Arin Yoon

I arrived in this country when I was 5 and my brother was 7 — the same ages of my children during my residency. The first place we visited was Disneyland. I thought we had hit the jackpot. America was even better than I had expected. Soon after, we settled in Warrensburg, Missouri and a new reality sank in. I was transported from the cityscape of Seoul to the American midwest. I have clear memories of walking through the vast prairie and the mazes of cornfields as a child.

My mom had a studio photo taken in preparation to come to the US — for the passport and visa applications. My dad was going to graduate school at what was then Central Missouri State University and we had come to visit. We didn’t know that we were never going back to Korea. He didn’t want us to leave. In photography there are so many variables. What kind of light will there be today? What kind of accidents and interventions will occur as I make work? When I took this photo, it was drizzling. A tiny fortuitous raindrop fell right under my eye. I didn’t realize until I was editing that this had happened. I asked my child self, “Why are you crying?”

Through a collaborative process with my children, we immersed ourselves in the natural landscape and explored not only our relationships to our surroundings, but also to each other and to my memories and their histories. I noticed the kids interacting with nature, playing together and seeing how they created their own worlds and made their own memories. It is when I give in to seeing the world through their eyes that I find it easiest to parent. And then sometimes, their magic seeps into my world, when I let go of trying to be in control. I project my past onto them but I know parts of them remember it too.

As I looked to the past, I saw into the future. One day as we were walking Mila asked me, “Mom, are we in a dream? Are we?” I wanted to share this time of creative exploration with my children. They made art on paper, on each other and sometimes onto the landscape. Art became more accessible to them when they were able to touch and interact with it, thanks to Bill McBride’s sculptures. It wasn’t just a precious thing to look at but something to experience and feel. Sometimes they even took the pictures, like this one of me and Mila in our hanboks — our traditional Korean dresses.

My mom is a tailor so fabrics and textiles are meaningful to her, to us. I used to help hang clothes at her drycleaning store and with each garment, I could feel a sense of the person who wore it. I included Korean fabrics into my pictures so that our histories were incorporated into the memories of this landscape.

What does this land represent? I thought about the house we were in during the residency — a casita built for Mexican rail workers a century ago, one of the last ones to survive. There are three units in the bunkhouse. From the drawing in the room, it looked like there could have been up to 10 units at one point. I had packed a Mexican dress that was gifted to Mila without knowing the history of the bunkhouse. I felt like it was an homage to those workers. The kids were obsessed with the wild garlic here, possibly brought here by the Mexican laborers. A part of their history continues to grow and nourish.

During my residency, I talked with my friend Haruka. She is doing a project called Campu about the forced removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. She showed me a photo of a jail cell at the camp where someone had scratched into the wall, “Show me the way to go home.” It is a heartbreaking image. I thought about what it meant to be taken away from your home and forced onto a land that tried to devour you.

I also thought about the Chinese rail workers who built the transcontinental railway — how they were omitted from the1869 photo commemorating the completion of the railroad. Everyone is celebrating, opening champagne as the final golden spike is hammered into the track. How easily have our experiences, as immigrants, been erased from American history? Corky Lee recreated that photograph in 2014 with the descendants of those Chinese laborers, 145 years after the original photo was made. We can take back some of our histories in commemorating the forgotten, lost and erased. Remembering.

The more trains I watched pass behind the casitas, the more details I noticed. I realized the ones carrying the oil moved more slowly than the ones carrying coal. My children recognized the logos on the trains moving consumer goods across the US after just a few clicks on someone’s phone or computer. There was a whole system of labor and movement I didn’t always consider. Through this work, I re-examined my connection to this land, reconsidering overlooked histories, as I tapped into my own forgotten memories, conjuring the past, creating new memories all while exploring my connection to the natural landscape, to my children, and to our past and future selves.

Arin Yoon (she/her) is a Korean American documentary photographer and visual artist based in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Her work focuses on war and diaspora, families, women and issues of representation and identity. Arin is a National Geographic Explorer, an International Women’s Media Foundation Fellow, and a We, Women Photo Artist. She is a member of Women Photograph, Diversify Photo and the Asian American Journalists Association. Her work has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Reuters, ProPublica, The New York Times and The Washington Post. Arin has exhibited at venues internationally, such as the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul, South Korea and Photoville in New York. She has an MFA in Photography, Video and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts and a BA in Political Science and a BA in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago.