We first came across Juliana Sohn’s name through an announcement for the release of the second season of the podcast "K-Pod" that she co-hosts with Catherine Hong. Through Episode 11, we get to know the hosts a bit more, but The Universal Asian was given the opportunity to delve even further into Juliana’s journey of initially rejecting her roots and later redefining her identity as it merged with her calling as a photographer and artist.
Could you tell us a bit more about your background?
I was born in Korea and we moved to the States when I was five. I remember bits and pieces of what it was like living in Korea. We lived in pretty extreme poverty though I don’t know if I realized it at all when I was there. We raised pigs and I think my grandma sold them for food. We had just a hole in the ground for a toilet. When we immigrated to the States, I remember seeing flushable toilets for the first time at the JFK airport.
Since my uncle, who was a priest, got stationed in a church in New Jersey that was where we moved.
Do you remember trying to learn English?
I do remember because I was five. I remember my uncle teaching me how to read a "Dick and Jane" book. I don’t remember actually learning the alphabet and sounding out the letters, but I think it was almost like sight-reading and I just had to memorize it.
For the first year that we were living in the States, we stayed at home because I think we must have moved in the middle of the school year. We just tried to pick up as much English as possible. We had a black and white TV set and tried to pick up what words we could. I remember going to the first day of kindergarten and not actually understanding anything they were saying. I would just look around and follow directions from watching what the other kids did. At some point, I started to understand what they were saying and realized they didn’t know that I understood.
It was an interesting transition.
Were there a lot of other Asians or Koreans in your school?
No, we went to Catholic school. We moved around to other communities, but there were no other Asians in the school.
When we first arrived, the kids didn’t really know how to act or treat us. I don’t think anyone was intentionally cold and there was no overt racism. People would say things, because they just didn’t understand us. There was a lot of goodwill, though still we felt pretty alienated.
So, as you were growing up, did you identify with being Korean-American?
The whole question about identity is really interesting, and is at the heart of a lot of people’s journeys of trying to figure out who they are.
When I was younger, I just wanted to fit in. Since we went to Catholic school we went by our Christian names. So, when we came here [the U.S.], we went by our baptism names. As lovely as the name Juliana is, growing up in the '70s, it was too different. So, I made everyone call me Julie during high school.
After trying to and wanting to fit in and experience a certain kind of American life—a very typical one—I think it wasn’t until I went to art school that I really understood I could be my own person. I could be a creative person. I could be myself. That’s when I reverted back to being called Juliana.
But, even then, I was trying to find myself as an artist and trying to figure out what my voice was creatively. I was trying to assert myself as a feminist and fighting for women’s rights. I never really wanted to be identified first as a Korean or a Korean artist because it felt very niche and kind of inferior. I never wanted to be the token female artist nor the token Asian. I just wanted to be Juliana—whatever all that encompassed and what I hoped for as a unique individual.
I never really saw my primary identity as Korean. I associated that with my parents’ generation that included conservative values, a patriarchal system, and all those things that went against the things I grew to believe in and were important to me.
Korea has gone through such a huge change since the mid-'70s when we immigrated. I think for my parents’ generation they had this arrested development of these values based on what they knew at the time. So, while Korea may have been developing and evolving, I feel like my parents’ very core, conservative, traditional Korean values were arrested in development and we grew up under those values. So, even though people think, “Oh, you’re so American, you don’t have an accent, you’re so white,” we grew up in a very traditional [Korean] household.
Even though I am very respectful to my parents and we have a great relationship, living under that system wasn’t something I wanted for myself. It was only after college when I spent all my time focusing on my work—my creative and professional work and the work I put out there—that I started to think about identity and how that defined me. Still, I didn’t make space for “Korean” as part of my identity.
So, it is really late in life that I have come to embrace the Korean-American aspect of my identity.
In the "K-Pod" podcast Episode 11, Catherine mentioned about being uncomfortable around other Asians or groups with Asians. Did you feel that as well?
Oh yeah, definitely.
When we were younger, there was a Youth Group after the kids’ mass and all the kids and teens would hang out waiting for the adult mass to finish. My sisters and I would just huddle together because we didn’t identify with the other Korean kids, the things they were interested in, or talked about. We just didn’t share a commonality.
When I got older, if I was in a room and there were other Asian people at a party, I didn’t want to be associated with them. I didn’t want people to think, “Oh, you guys are Asian; you must be friends.”
Instead, almost as a prophylactic to that kind of wrong association, I think I took it out on the other Asian person(s) in the room. I would kind of distance myself, and it was like I blamed them for being there, for putting me in that awkward position of having people think that we were related or would become friends. In retrospect, I was taking the microaggressions I experienced from white people out on other Asians.
But, after I started to get to know people on a more intimate level, thanks to Korean American Story, I realized that there are pockets of people like me out there, who are more creatively-minded.
As you moved into photography professionally, being Asian and female, did you feel that it held you back in any way or that you were looked at differently?
When I was starting out, photographers wanted to be thought of on a certain level and not be associated with doing grunt work. Being a 5’ 3” woman, I definitely didn’t get many jobs because they wanted a strong guy. So, if you had a petite young Asian woman doing the lights, you were going to look like a jerk if you didn’t want to help. Many didn’t want to do that because they wanted to hang out, so oftentimes I didn’t get hired because of how it would make them look.
Despite all that, then, what motivated you to keep pursuing photography?
You know, it’s funny when you asked me that question, I was thinking, “What are you talking about? What else would I do?” I went to college and got a degree in photography. There was a point where I thought: “What if I can’t do this?” I don’t think that there was anything else that I felt was so right about as much as I felt that photography was right for me.
It’s being able to see things in a certain way; not only seeing them, but also to show how I see that to other people; and to show other people how I see them to themselves. People often don’t think they are important or have stories to tell. If I can see them from my perspective and show them that they are worth their stories, it helps them to understand themselves better.
So, how do you go about choosing your projects or do they come to you?
They come to me, but I have to be there, to be open to see it for what it is. There have been projects that I have thought about for years before I started shooting them, because there are doubts about their value, the feasibility, etc. But, there are times like the Korean Funerary Portraits [published in the New York Times in 2016] that I worked on—I thought about doing it for a long time, but I guess you could say it came to me.
It started with Juliana’s grandfather visiting one day in a suit. She thought that he was going to need a funerary portrait one day and so she got her camera. She took pictures of him, and then a year or two later when he did pass, she had the pictures she had taken knowing that they would be needed. She gave them out to her family.
Many years later, her uncle got ill and they didn’t have any photos then either, but her family asked her if she had any. Juliana found some and redid the images to create funerary pictures.
Her dad, one day, asked how much it would cost to have funerary portraits done. She asked why as she didn’t realize that it was a thing that people did. It turned out one of the congregants was doing them for a small fee, but he wasn’t a professional. That planted a seed showing there was a need and a service that she could provide, and for which she had experience. So, she thought she could volunteer, but also make it a cultural piece that would tell the story of who the person was in this life. The original idea was that while sitting in front of the camera she would ask them questions like, “How do you want to be remembered?”; “Did you dress a certain way for a reason today for this to be remembered?” The reflection of their stories could then be seen on their face to express who or what they were in life.
It was a personal project and touched upon Juliana’s personal story.
What would your main piece of advice be to a young universal Asian, who is wanting to celebrate being Asian, but looking for a role model? In other words, what would your takeaway be for them?
I don’t know. All I can say is, this is something that has been said so many times, but your own perspective, life, and story is so much more interesting than telling someone else’s story or what is hot right now.
The more you can personalize something, and the more specific you can be about something that you know or feel dear about, the more people will be interested, and the more people you will reach. So, regardless of how very banal or quotidian whatever you are documenting is, if it’s your experience, then it is completely valid.