[INTERVIEW] 'I don't consider myself an artist,' says Paul McCartney's photographer

[INTERVIEW] 'I don't consider myself an artist,' says Paul McCartney's photographer

Photographer MJ Kim speaks during a media interview at the Grand Hyatt Seoul, Sept. 1. He was one of the panelists for the 2021 Culture Communication Forum (Aug. 31―Sept.1), an event organized by the Corea Image Communication Institute (CICI). Courtesy of CICI

By Dong Sun-hwa

It only took a few minutes for MJ Kim ― an internationally acclaimed photographer who has been working with former Beatles member Paul McCartney for more than a decade ― to create a friendly, informal atmosphere before starting an interview with reporters on Sept. 1 at the Grand Hyatt Seoul. Donning tinted yellow glasses and a tiny earring, the 49-year-old greeted people with his radiant smile and warm words, welcoming them like his old-time friends.

Asked whether he is positive and amiable by nature, Kim revealed it was McCartney who led him to become the person he is today.

[INTERVIEW] 'I don't consider myself an artist,' says Paul McCartney's photographer

A photo of Paul McCartney taken by MJ Kim / Courtesy of MJ Kim

“McCartney is not only my boss, but also a father figure and a mentor,” he said. “Whenever he has a media interview, he first says hi to the youngest staff members whose roles seem relatively minor. He is doing so because these people are given fewer opportunities to see him in person… After witnessing how a legendary singer like McCartney treats others, I have naturally learned to act like him.”

MJ Kim, whose full Korean name is Kim Myung-joong, still said it feels surreal to work with one of the most iconic musicians in history, who gave birth to numerous global hits such as “Yesterday” (1965), “Hey Jude” (1968) and “Let It Be” (1970). When he was young, Kim never dreamed of becoming a photographer or an artist, but the economic hardships of his family ― triggered by the 1997 Asian financial crisis ― led him to get a job as a trainee photojournalist at a small newspaper company. And soon, he fell in love with his occupation.

So in 1998, Kim headed for the U.K. to study photography. A few years after graduation, he got a chance to work with the Spice Girls, a prominent 1990s British pop girl group best known for the hits “Wannabe” (1996) and “Spice Up Your Life” (1997).

“It was pretty challenging to shoot for the Spice Girls, as I had to satisfy all five members,” he said. “But after completing that mission, I came to work for legions of other big-name stars including McCartney, Michael Jackson, Beyonce and Coldplay.”

McCartney is, however, an especially “difficult” boss, he says.

“He is a well-rounded entertainer excelling in all fields ranging from music to photography to art,” he uttered. “Meeting his high standards is extremely tough and that sometimes gets people in a cold sweat. But if they can satisfy him with their work, he is such a warm-hearted person to team up with. In my case, he always cares a lot about my family, frequently inviting them to his concerts and asking them questions about their everyday life. He has also paid tuition for my children.”

[INTERVIEW] 'I don't consider myself an artist,' says Paul McCartney's photographer

A photo of Paul McCartney taken by MJ Kim / Courtesy of MJ Kim

Even when Kim was in a slump, the former Beatles bassist did not fire him.

“After working with McCartney for several years, I was resting on my laurels,” Kim revealed. “I was envious of other photographers working in different areas and could not please myself with my photos. As a consequence, the quality of my work deteriorated… McCartney, however, did not immediately dismiss me. Instead, he looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘MJ, your photos no longer thrill me.'”

His words were like a wake-up call for Kim.

“Realizing that McCartney gave me a second chance, I began to change myself,” Kim said.

This episode might bring up some questions: Why has McCartney been working with Kim for such a long period? And what makes Kim stand out from other photographers? Kim picked his ability to “make the impossible possible” as his competitive edge.

He explained by referring to an incident that took place in 2010, when McCartney played a concert at the White House on the occasion of receiving the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, which honors a composer or performer for their lifetime contributions to popular music. “I was there to take a photo of McCartney and then U.S. President Barack Obama, but from my seat, I could only catch a glimpse of their backs,” he said. “So I decided to place a camera between the drums on the stage and used a remote shutter to take hundreds of pictures. Fortunately, one of them captured a moment when the two were giving a broad smile and McCartney was really happy with it. After seeing that photo, he said: ‘Rock ‘n’ roll!'”

Kim strives to express a range of emotions in his photos, too.

“Prior to taking a photo of a particular person (other than McCartney), I talk with them for almost an hour so that I can see what they truly look like when they are happy or sad,” he said. “I try my best to relate to them and portray their emotions as authentically as possible.”

[INTERVIEW] 'I don't consider myself an artist,' says Paul McCartney's photographer

K-pop phenomenon BTS / Courtesy of Big Hit Music

Kim, who also shot some commercials for K-pop juggernaut BTS in the past, hopes he can photograph McCartney together with the septet.

“BTS is now walking in the Beatles’ footsteps by conveying a message of love and positivity to people through its music,” he noted. “It will be great if I can capture the seven-piece act and McCartney in my photos.”

Being a man of versatility, Kim does not work only for celebrities. He recently held an exhibition at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts with his recent photos featuring the master craftsmen of Euljiro in central Seoul. In 2020, he made his directorial debut with the 16-minute movie “Juicy Girl,” and is now working on a feature film. Nevertheless, he does not deem himself an artist.

“I am just a middle-aged breadwinner who has reached this point thanks to those who love and speak highly of my work,” he said. “I believe anyone can be a photographer.”

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