Meet the Artist

Meet the Artist: Esther Yi

Esther Yi is a writer living in Berlin. She takes pictures for the same reason she writes, which is to pay better attention. She began taking pictures shortly before moving to Berlin two years ago. There was the obvious desire to “record” details of a new home (“Where did I live?”). But there was also the desire, perhaps not so conscious in the beginning, to uncover the images and patterns that drew her (“How did I live?”). In living somewhere new, she has learned to see newness in old places, including the United States, return trips to which produced some of the pictures in her essay. Visually, she is interested in: shadows; people from behind; windows; aloneness. Her writing has been published in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, Cinema Scope, and Cineaste. See more of her work at or on Twitter @yi_esther.

Esther's photo essay "There You Are" appears in issue 19 of Under the Gum Tree, published in April 2016.

Q. How did you decide on the title: “There You Are”? 

A. This is something one says in a moment of discovery after a long search. A purposeful sort of stumbling upon. A collision of expectation and surprise. This characterizes how I feel when I take pictures of people, especially those I know well.

Q. Where or how did you find subjects for this photo essay?

A. Only three of the people featured in the photos are strangers. The rest are close friends or family. I do not have a concrete methodology for finding subjects. I suppose it is helpful for me to be comfortable with the person, and to like him or her very much.

Q. How does being a writer influence your photography, and vice versa?

A. I am not a very descriptive writer. Taking photographs has helped me, in my writing, to stay with a particular image and to interrogate it more than I usually would.

Q. Describe why you are interested in "shadows; people from behind; windows; aloneness," as you mention in your bio.

A. The first two came about for practical reasons. I rarely shoot strangers from the front for fear of annoying them. Meanwhile, the people I know on a personal level tend to stiffen or pose before the camera. So I take pictures of their shadows or backs. There are different kinds of obscurity, and I prefer the one of shadows and backs to the one of manufactured and "aware" posturing. I now shoot shadows and backs more intentionally because I enjoy the challenge of suggesting personality without the help of facial expressions. As for windows: I like that they imply two worlds at once, the inner and the outer. As for aloneness: I like that photography affords me a way of depicting the fact of a subject's separate inner life, while preserving the mystery of this life and admitting my inability to enter it.

Q. You play with perspective and distance. What role do these two mechanisms play in your photo composition when you're taking a photo?

A. I don't make very conscious decisions regarding perspective and distance. What I can say is that I take pleasure in the fact that both proximity to (e.g., the entire head fills the frame) and distance from (e.g., the subject's entire back and the window at which he stands are visible) the subject can produce similar feelings of alienation from the subject, especially when he/she has his back turned to the camera. In short, I enjoy showing just how little I know about the person I am taking a picture of.