people live their lives differently? Would they have any regrets and think of the things that they could have done better?

"Probably," says photographer Hong San, noting that this inspired her to initiate her own project of capturing "memorial pictures" of young people.

A self-portrait of the photographer. Courtesy of Hong San
A self-portrait of the photographer. Courtesy of Hong San
When clients walk into the living room of Hong's three-bedroom apartment she hands them two pieces of paper. One is to put down personal information, and the other is for something unusual ― their last will and testament. Guided by quotes from German philosopher Martin Heidegger and words from the photographer herself, they sit down to think about what it means to face death and write down their last words to be left behind.

"I hope that by breaking out from the cycle of lethargy in your daily life you are able to confront your true self," it says. Hong gives them time to work on it. Some take time to think through what to write, some scribble a few words, and others get too emotional to write anything down. Each enduring his or her own way of facing death, the project forces them to consider "What if I die tomorrow?"

In a small room adjacent to the living room, Hong gets ready to take the portrait photos. A small stool is placed against a jet black backdrop which covers the wall. Sitting on the stool, people pose for their funeral portraits. As the photo shoot goes on, Hong tries to converse with her clients to keep the process from being depressing and dark.

The 25-year-old photographer came up with the idea of funeral photos for younger people earlier last year when she was going through an unsteady and confusing time in her life. She was close to graduating from university and as she was getting ready to step into the real world, had no idea of what she should do or how she should live. She felt the insecurity started filling her with negative energy, so she looked for ways to express such depressing feelings in a more productive way.

Two pieces of paper are given when a client enters Hong's apartment-studio on which to write down a will. Korea Times photo by Lee Min-young, Kim Kang-min
Two pieces of paper are given when a client enters Hong's apartment-studio on which to write down a will. Korea Times photo by Lee Min-young, Kim Kang-min

"Getting rid of the feeling of lethargy" drove the photographer to start the project of taking people's last pictures. "I believe death comes metaphorically when you lose control of your own life," she said.

Hong explained that when people fall into a cycle where everything is repetitive and stagnant, people start to lose their sense of self-reliance and control of life. "Taking a moment to think about death could be a trigger to ending the meaningless cycle," she said.

The project started out small, for mostly the people around her. "When I began, I thought I would get 50 people at most, because I didn't think anyone would be interested in it." But as word of the project spread, more people started coming over to her for a unique experience. And since receiving a lot of media exposure, including an appearance on JTBC's variety show "Cool Kids," the project drew even more attention from youngsters.

Each has their own story and own reasons for coming to take their "last picture." Young people, nowadays, live under certain frames and standards set by the society, she said. "There are certain expectations the world has of us: we need to be the backbone of society, stay motivated, independent, start our careers in our 20s, and so on."

"But that's not the reality," she noted. "Because the standard is set so high, people feel they are lagging behind, running around in circles, which is not our fault."

Though it's unrealistic to believe they can completely break free from this pressure, Hong hopes her service will allow them to unload some of the guilt of not meeting societal expectations. The photographer hopes that by looking back on their lives, her clients will be reminded to move at their own pace.

Photos taken by Hong for the JTBC variety show
Photos taken by Hong for the JTBC variety show "Cool Kids" show cast members, from left, comedian Yoo Jae-suk, Kim Shin-young and rapper HAON. Courtesy of Hong San

"I don't want people to be depressed and sad at my funeral. I'm going to rent a club for my funeral and let them have a dance party to my playlist and enjoy 72-hours of unlimited pizza and beer," she said. It may be unconventional, but that's what this project is all about.

People tend to avoid talking about death and often have a negative view of it. But Hong noted that society and individuals would be better off thinking through and overtly discussing the issue. With this project, she hopes to have an open discussion and to encourage people to have deeper and more positive thoughts about death.

Guiding people through the experience of preparing for death, Hong encounters a diverse range of people and gets to hear their stories and visions of life. Taking photos of them is more than providing a service to her, but it is rather an opportunity to widen her perspective through meeting those people, especially those from outside her profession.

"Since starting the project, I have come across a lot of people and this has allowed me to shape my outlook and values in life."

Photography is a pure joy for her. Since her uncle, a retired photographer, handed his camera to her in adolescence, she started seeing the world through the lens.

Hong works at an advertising agency on weekdays and as a photographer on weekends. Her brief stint as a freelance photographer taught her that she could not maintain her passion for photography if it became her only source of income. "I need to look at my subjects with affection, not as a source of money, in order for the photos to come out well. So I want to keep it as a last resort to make money."

The photographer's future goal is to shed light on minorities and those who have lost their place in society. "I hope I can bring those people to the surface and let the world know of their existence through my work. They are just normal members of society."


Photographer Hong San takes memorial pictures of young people. Hong said she was inspired by the question
Photographer Hong San takes memorial pictures of young people. Hong said she was inspired by the question "What if I die tomorrow?" Korea Times photo by Lee Min-young, Kim Kang-min

Photographer takes funeral photos for stressed-out young urbanites

By Lee Gyu-lee

If today was the last day on earth, would people live their lives differently? Would they have any regrets and think of the things that they could have done better?

"Probably," says photographer Hong San, noting that this inspired her to initiate her own project of capturing "memorial pictures" of young people.

A self-portrait of the photographer. Courtesy of Hong San
A self-portrait of the photographer. Courtesy of Hong San
When clients walk into the living room of Hong's three-bedroom apartment she hands them two pieces of paper. One is to put down personal information, and the other is for something unusual ― their last will and testament. Guided by quotes from German philosopher Martin Heidegger and words from the photographer herself, they sit down to think about what it means to face death and write down their last words to be left behind.

"I hope that by breaking out from the cycle of lethargy in your daily life you are able to confront your true self," it says. Hong gives them time to work on it. Some take time to think through what to write, some scribble a few words, and others get too emotional to write anything down. Each enduring his or her own way of facing death, the project forces them to consider "What if I die tomorrow?"

In a small room adjacent to the living room, Hong gets ready to take the portrait photos. A small stool is placed against a jet black backdrop which covers the wall. Sitting on the stool, people pose for their funeral portraits. As the photo shoot goes on, Hong tries to converse with her clients to keep the process from being depressing and dark.

The 25-year-old photographer came up with the idea of funeral photos for younger people earlier last year when she was going through an unsteady and confusing time in her life. She was close to graduating from university and as she was getting ready to step into the real world, had no idea of what she should do or how she should live. She felt the insecurity started filling her with negative energy, so she looked for ways to express such depressing feelings in a more productive way.

Two pieces of paper are given when a client enters Hong's apartment-studio on which to write down a will. Korea Times photo by Lee Min-young, Kim Kang-min
Two pieces of paper are given when a client enters Hong's apartment-studio on which to write down a will. Korea Times photo by Lee Min-young, Kim Kang-min

"Getting rid of the feeling of lethargy" drove the photographer to start the project of taking people's last pictures. "I believe death comes metaphorically when you lose control of your own life," she said.

Hong explained that when people fall into a cycle where everything is repetitive and stagnant, people start to lose their sense of self-reliance and control of life. "Taking a moment to think about death could be a trigger to ending the meaningless cycle," she said.

The project started out small, for mostly the people around her. "When I began, I thought I would get 50 people at most, because I didn't think anyone would be interested in it." But as word of the project spread, more people started coming over to her for a unique experience. And since receiving a lot of media exposure, including an appearance on JTBC's variety show "Cool Kids," the project drew even more attention from youngsters.

Each has their own story and own reasons for coming to take their "last picture." Young people, nowadays, live under certain frames and standards set by the society, she said. "There are certain expectations the world has of us: we need to be the backbone of society, stay motivated, independent, start our careers in our 20s, and so on."

"But that's not the reality," she noted. "Because the standard is set so high, people feel they are lagging behind, running around in circles, which is not our fault."

Though it's unrealistic to believe they can completely break free from this pressure, Hong hopes her service will allow them to unload some of the guilt of not meeting societal expectations. The photographer hopes that by looking back on their lives, her clients will be reminded to move at their own pace.

Photos taken by Hong for the JTBC variety show
Photos taken by Hong for the JTBC variety show "Cool Kids" show cast members, from left, comedian Yoo Jae-suk, Kim Shin-young and rapper HAON. Courtesy of Hong San

"I don't want people to be depressed and sad at my funeral. I'm going to rent a club for my funeral and let them have a dance party to my playlist and enjoy 72-hours of unlimited pizza and beer," she said. It may be unconventional, but that's what this project is all about.

People tend to avoid talking about death and often have a negative view of it. But Hong noted that society and individuals would be better off thinking through and overtly discussing the issue. With this project, she hopes to have an open discussion and to encourage people to have deeper and more positive thoughts about death.

Guiding people through the experience of preparing for death, Hong encounters a diverse range of people and gets to hear their stories and visions of life. Taking photos of them is more than providing a service to her, but it is rather an opportunity to widen her perspective through meeting those people, especially those from outside her profession.

"Since starting the project, I have come across a lot of people and this has allowed me to shape my outlook and values in life."

Photography is a pure joy for her. Since her uncle, a retired photographer, handed his camera to her in adolescence, she started seeing the world through the lens.

Hong works at an advertising agency on weekdays and as a photographer on weekends. Her brief stint as a freelance photographer taught her that she could not maintain her passion for photography if it became her only source of income. "I need to look at my subjects with affection, not as a source of money, in order for the photos to come out well. So I want to keep it as a last resort to make money."

The photographer's future goal is to shed light on minorities and those who have lost their place in society. "I hope I can bring those people to the surface and let the world know of their existence through my work. They are just normal members of society."


Lee Gyu-lee gyulee@koreatimes.co.kr


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