Portrait of Britain, Studio 1854

LUMIX Stories for Change: Bringing the stories of New Malden’s North Korean defectors to life

© Catherine Hyland

Keeping everything as natural as possible was paramount, says Catherine Hyland, who discusses how she worked with an inspiring community of North Koreans in New Malden, south London, to create a project that celebrates togetherness and living in the now.

LUMIX Stories for Change is an ongoing collaboration between British Journal of Photography and Panasonic LUMIX that celebrates the power of photography in driving positive change. In August 2019, three photographers were awarded a grant and LUMIX S Series kit to create a new body of work around the themes Inclusion and Belonging. Below Catherine Hyland discusses the making of her project.

© Catherine Hyland / Jon Harris

In many ways it has been the ideal assignment, says Catherine Hyland of her recent LUMIX Stories for Change project, an ongoing collaboration between British Journal of Photography and Panasonic LUMIX that celebrates the power of photography in driving positive change. “To be given all this creative freedom and told ‘make what you want’, here’s loads of time and a good amount of money – that doesn’t happen very often.”

Over the past year, Hyland has spent time with the North Korean community in New Malden, South London, eating with them, listening to their experiences and sharing in many cultural rituals from traditional dances to Korean instrumental lessons, choir practices, K-pop events and even laughter therapy sessions.

“I’ve really enjoyed being with the community. You spend so long wanting to make good work, but there’s a lot of narcissism involved in that – it’s about you and not about your subject – and with this I really felt relaxed, because it’s definitely about them. It’s a really nice way to exist and make work when it’s about something much bigger than yourself.”

© Catherine Hyland

Whether filming members of The Korean Senior Citizen Society, a volunteer-run group that operates from the back room of a charity shop, families out in the park, or young K-poppers, Hyland wanted to keep her approach as natural as possible. She tried to shoot outside in the summer months and when she did bring in lights it was always to add to the environment. “I was just trying to light around the existing light,” she says.

“I made a rule at the beginning that I wouldn’t interrupt their lives – I would just fit into what they were doing,” she adds. “I didn’t want to restrict any of them from expressing themselves because that’s when the amazing stuff happens.”

She cites a moment when a lady started dancing impromptu at the Korean Senior Citizen Society. “They do things like that when they feel like it and that’s what I wanted the project to be about,” says Hyland. “It was the same on the studio day. I didn’t want it to be about me at all, in any of the project. I like just letting things flow and putting the jigsaw together at the end.”

The studio day was a big set-up, says Hyland who worked with a team of people including creative director Gem Fletcher, DOP Jorge Luis Dieguez, and her brother, the set designer Danny Hyland. Danny and his team constructed a specially designed set that The Senior Citizen Dance Troupe and others could perform on. The size and design of the set (a contained box) meant it could only be lit from the front, explains Hyland, and the team was careful not to create strong shadows. “We put a lot of thought into the lighting for the studio day,” says Hyland. “Whilst it was quite a big set we wanted it to be quite simple and pared back at the same time. Everything at the centre is so busy and chaotic, I wanted the studio to be as minimalistic as possible to give some breathing space.”

Hyland worked closely with creative director Gem Fletcher, who joined the project from the get-go. “The studio shoot was really special, Most shoots are busy and chaotic, but this one was truly extra,” says Fletcher. “The pressure was on but the energy was so positive all day. The set had a real family atmosphere.” Both Hyland and Fletcher hoped that the project could become a platform for the women to share their stories — ”The disparity between the media and reality is vast,” says Fletcher, “I think our recent political history has really taught us that we need to take time to listen to folks who have different lived experiences to our own. The genesis of the project was about looking at how rituals connect us in times of change and displacement”.

© Catherine Hyland

As with all of Hyland’s projects , the aesthetics played an important part. The set design was inspired by Marleen Sleeuwits’ Interiors project, and Oliver Wainwright’s book Inside North Korea was a great resource for the colour scheme. Hyland referred to the book when studying the colours associated with the country and regime – the somewhat “sickly” pink, blue and green pastels, which became a recurring theme in the work.

“The most important thing for me was that the LUMIX S1 had V-Log,” she adds. “You’re shooting the footage in RAW and the grading afterwards can be much more extensive. A lot of DSLRs haven’t had that up until this point, so that was [really useful].”

“It was important to have a colour scheme that hints at North Korean architecture, to give a hint of the heritage without labouring it,” says Hyland. “So the colour palette was all pastels. There’s something really beautiful about the colours and that’s something I wanted to focus on as well – the beauty in this very strange land and to pick out the bits that heighten that reality.” 

© Catherine Hyland

“I was surprised at how much latitude there is with the LUMIX S1R,” she says. “Being predominantly a landscape photographer that’s always something I’m cautious about. I want to be able to process [files] out myself afterwards and have quite a lot of flexibility in terms of how I’m doing that. There was a lot of room for manoeuvre afterwards with the RAW files, which I didn’t expect.” Even underexposed images can be pulled up, which is especially handy “if you’re having to shoot spontaneously, which I found myself doing in this project.

Equipped with a Panasonic LUMIX full-frame mirrorless S1R camera with a Panasonic LUMIX 24-105mm lens and the new full-frame mirrorless hybrid stills and video camera, the Panasonic LUMIX S1, with a Panasonic LUMIX S PRO 50mm lens, Hyland was able to easily move between shooting stills and footage. She would sometimes head across to New Malden with just the LUMIX S1, one lens and a gimbal, which gave her everything she needed. “The LUMIX S1 has facial recognition so you if you’re using Panasonic lenses you can lock in on people and follow them around with a gimbal, which is brilliant,” she says.

“I thought the LUMIX S1 was especially great because it can shoot 4K, and, once you’ve rigged it out, it is cinema quality,” adds Hyland. “To be in such a small, compact body is excellent because it means for somebody like me on a project like this I can be really mobile.”

© Catherine Hyland

With its 47.3MP full-frame CMOS sensor, the LUMIX S1R gives impressive dynamic range. The camera’s ability to lift shadows and pull down highlights was a standout feature for Hyland. 

“Film has become much more the centre of my work at the minute,” adds Hyland. “I want to tell the stories. The reason I am able to start doing more of these films is because technology is advancing to the point where anyone with [reasonable means] can go out and shoot something on their DSLR and for it to be very good quality. The Panasonic LUMIX kit gives you those capabilities for not much money.”

LUMIX Stories for Change is an ongoing collaboration between Studio 1854 and Panasonic LUMIX. For more information on sponsored content, visit 1854.studio.

To hear about upcoming commission opportunities, register with 1854 Commissions.

© Catherine Hyland
© Catherine Hyland
© Catherine Hyland

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