July 17th, 2019
Introducing: KangHee Kim
Unable to leave the United States due to visa restrictions, this South Korean photographer makes images of surreal escapism.
By Cassidy Paul
KangHee Kim wants to take you to another world, one where single palm trees emerge from a sea of clouds, perfectly crescent moons appear in cotton candy-hued skies, golden rays of light shine over streetscapes and domestic interiors, and clouds peek through windows and scaffolding. Kim is most widely known by her Instagram handle, @tinycactus. While her dreamlike, otherworldly images perfectly capture the digital aesthetic of today—soft color palettes, minimalist compositions, and an almost uncanny, eerie quality—they were the result of something much deeper.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Kim immigrated to the United States with her family at the age of fourteen. When her lawyer missed critical deadlines in applying for Kim’s green card, she was unable to secure citizenship. Eventually, she was granted protection under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), but it came with the major caveat: due to visa restrictions, Kim has been unable to leave the U.S. for over a decade. Her images of “surreal escapism,” as she refers to them, have since become a form of visual therapy. “To be in DACA is living in limbo,” Kim says. “I desire to be unbounded in my photographic practice. Creating these fictional scenes allows me to feel a little bit liberated.”
Kim studied painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art, graduating in 2014. It wasn’t until her senior year that she began using photography as a creative outlet, enjoying the freedom that came with the minimal equipment required. One of her ongoing series, Street Errands, began in 2016 and was born out of the mundane daily encounters of living in New York. “I realized, instead of waiting for miracles, I could instead create the magical moments in my imagination,” Kim says. “I construct my own form of escapism.” To create these photographs, she uses Photoshop to merge and manipulate multiple images from her travels in New York, California, Colorado, and Hawaii. Rather than preplan the scenes, Kim lets intuition guide her—creating cohesion with a uniform aesthetic and color palette, and the returning motifs of moons, clouds, oceans, and skyscrapers.
The early years of Kim’s Instagram feed feature standard day-to-day documentation—she joined in 2012—with hints of her future experiments intermixed in the form of non-photoshopped, early versions of her dreamy photographs. Now, with just under 300,000 followers on Instagram, Kim is among a generation of photographers for whom the platform has become their main source of notoriety. As a result, her images have proliferated across the Internet, earning her commissions from brands such as Adidas, American Express, Air France, and Nike, as well as publications ranging from TIME and the New York Times, to Bloomberg Businessweek.
But for Kim, widespread popularity has a double edge, and she now feels conflicted about showing her work on Instagram. “It’s certainly helped me in many ways to get where I am now. At the same time, the flow of the Internet is uncontrollable,” she says, noting that the deeper, more personal ideas can get lost. However, she adds, “It’s fine with me if some people are missing out on the backstories, as long as they can relate their own experiences.”
Navigating the line between the everyday and fantasy, Kim’s photographs make the impossible possible: they create a space for her desire for freedom, while accepting the reality of her situation. Ultimately, Kim explains, her work “seeks to actively create something new with what I have for myself. These images give me illusions of traveling to unknown places that are familiar yet totally new. I’d like to remain optimistic and hopeful. Appreciating what I have in the present seemed to be one of the ways to do that.”
Cassidy Paul is the social media editor of Aperture Foundation. All images courtesy the artist.
Read more from our series “Introducing,” which highlights exciting new voices in photography.