Sporting a multi-colored oversized synthetic fur coat, a patterned silk scarf in her hair, and layers of bracelets, Genevieve Kim’s effortless and eccentric style mirrors the ambiance in The Assemblage’s meditation room where we meet. She camouflages into the space with wide eyes gazing toward me, like she’s admiring me as a future portrait subject. I turn on my voice recorder as we start our conversation, and she simultaneously grabs her own recorder and presses play. She wants to remember this interaction — it is the fuel of human connection drives her curiosity.
Kim is a storyteller, creating narratives through opera, visual design and writing. But above all else, she uses her superpower in photography to shine a light on human courage and vulnerability. Her camera is not only a tool to ‘capture,’ but to connect and to truly see people for who they are and what they are here to do.
Her most well-known pursuit, the EYE SEE YOU project, has led to multiple collaborations and an intense desire to better understand life’s complexities through her subjects. What drives artists to pursue a life of boundless wonder? How can creative traditions be observed in a way that pays tribute to the process?
These are the types of questions Kim explores in her work.
In her own creative process, Kim invites people to open up and share their life’s work, their challenges and their passions. Often times they tell stories that were waiting to be unlocked. I got the rare change to turn the lens around and focus on Kim’s story — what’s inspires her, how sensitivity shapes her work, and how community and collaboration has played an integral role in bringing her life’s mission to life.
Samantha Katz: What is the EYE SEE YOU project? How do you find your subjects and what sort of stories do you seek out?
Genevieve Kim: It was inspired by my visit to Lebanon; I was photographing for the United Nations, surveying various vulnerable neighborhoods throughout the country. I went to one Palestinian refugee camp where the U.N. officers who escorted me said we couldn’t go inside because it was too dangerous. I went in anyway. I met a woman who showed me around, introducing me to the other people inside. The next thing I know, I am in her home, and it was shocking. It was more of a makeshift home. She took me to the bathroom to show me that there was no water. Then she showed me the kitchen, which was filled with rotten food and flies. I looked around thinking ‘This is not a good situation.’
Outside, she pulled back a curtain to reveal a water tank that was filled with junk. It was being used for storage. I thought ‘How is this happening? When was the last time they got water?’ She looked at me and motioned to the officers outside: “You have to do something. You have to tell the U.N,” she said.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I told her I wasn’t an aid worker. I am not here to do field documentation. I am just here to photograph. I felt so helpless at the time, but right at that moment her daughter came running up and asked me to take her picture. She got so excited and put on her hijab. She wanted to get beautiful in front of the camera. So I photographed her. Then I photographed her siblings. And after that I looked at her mother. There was a moment of complete silence and her eyes said to me “Now you see. We’re human. We’ve been completely forgotten, like nobody cares about us. Are you looking? Are you seeing?”
After that I came to New York and realized that I am not about to change the world. I need to work on myself first.I wondered how my eyes were never truly “open”. There have been so many times in my life where I go about with my ear pods in, ignoring the guy on the street asking me for change, not making eye contact with a person who is directly interacting with me. All it takes it acknowledging someone, even to say: “I’m sorry I can’t help you today.” This applied to all people in my life, like remembering to call my mom after a week. I wanted to focus on acknowledging people.
I found out later about the term “Sawubona;” it’s an African expression meaning “I see you.”
SK: What inspired you to explore the “Sabowa” as a photography project?
GK: I was working with my good friends Kytzia Bourlon and Yoyo Cortes, Founders of Ubuntu Market. When we were researching the term “Ubuntu,” the term “Sawubona” came up. I was inspired by these words: “I see you.” And I was motivated by my encouragement of my friends from the Ubuntu Market.
They invited me to host an “EYE SEE YOU” photo station at their holiday market. This was two years ago. I didn’t really know what it would look like. I just had an intention. I wanted to photograph a thousand strangers and to hear their stories. I had an ability to get to people’s inner essence and to use a camera as a means of communication, not objectification.
SK:You are very warm and engaged and have an indescribable ability to capture emotion in your photos. What happens when something tangible, like a camera, comes between you and your subject? How do you flip that obstruction and turn the technology into something that makes people feel comfortable?
GK: It all stems from energy, which I learned from a teacher, a well-known photojournalist. He told me, “The energy you put out will determine how the subjects will, in-turn, approach you. It’s a two-way dynamic.” How you carry yourself on the street is just as important as how you photograph – it’s all about how you float through your life.
From there, it was a natural evolution.
I feel strongly that as a photographer I am not subjecting anyone in front of the camera, but celebrating and developing an interest about what is in front of me. I like to ask questions from a place of non-judgement. It’s really more like: I have a question and I want to explore this.
Typically with the EYE SEE YOU project, I ask the subject what makes them feel vulnerable.
I like to celebrate vulnerability.
The fact that whoever is in front of the camera is choosing to breath, choosing to live.
I suffer with depression and I use photography as a vehicle to get through the day. When my doctors asked me what I like to do, I answered “I like to photograph.” So they told me to just focus on that. At the time, taking a photo may have been my only 20 minutes of contact with another human being in a day. There were often times where I wouldn’t want to be around people.I felt sequestered and isolated. And I thought, ‘I have never had this barrier between myself and a camera.’
When I’m with my camera, I feel connected. Photography saved my life. It has been my companion and my teacher.
SK: While your work documents many subjects—love, adventure, movement—your spirituality is a theme that carries throughout each of your photographic series. Are you intentional about this, or is it coincidental?
Spirituality is a tool for creative expression; all art is spiritually connected. It’s a connection to the divine.
The way that I look at everything I have done in my life – being an artist, an entrepreneur, a performer on stage singing – I have been in flow. Whether I am shooting or editing, it is true presence.
That is inherently the art. Often artists worry I have been working on this project for five years and I just don’t know where to go with it.’ And I ask, ‘But what have you learned so far?’ That’s the most important thing because that’s all we’re here to do. Being present means being here to learn.
Part of the process that is actually tough is taking that moment to do the reflection. In business there are metrics that you’re supposed to target and ways to quantify your successes. As creatives, though, we can ask, “What are five things I learned today?” It could be technique-related or it could be idea inspired. What would it look like if we all did that? There are ways to mark the progression of our own growth. And we need to do that for ourselves in addition to taking stock of what you’ve learned at the end of each day.
SK: Let’s talk about the individual and the collective. How do you feel about taking multiple photos to get one ‘good shot?’ We are talking about staying present in the moment – yet the need for numerous is necessary.
GK: I like to say that photography is similar to performance art. I used to be an opera singer.
And when it comes to performance, you don’t get to press pause and say ‘Conductor, let’s go back three measures.’ You keep moving forward, staying present in the moment. One time I missed my queue, so I came onstage dancing. I was just improvising.
There will not always be a timestamp or frame or single moment that’s going to define what visual art or what performance is. It’s actually the whole – the entirety – that creates impact.
Staying engaged in the here and now is how I interact with my present. Starting by having a conversation and staying super aware of things I might be judging or carrying, and taking a step back in order to be a bit more objective. Conversation is our key to human connection.
SK: Is your hope to recognize the beauty within each religion and culture that still honor these practices? Or is it simply to document the history and religious fashions?
GK: It’s actually more of the beauty in choice. When I was a teenager in Southern California, I met an older women wearing a hijab and she signaled to me “I chose this.” It is interesting that in the West we automatically make associations that these are women who have no choice and must be repressed. People who assume this are just misinformed.
SK: I read that every year you consider a new question. In 2018 it was “What is beauty?” Did you find your answer?
It was quite interesting. I was reading a physics book called A Beautiful Question. And I have spent time asking other people what they think beauty is. The more important thing I came away with was, “Why am I even asking this question in the first place?”
SK: Why did you ask this question?
GK: I wanted to understand universality. It’s become a lifelong pursuit. I think that’s what it was and something that has touched each of us human beings – trying to understand what makes us human at all. With no prescription.
Isn’t that the most beautiful thing about a photo? There are no words required. It’s an understanding – a feeling. And that is something that is universal.
SK: What is one message you want to share with other emerging creators?
GK: Act on your dream. The ritual is in the action. You have to act. It is the only way you’re going to produce or create any kind of impact. Thinking is not enough.
SK: What are you working on next?
GK: Creatively, I want to exist in a zone of no judgement. As a kid I loved to collage. And that is what I have been transitioning into graphic design. I just decided to collage, and do whatever I want to do in that space. I design from my heart and some silly stuff comes from that.
Mental health is an important part of this message, for me. Creation takes courage, and it’s not always going to be easy. But I won’t adhere to the “lone wolf” artist philosophy. Real artists have discipline, and they show up every day.
And, while it’s not always easy, that’s okay. Give yourself a break!