images of the crossing over

Death of the Archivist

In mid-October, a decision was made to combine the head editor and camera positions for the seminary’s magazine into one position. The head camera position I had been waiting for was, within a day, gone, and I was out of a job.

Being out of a job isn’t such a big deal at a temple: there’s always other work to be done. The preemminent reason for combining two positions into one was to allow one of those two people to enter into the pool of available labor for the rest of the temple’s numerous and arguably more pressing jobs. In my case, I stepped out of the camera position directly into the shoes of “assistant class-head (부반장).”

The last official day I was allowed to carry a camera on campus–my last official day as “the camera man”–one of my dearest sisters came to visit me. She herself graduated from a different gangwon last winter and received her bhikkuni precepts this past spring. We’ve known each other for seven years, since before we shaved our heads: that’s a long time.

The picture above was taken in our soup-making area. Ordinarily, outsiders to the seminary community, monastic or otherwise, aren’t allowed into certain areas of the temple, including the kitchen, but there are exceptions to every rule. I made coffee and some of my classmates joined us, pulling out plastic chairs to make a place in front of the hearth. Coffee, conversation, some of my closest friends in either the monastic or secular world.

I have thoughts about the downsizing of artistic work and expression in the monastic community. A visitor to the gangwon from America asked me, after hearing I shot on average about 200 frames for a working session for the seminary, why I took so many pictures and what I would do with all of them. I answered that I felt a call to witness and record our lives, “as they are,” seen from the inside and sensitive to our sometimes contradictory needs.

Losing an official position means nothing for a calling; a job is not a vocation, although I’m not trying to suggest that taking pictures is a vocation for me. I don’t think I have the skill to merit that term. Still, the arts–music, poetry, literature, visual arts, and more–used to be religion and spirituality’s province. Now they are called frills, additions, “interests.” What if they are central, incorporated, and necessary modes of spiritual communication? At the very least, what if they provide the wordless, evocative footprints by which the future will follow the past we are already becoming? The death of a community’s archivist, I suggest, is not simply an end of photo albums and “souvenir shots.”

The picture above is more than a souvenir shot for me or anyone who looks at it. Although I’m not in the picture–I never am, because I’m the photographer, an essential but invisible part of the process–these people are all lynchpins in my monastic life. That’s the personal archive, where each individual in a particular location opens an endless web of stories, associations, memories and spiritual lessons. The greater archive is the story of worlds meeting, two American sisters among their Korean community, and the mutual windows and doors into each others’ lives we have become.


8 responses

  1. Does your “job change” mean that you won’t be posting additional photos on your blog? That would be a great loss!

    December 28, 2010 at 4:59 am

    • Barry,

      Nope: I’ll still be posting and also taking pictures. What it means practically is that I no longer work on/with the seminary’s editorial board, which means my pictures will likely not end up in the school magazine or on the school website. Not such a loss, there; trying to match a number of different expectations regarding the cover photo was major stress. The biggest losses are that of time and equipment. As “camera-man,” I had all day, every day to shoot. Now, I’m technically not allowed to carry a camera. (You’ll notice this isn’t stopping me, just hedging my movements a bit.) Secondly, my personal camera is a Canon 500D. A great starter camera, certainly just right for my skills; but after you’ve played around with either the Nikon D300 or, worse for downgrading, the D700, the Canon has some limitations, mostly when it comes to resolution and potential ISO ranges. Personally, however, I like the Canon’s color and the lens’s “feel” better than Nikon. (The Nikon D700 was a full-frame digital camera, to give you an example of how nice that camera was.)

      I’ll be back-posting pictures from the fall that I haven’t had time yet to put up, which will take some time; but I hope posting will be more regular soon.

      December 29, 2010 at 6:36 am

      • Whew!

        Thank you for your work on this blog and, more importantly, for your dedication to training and helping all beings.


        December 30, 2010 at 2:42 pm

  2. Roy


    I love this picture. Look at the beautiful faces looking back at you. So good.

    In my opinion, which matters for nothing, you have a great eye. I find your images very expressive. I am sorry that you have been switched out of the role of photographer.

    Thank you for posting, Sunim. I continue to pray for your well-being and happiness.

    – roy.

    December 28, 2010 at 2:43 pm

  3. Roy

    P.S. Damn, that image looks great at ISO2000. The D300 is a marvelous thing!

    December 28, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    • Hi Roy,

      As always, thanks for “stopping by.” We now have wireless internet available here, so I hope to be posting more.
      I mentioned it in my reply to Barry, but the loss of the photographer position really only means a loss of time and equipment, not so much an end to taking pictures. The Nikon, as you’re aware, was one of the biggest perks of the position. I’m still the photographer for our end-of-season interviews, so there’s some activity left for me with the magazine. But now my everyday camera is the Canon Baby, instead of the Nikon Baby.

      Thank you for your prayers, too. You and your family are always in my thoughts, as well.

      December 29, 2010 at 6:39 am

  4. Sam

    Very striking photograph.

    January 27, 2011 at 1:59 pm

  5. Kumyeon

    I recognize the nun second from the right, crouching. Another lovely person.

    May 16, 2011 at 10:57 pm

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