Photographer Profile - Yunghi Kim: "I wanted to protect myself. And I wanted to empower other photographers"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday December 15, 2015

“I come from a place where I have never wanted to be helpless in any situation,” says Yunghi Kim. “When I put my mind to something, I go full force. And I don’t give up.”

Kim, a photojournalist affiliated with the Contact Press Images agency for 20 years, has used that determination throughout her career while covering a number of important international stories, from wars in Iraq and Kosovo to genocide in Rwanda and famine in Somalia. She’s won the prestigious Olivier Rebbot Award from the Overseas Press Club and been named Magazine Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International competition.

In recent years, she has also become an advocate for photographers’ rights, both as a former board member of the National Press Photographers Association and through independent efforts that she has, typically, approached with full force.

“I just made up my mind to educate myself,” she says. “I wanted to protect myself. And I wanted to empower other photographers to do the same.”

Kim’s sensitivity to copyright infringement goes back about five years, when one of her pictures from the war in Kosovo in the late 1990s began appearing all over the Internet. “I was shocked by how many sites had taken the image and used it,” she says. “This was about the time when photographers started to realize that a lot of their work was being stolen. So I started teaching myself about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and take-down notices and what fair use was.”

She also established a Facebook group called The Photojournalists Cooperative so that she and other freelancers could exchange information about copyright law, image licensing and contracts. The group now consists of about 5,000 photographers.

Then last month Kim went a step further, announcing that she was donating $10,000 from fees recovered from unauthorized use of her work to create ten $1,000 grants that would go to members of her Facebook group. The grant recipients, who will be chosen by Kim and Contact Press Images Director Jeffrey Smith after a proposal-submission period that ends on December 20, can use the money for anything, from finishing a photo project to buying a few extra Christmas presents.

“I wanted to keep it very simple — there’s not a big written process to go through,” Kim says. “It’s a 300-word email pitch. And it’s for all ages. The trend in grants is for emerging photographers, but this is for all ages.”

Kim’s holiday gift to photography underscores her commitment to the profession, but, moreover, her belief that there is a place in photography’s future for traditional notions of professionalism — for both intellectual property rights and creative ownership that places inherent value on work. “We’re not so helpless when it comes to all this,” Kim says. “That’s the whole message behind the grants.”

Valuing Your Work

In the sharing culture of the web, where information wants to be free, staging a defense against copyright infringement can sometimes seem like a hopeless battle.

Yunghi Kim does not buy that at all.

“That’s where education comes in,” she says. “If you don’t know what your rights are and what your options are, you think that way. I choose to not give in or give up. I choose to pursue it.”

Kim’s battle is not just with copyright infringers. She came of age in a pre-digital era of assignments with day rates and financial guarantees, when agencies nurtured photographers with professional and creative guidance. That was then. Today, Kim noted in an interview  with photo editor and writer Jim Colton, “the financial burden is entirely on the photographer and the agency reaps the lion’s share of the reward. The mega agencies today are more profit driven and have less of an interest in educating the photographer.”

What she sees now is an industry in which photographers, especially those just entering the field, lack a full understanding of the worth of their work. Her message is that protecting your work starts with valuing your work. “How we navigate our careers is how we navigate things personally,” she says.

“By exhorting others to police and copyright their work, she's lifting the esprit de corps and making for a more professional professional,” says Contact’s Jeffrey Smith. “It was stunning but not all that surprising that Yunghi decided — without any outside deliberation, mind you — to take a portion of copyright settlements that culminated this year and give it others. And she wanted the grant open to those who may simply need the assistance just to get by. That makes the gesture all the more revelatory of where her heart is and her empathy for others is.”

Kim advises photographers who want to learn more about copyright to look at law blogs on the subject or go to advocacy groups like the Copyright Alliance and the Author Guild, as well as photo trade groups like the NPPA, the APA  and ASMP. Above all, she exhorts people to register their images with the US Copyright Office.

“Since I first discovered my pictures being stolen and misused, the situation for photographers has actually gotten better, I think,” Kim says. “Most of the major online sites have a knowledge of copyright, and there are services like ImageRights  that specialize in recouping fees for photographers from copyright infringement. I know some of the biggest agencies are aggressive in this too. But you need to take care to register your work and know your rights.”

A Reasoned and Seasoned Approach

Kim, whose family emigrated from Korea to New York when she was 10, began taking pictures in high school. “I think it was because I didn’t speak English very well,” she says. “It was a natural form of communication and expression. Photography was something I was always good at.”

Her professional career began in what once was the traditional way, at newspapers. She spent 12 years working at the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Massachusetts and the Boston Globe before joining Contact Press Images. It was in 1995 that she began working on what would become her best-known freelance project, “Comfort Women,” which intimately documented the lives of elderly South Korean women who had been forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

“I first heard about the comfort women on the radio one day, and it brought me to tears,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it, and as a Korean American, the issue had a special resonance for me. This was at a time when Asia was really on the other side of the world — now you can hear what’s going on in Asia instantaneously over Facebook and Twitter. It took me six months to figure out how to get access to the comfort women, working with Korean American organizations here in the US.”

She spent another month photographing in Korea, and then another half year to find a magazine to publish the story. When the work finally appeared in Time and US News & World Report, it fully exposed a dark moment in history that had until then been largely overlooked in the West.

Recently, Kim has has been working on a series of portraits of New York neighborhoods. “I spent 20 years traveling around the world, and now I’m getting to know New York, where I grew up, all over again,” she says. “As I get older, I have more ideas than ever — and there’s real enjoyment in that.”

Being an advocate for photographers’ rights provides a different kind of pleasure. “I actually really enjoy reading about copyright,” she says.

After a long and successful career, Kim, says Contact’s Jeffrey Smith, “has evolved into this reasoned and seasoned, generous photographer-educator.”

Says Kim: “I’m happier than ever.”
Photographs by Yunghi Kim/Contact Press Images