Goseong Choi began photographing his family for a
change of pace, then his grandmother fell ill and passed
away, challenging the photographer to create his most
personal work to date. BY DZANA TSOMONDO
“UMMA”—WHICH MEANS “mother” in Korean—is a photo series
by South Korean-born, Brooklyn-based photographer Goseong Choi.
Ostensibly a meditation on his grandmother’s sudden illness and
lingering death, “Umma” is at once austere and intimate, brimming
with undercurrents of loss, family and filial duty. Eschewing easy
sentiment, Choi’s images lay bare the wrenching power of a matriarch
grieving for her own mother.
In December 2010, Choi began photographing his family in
their daily domestic routines. His previous work was conceptual
and carefully composed, but Choi was eager to step outside of
his own box. “I challenged myself to take more personal … raw
images because the work I used to do in the past was very quiet,” he
explains. “So I started to make snapshots of my family.” As fate would
cruelly have it, a month after he turned his lens onto his family,
As Goseong Choi photographed his family during his grandmother’s hospitalization and passing, making artwork became both an escape and a source of internal conflict.
Choi’s grandmother was struck down by a stroke and slipped into a
coma from which she would not recover.
All of the images in “Umma” were taken in the three weeks
between his grandmother’s hospitalization in Yongin, South Korea,
and her burial at the family cemetery in Paju: The sterile purgatory
of the hospital waiting room, anxiety thick in the recycled air; his
mother, captured in a bedroom mirror, numbly smoothes makeup
around her heavy eyes, her gaze far away; as mourners greet kin in the
funeral home’s soft light, a coffin sits at the edge of the camera’s focus,
heaped with wreaths and flowers; stubborn patches of snow cling to
frostbitten grass as men shovel turned red earth into a grave.
During that time, although Choi kept his camera with him, respect
for his family and an intrusively loud shutter on his DSLR led him to
shoot sparingly. He admits that the camera also served as an emotional
shield—even the simple act of observing and waiting for the right
moment to shoot was an escape. Unsurprisingly, his own process in
creating “Umma” was fraught with internal conflict.
“Perhaps I hid myself behind the camera. It was an escape to have
some distance from this intense situation,” Choi explains, “but at the
same time, guilt came over me. As an artist, I was happy to be making
artwork out of this powerful occurrence, [but] there was a conflict