Who is afraid of images?

Posts KIM Dongryung

  • Created at2022.10.11
  • Updated at2023.04.04

In August 2000, I videotaped the medical examinations of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” victims in preparation for the upcoming “Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal” scheduled for December 8 in Tokyo. The purpose of the filming was to document the process of dozens of victims taking comprehensive medical examinations going around the gynecology, internal medicine, surgery, and psychiatry departments at a hospital in Incheon from early morning until late afternoon. I remember feeling anxious when I learned that the video could be used as “evidence” in the mock trial. As an aspiring film director, I arrived at the hospital with my fellow film club members, recalling director BYUN Youngjoo’s “The Murmuring” and at the same time contemplating how to capture the testimony I would hear directly from the “Comfort Women” victims. Since I had never met a victim in person before, I naively assumed that the testimony could be obtained immediately like instant food. However, on that day at the hospital, unexpected chaos unfolded. Unprepared, I found myself thrown into a fathomless confusion with a camera in hand.

While lying on the gynecology examination chairs, the survivors who entrusted a doctor with their bodies one after another were asked about wounds to the lower abdomen or reproductive organs. However, when asked about the time and cause of the wounds, they often gave irrelevant answers. For instance, when the doctor asked if the wound was from time as a “Comfort Woman,” a survivor suddenly started to ramble on about her story of getting married off to an older man. No matter how patiently listening to her story of how she met her husband and how kind he was, he had no direct connection to the scars on her body. Later, during the process of collecting oral life history in the psychiatry department, she revealed that the scars were acquired during her time as a “Comfort Woman.” She also said that her husband embraced and took care of her until his death even though after Korea’s liberation, she was found unable to bear children. When the obstetrician asked about the scars on her body, she didn’t revisit memories of her time as a “Comfort Woman,” but instead suddenly recalled her late husband, whom she was most grateful for in connection with the scars. The scene that day was like a venue of a contest with words flying between the narrators and interviewees. Holding my camera in hand, I ran around to seek to capture “evidence” of the victims’ bodies, only to be repeatedly frustrated.

On that day, there was another victim who left a strong impression on me. The victim was in very poor health and during the examination, she would often remain silent for a long time or respond briefly to essential questions, such as how she became a “Comfort Woman” or how many soldiers she had to face per day, so the interviewer struggled to continue the interview. However, when asked about her life after liberation, she suddenly brightened up and began to share a story. She was in a village in Manchuria and received a lot of love from a Japanese officer. One day, she heard the news of the fall of the Japanese empire and decided to return to her hometown like everyone else. Instead of carrying money, she put on nine layers of her silk skirts and jeogories and began her journey. She followed the homecoming procession diligently, swam across the Amnok River, and crossed the mountains and rivers again, selling the nine silk jeogories one by one for expenses for long-distance travel. Listening to her story, I couldn’t tell whether it was true or fictional. Her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm as she spoke, and it felt like a strange and fantastic tale. However, when asked about her life in Korea after liberation, she reverted to the extremely somber and reticent state she had shown earlier. After the examination was over, she went back to the waiting room, but I noticed her sitting alone in a corner, away from the other victims gathered together. As I was checking if there was anything that could make her uncomfortable, another victim who had been watching me quietly approached me and whispered in my ear, frowning, “That woman is a fake. She’s completely different from us. She’s just a slut.” She repeated the woman was only pretending to be a victim to receive government subsidies. At that moment, I was shocked and my body stiffened at the expression “slut” and “fake” she used. Only then did I realize how difficult it was to talk about the “Comfort Woman” experience, which is not limited to a specific time and space but continues to be repeated in the present when even within the victim group there was “discrimination” in identifying who the “real” victims were. Since then, I have encountered many victims dressed in nine layers of silk jeogories at military camp towns. These encounters led me to continuously ponder over the way the words we call “testimony” were created through an arduous process, what was omitted and selected during the process, and what relationship testimony and images had.

A narrative typically goes through multiple doors as it spreads out from its origin to the outside world. As the narrative is conveyed to more people, it passes through increasingly narrow doors. In this process, the narrative, which originally contained complexity, is selectively chosen, some parts are discarded, and the remaining elements are often reconstructed. The process often occurs beyond the intention and control of the person who initially “created” or “transmitted” the narrative. Consequently, the narrative retains a certain prototype and acquires new meanings in the “present” through continuous transformation and replacement. If a narrative is not summoned to the present to continue circulating, it is as good as dead: it loses its value as a “narrative to be told” and is forgotten in people’s memories or enters an archive center, which is a “tomb” in the form of a record. The same is true for images. Photographic images and videos are related to the scene in which they were created, but their meaning is decisively created “at the moment of capture.” Although the person who took them in the first place gives a certain “intention” to them, which is generally invisible in the captured image, the “meaning” indicated by the iconic sign of the image continues to undergo the processes of acceptance, selection, and transformation in a social context, independent of the original intention.

A narrative passing through multiple doors ⓒ Baek Jeong-mi


I believe the photo of “Yun Geum-i,” who was killed in 1992 by Kenneth Markle, a member of United States Forces Korea (USFK), has been also subject to the same transformation process. According to women’s studies scholar Jeong Hee-jin, the decision to release the murder scene photo of “Yun Geum-i” was made by the Joint Commission for Counter-Measures regarding the Yun Geum-i murder case by a member of USFK.[1] There was controversy over whether to release the photo, but the decision to make it public was made on the grounds that “the incident could not be empathized with through words alone and that the photo was deemed necessary to provoke ‘public outrage’.” Nonetheless, even among those who advocated for its release, there were concerns that “as the deceased is a woman, it might evoke certain sexual imagery in the minds of the public” but for male activists, “the naked dead body of a woman was seen as a national scar and disgrace,” Jeong Hee-jin noted. It’s important to note that there were countless cases of women being brutally murdered at military camp towns before and after the “Yun Geum-i” incident, but none of them became as much of a social issue. We also need to recognize that we see Yun Geum-i’s body in the form of a “photo,” not at the scene where it was taken. First of all, what the photo iconically indicates is a woman lying naked on the ground, and the various traces on her body suggest a high likelihood that she died from brutal violence. The problem is what comes next: the indicator of reality that the image points to – who this woman is and why she was killed – is not directly revealed by the photo. Accordingly, we must look outside the frame for the truth. In the process, the woman in the photo took on a new identity as Yun Geum-i and gained meaning, becoming inseparable from the photo of her body. She became a tragic woman born in Korea, whose status is tantamount to a US colony due to the unjust Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), and therefore, this murder case became a “national issue.” A destitute sex worker who until yesterday, had to make a living through soliciting the US soldiers in the face of the cold indifference of the world as a “hippari,” (editor’s note: Japanese term for “pulling,” which can mean touting, or the act of selling flowers and sex on the street by military prostitutes who are unaffiliated with a brothel) suddenly became a “chaste sister of our nation.” However, the popular slogans that were created alongside the release of the photos did not eliminate the place of the “military camp town,” even as they expanded the concept of “Yun Geum-i” as a member of the nation. Numerous civic and women’s rights activists continued to hold protests in Dongducheon, where the incident took place, and the media constantly produced in-depth coverage and discourse on the military camp town, the “location” where the photo was taken. Even though the symbol of the “pure sister” was used to attract a wider public response,[2] the photos of Yun Geum-i still pointed to the military camp town.

As the detention and trial of Kenneth Markle, who murdered Yun Geum-i, gained national attention, her corpse photo seemed to slowly lose its social significance. However, over a decade later, she reemerged before the general public in the Hyo-sun and Miseon incident (2002), this time being used to arouse the “anger” of the public with the keyword “US military crime.” What has changed since 1992 is that the relationship between the internal and external frames of the photo, or the relationship between the subject indicated and the meaning, has become more straightforward and instrumental and that the photo’s spatial indexical relationship with the “military camp town” has faded. “Yun Geum-i” was used solely to elicit a sense of horror and incite anger towards the US military. This process reinforced the iconic sign of the “naked female body,” which is a universal symbol of violence against women, and it also triggered feelings of sexual shame, discomfort, and humiliation in many women.

At the time, the women’s movement camp vehemently opposed the use of the “Yun Geum-i” photos in protests as part of the anti-Americanism movement. However, the women residing in the military camp towns, who were the actual subjects of the photo, had a different perspective. They often gave rebukes to the young activists who found the image “violent,” questioning, “How can you understand us without even being able to look at the photo? We face much worse situations.” In addition, they were outraged that citizens who had previously paid no attention to the killings of “prostitutes” by the U.S. military were now rising up like wildfire after the deaths of innocent middle school students as if it were their own tragedy. The “Yun Geum-i” photo was used as a provocative image for anti-Americanism movements, disregarding the voices involved, and gradually disappeared from the protests after receiving strong criticism for its violent nature. However, the initial opposition to the photo’s violent use gradually evolved into voices that demanded its complete ban under any circumstance. Eventually, in the face of digital sexual violence cases, even the right not to see the photo is being advocated. The “Yun Geum-i” photo has been recontextualized as a cruel iconic image, a pornographic image which has been stripped of its political context, in a way of increasingly losing its indexicality for the “military camp town.”

As I continue to make films about the surviving women from military camp towns, I am reminded of the matters that are often overlooked and deleted in the ongoing debate between those who exhibit the iconic representation of the Yun Geum-i photo for specific political purposes and those who call for a complete ban of the images as a critique. It's regrettable that by prohibiting the image of “Yun Geum-i,” we are losing an opportunity to delve deeper not just into what the frame is pointing to internally but also into the location outside the frame in more detail. The latter includes what the damaged body in the photograph is pointing to, what the composition that captured the body is telling us, and what the room where the body was lying is telling us: the acute political issues surrounding the meaning indicated by the icon. The history of the “Yun Geum-i” photo is different from the history of digital sexual violence where images of women’s bodies have been used as both a tool and object of crime. In the case of the “Yun Geum-i” photo, the images were a result of a crime, not a tool or object of a crime. If her photo evokes feelings of discomfort and humiliation, it is not what she intended. Those feelings are simply a reflection of the social discourse that determines what is perceived as provocative and what is not.

We can make an effort to produce images ethically, but it’s problematic to assert that “an image is ethical.” The phrase “ethical” image or ethical representation merely reflects the social discourse around what is deemed ethical, similar to the phrase “provocative.” It is also questionable to believe that an image becomes more ethical by not displaying violent images. In Shoah (1985), the Holocaust documentary film, director Claude Lanzmann demonstrated a reflective aesthetic of the Holocaust and its survivors, using only testimony without a single photographic record of the Holocaust. However, the famous debate on the “politics of representation” between two film directors, Lanzmann and Jean-Luc Godard, reveals that sometimes behind the desire to ban images is a desire to exert power through the monopolization of suffering, a desire to monopolize the suffering of the Holocaust by emphasizing its “unrepresentability” and to hierarchize it so that it cannot be compared to the suffering of other cultures or ethnic groups. The US has strict control over the dissemination of images of civilians and military personnel killed during the September 11 attacks or the Iraq War. In contrast, images of the bodies of terrorists and those killed in disasters in poor countries are freely circulated by the media. What does this signify? Who determines what should be excluded or included in the public memory? Doesn’t the act of exclusion constitute the will to power and violence, imposing a limited narrative on us? Under such circumstances, we do not have the right to exclude; we only have the obligation to interpret. 


  1. ^ Later, the name was changed to the National Campaign for Eradication of Crimes by U.S. Troops in Korea. About 50 civic organizations are known to have participated in the commission, and the decision to release photos of Yun Geum-i's body was influenced by the experience of releasing photos in the 1989 Lee Chul-gyu case, where a student of Chosun University was kidnapped and tortured to death, causing widespread public outrage. Jeong Hee-jin, “The History of the Korean Women's Human Rights Movement,” (Seoul: Hanul Academy, 2013), 342-343.
  2. ^ Jeong Hee-jin, ibid., 340.
Writer KIM Dongryung

After graduating from the Korean Academy of Film Arts, the director has dedicated herself to creating documentaries that explore individuals and space surrounding US military camp towns, as well as various visual artworks since 2004. Her debut feature documentary “American Alley” (2008) won the Ogawa Shinsuke Prize in the sector of New Asian Currents at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. Her second feature documentary “Tour of Duty” (2013) was invited to numerous domestic and international film festivals, including the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, the Jihalava International Documentary Film Festival, the New York Museum of Modern Art, and won the Special Prize in the International Competition section at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. “The Pregnant Tree and the Goblin” (2019) was screened at prestigious domestic and international film festivals,” such as the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Busan International Film Festival, and Seoul Independent Film Festival. It received the Terayama Shuji Prize at the Image Forum Festival in Japan.