This piece is one of the 10 winners of our 2022 profile contest. You can find more here† Nathan Kocthe author, is 17 and goes to the The Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Conn.
He said he had six months to live and opened an art exhibition
By Nathan Ko
In 2019, South Korean photographer Kim Gyoo-sik was named Artist of the Year by the Korean company KT&G. He modestly describes his popularity prior to this recognition as a “small group of devoted fans.”
During his rising fame, doctors diagnosed him with late-stage stomach cancer. After they told him he had six months to live, he claimed his life insurance policy and started living the rest of his life to the fullest. He opened his art exhibition in 2021, not only to explore abstract images through photography, but also to find meaning in a time of hardship.
The following interview has been translated from Korean and edited for clarity.
Tell me about yourself.
I am a photographer who uses gelatin silver printing, basically black and white photography. Most contemporary artists no longer use this medium.
The complicated, slow and limited process of black and white photography is clunky. I was curious about the current changes in the photo production process. So in my latest series, I focused on each stage of production, highlighting the role of black and white photography in contemporary art. My work is considered relatively unconventional, which has given me positive attention.
At the peak of your career, you were diagnosed with cancer. Your suffering has been exacerbated by the pandemic. I can only imagine the range of emotions you felt.
When I was given six months to live, I was miserable. I had a lot of fever during my battle with cancer. At the start of the pandemic, concerns about Covid-19 symptoms, such as a fever, left me missing opportunities for much-needed treatment.
I initially thought that preparing for my solo exhibition would be more fruitful than continuing with chemotherapy because the treatment felt painful and inadequate. Then a friend of mine who is a surgeon convinced me to have an operation that was not approved by many hospitals at the time. The surgery was incredible and at the end of the seven-hour procedure, all the doctors in the room were applauding. Thanks to the surgery, I’m still here.
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Living in the face of death, what keeps you going and what does life mean to you?
People often say, “If I didn’t have much time left to live, what would I do?” Yet this was my reality. An artist never knows what a comfortable life means. I thought that working through the last days of my life might not be a comfortable ending to life, but it would have a happy, meaningful ending.
In the end I thought I had to finish the work I originally planned to reach a state of accomplishment. After my solo exhibition, I essentially lived in my bed because of the side effects of the treatment. But at the same time, I’m thinking of ideas for my next project. Our desires are endless!
Besides, life is too short to waste. I now spend more time with my wife because what I can leave behind for my loved ones are memories.
What surprises you in your work?
That an object or a world in your head can be realized in a photo. That process of real and accurate rendering always fascinates me and gives me a sense of pure excitement.
Any other lessons you can pass on?
During my battle with cancer, I realized that life is finite and that there are infinite ways in which we can die. The meaning of the words infinite and finite is difficult to grasp in everyday life. It is important not to be influenced by what other people say. Choose your finite way to live a good life.