Jungjin Lee made the book Unnamed Road (MACK, 2014) as part of the This Place commission. Her technique is unique in that her images are exposed onto rice paper made sensitive to light; this affects the tonal quality of her images giving rich blacks and soft flat greys. The images gain an artisanal quality from this method, however it is the mystery and emptiness within Lee’s frame that make her images so mesmerising. The often timeless subjects of her photographs gain an otherworldly feel from what we perceive as an ancient technique and plays into a Western visual idea of Orientalism.
Why did you decide to title the book Unnamed Road?
I decided the title after finishing the project. One day I drove to the West Bank with a rented Palestinian car with a GPS. When I got to the West Bank and after the checkpoint, the GPS didn’t work, it’s just blank. It’s quite scary and it just says ‘unnamed road’; sometimes when you go into the city the street names are only painted on to the side of walls and I couldn’t get detailed maps with the names of all the small streets. It was really scary as I didn’t know where I was, how to get out and had no idea of where I was going. And then I have this machine that just says ‘unnamed road’. I thought this unnamed road is a very interesting phrase and it became a really strong option for the title. I asked some friends and people liked it so it became the name of the book.
Is the book very much about you travelling the country? Just from the cover I’m thinking about ‘On the Road’ by Kerouac and that picture of an unknown highway by Robert Frank.
I travelled a lot of the time in the middle of nowhere, I used to travel a lot in the Southwest states of America in the early 90’s. It has never mattered to me the name of the place where I photographed. I always like to go somewhere where I’m all by myself and there is the feeling that no one had previously set foot where I am. In Israel I travelled a lot in the Nagev desert and the West Bank, not so much in the city. This name ‘unnamed road’ relates to my previous work but also to the Israel project. Israel has such a long history that relates to the land and so many layers, so everybody puts different meanings on the place however when I say ‘unnamed road’ it feels contradictory.
Did you feel the weight of those people’s histories when you were looking at the land making pictures, or were you more concerned with your own way of looking?
Israel is a country with so much history, I was just trying to focus on my project, on the landscape and about the land however from the exploratory mission, I knew there was a lot going on here and always there was this weight on my back. So whether I went to the desert, to an unnamed road or whether no one was around, I still felt what was going on with every step. In the desert I sensed, you know there could be a mine underneath me and it was easy to see all the barbed wire on the borders, so I became very aware of the politics and it stirred my mind inside so much. My mission became to move some of that feeling to the back because I’m not a sociologist or psychologist and am very sensitive to the politics. For me, most of the people of Israel and Palestine have their own masks and I said ‘Jungjin don’t also put a mask on to judge Israel and Palestine’, so I tried very hard not to judge as well.
Korea, like Israel and Palestine, is also a nation divided and although their conflict is more benign, did you feel going there you had a greater understanding or sympathy for a country unable to abide it’s neighbours?
Korea is the only other country divided. In Korea we used to be very proud that our nation is one blood, not mixed with any other countries so in the sense it’s very different from Israel as we are divided North and South. Seoul and Pyongyang are only 2 hours away and in the middle is the border where we are unable to go. I grew up in Seoul and spent 20 years of my life there and I feel like the North is a completely different country. Pyongyang is the furthest city mentally from Seoul and we in the south are not talking very much about the north, we are just living our lives. In South Korea we hate Kim Jung Un and have a great sympathy with the people of North Korea as they are our blood, they are the same and that is the difference between Korea and Israel.
Did you witness much of the tension between the different factions in Israel and the West Bank whilst making work there?
Because I happened to travel a lot between the border and the West Bank I saw a lot of situations. I saw what the Israeli soldiers do to the Palestinians and it’s almost like hell there. My assistant was Israeli and she lived in Jerusalem, which is half an hour away and they don’t know what is going on there at all. I mean it’s like, I live in Seoul 2 hours away from Pyongyang and I don’t know what’s going on there I just get on with my life. It is exactly the same there with an Israeli that lives in Israel.
Did you get a feeling that the average person in Israel is kept distant to the troubles then?
My guide/assistant was once very curious and she tried to be a British blonde and come in the back of the car. She travelled a few times with me and later on she told me it was a shocking experience for her. Everything became confused in her head, she had always thought she’s safe and that Israeli soldiers are the best; after the trip she realised she shouldn’t travel with me for her own safety. I had another Korean assistant when I went on my travels to the West Bank after that.
Land is politics in that part of the world, was it difficult to create pictures objectively when you knew people may have been fighting and dying in the very recent history for ownership of the view in front of your camera?
Each country has their own opinions and as you know before we started the projects we were invited to Israel and Frederic carefully organised the trip for us to see the whole of Israel. We had very special tour guides – archaeologist, philosophers and actually it was helpful but also on the other hand, it is not the way I usually work; I don’t want to hear about the whole history of the place. I don’t want to have someone else’s bias. To be honest when I think of Israel, I think of the Holy Land, I think of religion first before politics. Before I started the project I began to look at the history to get a brief idea, but on the tour to make photographs I want to look without too much information, especially information from other people.
The book is undoubtedly different from your previous work, however some of the landscapes seem to mimic some of your earlier work. Was it easy to find your pictures in a place you’d never been before or previously thought about?
I have to have a very good feeling about the place in order to photograph. A lot of times I travel and my photographs just come out unexpectedly and I hardly ever go back to photograph the same place. The important thing for me is to photograph what I felt there. If I don’t feel anything then the camera stays in the bag, not on my shoulder. When I travel my attitude is, I want to feel the place, taking photographs is the next step. I go there to feel, I have to be in the right mood to photograph. Mostly I like to photograph more landscapes or the land but sometimes the feeling comes more from around the corner or in the desert.
It is definitely these desert images that feel most like the work I’ve previously seen of yours.
In Israel I made a lot of pictures in the desert but I also made lots in the city. Some pictures in the city suggest my feelings too much and are very direct so I edited them out from my final selections. It was a long process; I worked from fall of 2010 until the end of 2011 and that year and 4 months felt like 4 years to me. Each trip took about a month and each trip felt like a year; I mean emotionally I was very angry most of the time at this place. I meditated a lot and I tried not to respond directly to how I felt, as what I felt was not always right but the situation made me like that and that was what made it different. I never before photographed a place that I didn’t want to be in. I always travel and photograph in a peaceful place, that’s the one big difference between my previous work and this one. I’m very glad that I’m finished and I’m very happy with what I did but I can’t forget that experience and I don’t want to go back to Israel.
Interview by Meshach Falconer-Roberts / Published 17 March 2015