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Should photojournalists be as objective as possible? There’s a slight difference between being a photojournalist and a documentary photographer, so let’s stick to photographers who do journalistic work and exclude paparazzi jobs.

Other photojournalists may not agree, but I believe that it is difficult to be objective. Every decision we make to construct an image—such as capturing a specific moment or framing certain components—are results of very subjective choices. As a photographer, it’s not only inevitable to be subjective, but it’s also essential because those subjective choices are our points of view. That’s what makes the images compelling. We should shift our goals to create a fair representation about our subjects or a situation we are covering.

How do you choose your subject matters? I’ve been exploring the underreported struggles of Asian immigrants. As I covered many news events as a reporter for the New York branch of the Korea Daily, I witnessed a number of people who were looked down upon or ignored even in their own communities. I’m especially interested in disclosing their substandard living conditions and investigating what happened to marginalized immigrants who now rely on false chances that they once believed were the American Dream.

For other stories, I’m triggered by local news coverage as a freelance photojournalist. I’m mainly inspired by subjects I meet for a news assignment, usually random people I never would have met otherwise. Sometimes I go back to the subjects from an assignment on my own—it makes for a higher level of insight.

I am drawn to what I can discover beyond the prejudice surrounding individuals who are often outside of the media’s attention. I am not afraid of subjects leading me to different directions. I want to see what’s beyond the news publications.
I want to see what’s beyond the news publications.

How did you gain trust with the subjects for your long-term documentary project about bus-kkun (an informal Korean term for a group of people who ride casino buses regularly as means of survival)? It was difficult to reserve or buy a bus ticket to the casinos because the Chinese bus company’s staff, who usually hang around Chinese bakery stores in Flushing, New York, do not sell tickets to random people unless you are a regular bus rider. However, I managed to gain trust with one particular subject who helped me board a bus. Eventually, I made the bus trip myself in early 2013.

Always wearing the same old clothes in order to blend in with the regulars, I took the same overnight round-trip bus to the casino on the same day every week for more than six months. I wanted to let them know I wasn’t a rude stranger who shows up and disappears with snapshots, but rather that I was an attentive listener.

I learned how to get bored, always waiting for the right moment to photograph. Waiting approximately five hours in the casino for the scheduled bus to go back home, I listened to the bus riders without judgment. I often brought them pictures I had taken of both of us together.

Some bus riders recognized me as a reporter and I took advantage of this credit. Some bus riders didn’t even know their real names and recognized themselves by their seat numbers or last names, preferring to mind their own business. There was one particular bus rider who had negative feelings about my reportage and eventually came to me after three months to give his thoughts. But mainly, I convinced them that I wanted to experience myself what it is like to live like a regular bus-kkun. By engaging the people one by one, it helped me gain their trust.

What practical tips did you learn about establishing trust from the photojournalism/documentary photography program that you attended at the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York City? Every instructor and mentor emphasized bringing back prints to the subjects who let me into their lives, because it changes the photographer-subject relationship.

Even though some subjects may allow me to photograph them, there’s still tension because they don’t know how I’ll use the photos. I can just disappear. Therefore, bringing back prints is a simple and easy way to ensure them that I come back with a result and also that I appreciate this intimate access into their lives. This shouldn’t be mandatory because it’s just one method of establishing a relationship with your subject when you’re working on a long-term project—I don’t give prints to people who I cover in daily news.

To add to this sense of reliability, I’ve also always kept in touch with my subjects even if I haven’t been photographing them for a while. I’d be very suspicious and frustrated if a photographer photographed me and never contacted me again, so I let my subjects know where I am with my project. This makes the credibility stronger, solidifying the relationship and trust even more. It’s all about trust.

Also, if the story is ever published, I show the published piece to them. Giving my subjects updates about the publication of my work fulfills my responsibility to the people who gave me access to document their lives. The publication will give them a fresh perspective of what their lives may seem like to an outsider like me. This creates a very special dialog between my subjects and me.

What other significant projects have you recently worked on? I was one of the contributing reporters and translators for the New York Times’s “Unvarnished” series, an in-depth investigation into the exploitation of nail manicurists. I was delighted to participate in a project—it didn’t matter if I was a reporter or a photographer—that actually provoked regular customers’ thoughts and brought some change to the industry.

This demanding project was a rare opportunity to be deeply involved in an investigation that a large publication like the Times invested in for a year. For my photo essays, I normally pitch them whether they’re complete or not. Usually, I start a project as a self-assigned work, sparing my own time and paying for my own expenses. But for this investigation piece, the writer Sarah Maslin Nir hired me to the contributing team as an interpreter and reporter, not a photographer. We started with some leads and built up the narrative, and it evolved into a longer piece during the reporting period.

What are some resources you’d recommend to budding documentary photojournalists? After graduating ICP and publishing the bus-kkun piece, my first long-term project, I was selected as a Magnum Foundation fellow for 2013.

There are a number of renowned workshops where you can meet top editors in the news industry and connect to well-established photographers like the Eddie Adams Workshop, the Missouri Photo Workshop and LOOKbetween.
Yeong-Ung Yang was born in 1984 in Daegu, South Korea. In 2006, Yang began his career in journalism when hired to work as a videographer for the Public Affairs Office of the Republic of Korea Army in Iraq. Between 2010 and 2012, he worked as a writer and a photographer for the New York branch of the Korea Daily. He graduated from the International Center of Photography’s program in photojournalism/documentary photography, where he received the Rita K. Hillman Award. Yang currently works as a freelance photo and video journalist and is a contributing reporter and translator for the New York Times. He was recently recognized as one of Photo District News’s 30 new and emerging photographers to watch in 2015. His clients include Corbis Images, Newsday, Vogue Korea and Anthropology Now, among others.
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