This is part of our photographer profile series. You can read the other entries here.
“Maybe this is a story of failures,” Jean Chung said, laughing.
Chung was rejected from Yale University’s photography program; she didn’t land a job with the Los Angeles Times after interning with them; she was booted from Afghanistan a year into an indefinite stay because of visa issues.
After spending more than a decade working in Africa, mostly on women’s issues, Chung is currently grounded in her home country of South Korea because of Covid. Her days are mostly spent weaving handmade bags out of African fabrics and filming her mother, a professional opera singer, for her YouTube channel.
Yet despite the roadblocks, Chung has achieved success after success. She has won major photography awards and worked for outlets including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Her zigzagging path is indicative of her strengths as a photographer. Often, when she is in unknown terrain with a fixer, they’ll ask her what to do next. “We’ll let the situation decide and see what happens,” she’ll say back. “And then things happen, and then I just go with the flow.”
That’s exactly how her career as a photojournalist started. Growing up in South Korea, Chung studied traditional Korean painting — her mom wanted her to pursue a creative career but said that opera took too much training. Chung happened to take a photography class her junior year. She received more encouragement from the professor than she ever did with painting. She had family in New York and decided to enroll in NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for photography.
At Tisch, Chung took classes such as studio lighting and documentary photography. She was drawn to the latter. She liked that, for the first time in her artistic career, she didn’t have to create anything from scratch. She could be an observer. She decided to apply for editorial roles, which, she figured, offered the closest approximation to documentafry photography. She interviewed with publications like TV Guide and Interview but ended up getting a job with the Korea Times, one of the largest English-language newspapers in South Korea.
Fate struck again. Chung thought she would mostly be working as a photographer, but the staff was small and in need of reporters. She ended up writing more stories than she shot. This was the pre-digital era: Chung worked at the paper from 1995 until 2001. Most stories didn’t even run with more than one photo. For a period, she had to develop her own black-and-white film in a small darkroom, before the paper decided to pay for color processing at a lab.
At the time, Chung was still getting her grounding as a recent immigrant. She was in her 20s and gravitated toward the “1.5 generation” of Korean-Americans — people who were born in Korea but moved to the United States when they were young. Oftentimes, because of language and cultural barriers, there was a large generational gap between them and their parents. Chung’s stories focused on these communities. She hoped her reporting would help bridge that gap.
After six years at the paper, school beckoned. Chung faced a diverging path, with more conceptual documentary work down one branch and photojournalism down the other. When she was rejected from Yale, the decision was made for her. She went to the University of Missouri.
Although Chung had focused mainly on Korean stories, that changed early on at Mizzou. She was in graduate school on 9/11. It immediately changed her view of the world. She sought to understand the anger that drove people to such violence and the factors underlying the conflict between the Western and Islamic worlds.
More than anything, it made her consider hegemony. South Korea had been a Japanese colony before and during World War II. “My identity as a person is an Asian woman from a really weak country,” Chung said. Her position on “the victim side rather than the superpowers’” gave her a different perspective than most photojournalists.
After school, Chung decided to move back to South Korea. She was in her mid-30s at that point and didn’t want to follow the traditional U.S. path of working her way up from small newspapers to larger ones. For its part, South Korea came with its own advantages — she could live for free with her parents, and she could use it as a launchpad for travel.
Although her stint in Afghanistan was short-lived — the South Korean government withdrew all citizens following a Taliban kidnapping — Chung began to journey across the Middle East and Africa, capturing the region as a freelance photographer. From her own vantage as an underdog, a woman from a “weak” country, she sought to find stories that spoke to this standpoint.
One recurring subject in her work is violence against women. Korea had a history of sexual slavery during World War II, and Chung saw parallels across conflict zones where she traveled. “I began thinking about what happens to women in war situations,” she said, “and why women become victims when most wars are waged by men.” She takes striking portraits, with stark contrast and shadow. The photos are harrowing, pleading, and yet also often mundane, documenting the everyday lives and shared struggles of women across different regions.
You would expect Chung, as both a trained artist and a veteran photojournalist, to bring backgrounds into her work. At first, she resisted doing so, maintaining that art and journalism were separate media. After she thought about it, though, she realized that the two disciplines had become instinctually intertwined for her.
Her job is to tell a story in a single frame, which requires intricate composition and visual tinkering. On a photojournalism assignment, her background in art plays an important role in her careful approach — just subconsciously. “I don’t think I calculate it at all,” she told Rest of World. “Things really come out naturally.”
What did not come naturally was working in her home country. She had never really operated as a photojournalist in South Korea. After her years on the road, Covid forced Chung to go back. The transition has been difficult. For one, in Chung’s estimation, South Korea has much worse light than Africa — it’s either gray or artificial.
She has been taking assignments, mostly, with Western outlets. She’s happy that publications are telling stories in South Korea that don’t have to do with North Korea. Still, it’s hard for her to find inspiration for her own projects. She “was feeling really depressed,” she said, and needed a creative outlet — hence the handmade bags and her mom’s YouTube channel.
Chung has a matter-of-fact way of speaking, dropping blunt statements with a small chuckle. “I’m still depressed,” she told Rest of World. She wants to be back in Africa continuing her projects, but has no idea when that day may come — it could be years.
For now, she’s serving as a producer for her mother, who is apparently quite demanding. “Overworked, underpaid,” she joked. They have to shoot her videos early in the morning outside in parks, when the light is best.
“I don’t know what trajectory my life is going to take, kind of like all the other things that happened in my life,” Chung told Rest of World. “So I just have to wait.”