Jean Chung has an unwavering belief in women and their power to survive, and for good reason. She has spent her career photographing them living through war, poverty and sexual violence.
She was born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, where she now works for Getty Images, The New York Times, and Bloomberg, among others. However, her journey has involved years of exploration, expanding her understanding of communities around the world, mainly in post-colonial Africa. Throughout her travels, She always felt a sense of responsibility to try to raise awareness of the silent survivors of disaster.
In the early 1990s, Chung crossed the Pacific Ocean to work and study photography in New York City. In late August 2001, she left for Columbia, Missouri, to continue her studies with a post-graduate course in photojournalism. Two weeks later the terrorist attacks of 11 September were to have a profound effect on the photographer. “For me, 9/11 was a huge personal shock. What drove people to such anger? I wanted to know what Islam was and who Muslims were. I wanted to know why they were so upset over America and Israel.” This questioning has since informed Chung’s entire approach to her work.
In her first spring break, she travelled to Israel and the West Bank to find out for herself what was going on. “During the trip there was a suicide bombing at a banquet in Netanya. I went there and took a lot of pictures, and then visited hospitals in the West Bank. The trip was a turning point for me. It opened my eyes to the hegemony of the western world over the Islamic one, and I wanted to learn more about the relationship between the different cultures.”
With her studies at an end, Chung felt compelled to go back to the Gaza Strip and West Bank, where she focused on capturing how local women dealt with living in conflict zones. “I thought about the image of Muslim people that was described by the American media, and the experience I had, and I began to compare the two. As a woman there were many things I couldn’t do – segregation of the sexes is very strong in these countries.” And yet, “because the majority of photojournalists have been men, stories about women have been under-reported.” Chung saw her niche.
In 2006, she bought a one-way ticket to Afghanistan, and once in Kabul spent time in the maternity unit of a hospital, developing friendships with the women there. It is here that Chung started work on what would be a career-defining story on maternal mortality.
I don't cover wars, I cover the aftermath of wars from the female perspective.
“I don't cover wars, I cover the aftermath of wars from the female perspective,” Chung says. “People tend to forget that women are not a minority. We are half of the earth, and half of the world’s population should be heard. Most wars are waged by men, and women become victims. I want to be one of the people telling stories of women trying to survive.”
She’s right, of course. Photography in general, and especially war photography, has long been dominated by men. And the images we see reflect that, not because men only see or concentrate on fighting, but because men’s interaction with women can be limited, especially in Islamic countries. “From WW2, the images we have are the Normandy landings and Robert Capa’s images. From the Vietnam War, the images I personally remember are, of course, the horrible deaths of civilians, but also wounded and dying American soldiers. While we know that there was a great deal of sexual violence in Vietnam, there were few reports of it. And even now, we still need more women journalists, especially photographers.”
Chung was obliged to leave Afghanistan in 2007 when the Korean government removed its citizens following a high-profile kidnapping, and needed to find a new home. “I chose Africa because it was a new place, a new continent. I wanted to start my second or third life in a different place.” She arrived in Kinshasa in 2008, with no idea of where to go or what was really happening, and quickly realised that she was on the wrong side of a very large country.
When she learned about the horrors occurring in eastern Congo she had a visceral reaction: “The sexual violence happening there was brutal and particularly inhumane. I felt as if the screams of the women were resonating in my head. So I went to Goma [a capital city in the eastern DRC]. It was incredibly inspiring to meet these women, these survivors, and I felt perhaps it was my life’s mission to deliver their voices to the wider world.”
Then, in 2011, Chung was struck with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and became unable to travel. “I had seen a lot of death. I hadn’t had any PTSD therapy, and I guess it came to me all at once. Being surrounded by horrific things can make you kind of crazy. I was sick in every way. But, thanks to my parents, who were really supportive, I eventually recovered.”
Being surrounded by horrific things can make you kind of crazy. I was sick in every way.
In 2012, she forced herself to get on a plane to cover the aftermath of the Japanese tsunami and found that she coped much better than she had expected. “I had stopped applying for grants and thinking about [the world]. I just wanted to make my own work, not to please anybody else but the people I photograph, or for a good cause. I was just thinking, ‘What I can do with the few skills I have? What can I do to contribute?’ I don’t really have skills or languages other than photography. I wanted to make use of that to do something good.”
This desire to help people rather than to photograph them prompted her return to Africa. As a result of her work in the Congo and Sierra Leone, Chung has been serving as a link between a Korean NGO and grassroots organisations in the DRC, and she was asked to make a trip back there in 2014. From then on, Chung had hit her stride again – she worked in the Central African Republic before photographing female Syrian refugees in Greece.
Chung observes that “many photojournalists are from former colonising powers such as Britain and France. My perspective might be different. People ask me, ‘Why Africa? You’re Korean’, and I've realised that it’s because I come from a country that was once like so many of those in Africa. I feel a great sense of empathy with the people there.
This is what I want to do with my life.
“Not so long ago, South Korea was colonised. We had a civil war that resulted in the involvement of international forces, and we are still at war, we think. Before the turn of the 20th century, women had to cover themselves in public, polygamy was legal, and economically and socially we were no different from many African and Middle Eastern nations that are dealing with conflicts now. We suffered sex slavery during World War II, and we were very, very poor. After the Korean War, our GDP was lower than that of Zimbabwe. Africa in the present is our past, and Koreans should not forget their past, what they have come from, and what they have gone through.
“I want to use my photography skills to leave evidence, documentation and records of the world and women’s lives in Africa as they are now. I want to do that as much as possible – to do some meaningful work as a human being, and as a person from a ‘weak’ country. This is what I want to do with my life.”
“Always treat the person you’re photographing with respect. Do not force them to trust you; you’ll have to prove to them that you are trustworthy, and this can be done by showing understanding and communicating in a clear and polite way. I shoot a lot of in-depth reportage stories as well as writing them up and, often, I’ll interview the subject before taking pictures of them. I try to learn about that person first and be a good listener. If I don't understand the subject and the situation well, I cannot make the people reading my articles understand the person I’m photographing.”