So-Min KangPhotographer

So-Min Kang

Photographer  •  Portland, OR, USA

  • Interviewed by Emma Koi
  • Edited by Alissa Zimmerman-Exley

So-Min Kang is a photographer living in Portland, Oregon with her husband, violinist Tomás Cotik, and nine year old daughter Yuni. I learned so much about her in this interview, about starting her wedding photography business from scratch in a new place, and about some incredible artistic projects she has worked on, namely a collection of striking images of un-retouched women in their 40s, and her important work photographing at-risk youth in Miami. But the greatest takeaway from our conversation was how wholeheartedly So-Min has been able to embrace her role as mother, taking the time she needed to become a new version of herself, to grow, and to love every moment. We have just a very small sampling of So-Min's photography here, so be sure to check out her website to see more of her stunning work. Thank you for reading. Love, Emma.

Tell us a little bit about you, your family, where you live, where you’re from. I was born in Hamburg, Germany to South Korean parents. My husband, Tomás Cotik is from Argentina and our daughter, Yuni, is nine years old, a third grader.

My life has been very nomadic. Tomás was recently appointed Assistant Professor at Portland State University, so we moved to Portland, Oregon about 10 months ago. Before that we lived in Miami and Texas. I am finally experiencing spring again! I haven’t experienced four seasons for such a long time. It’s been really magical.

Tomás Cotik, So-Min Kang and Yuni

I am a professional photographer, so moving here, to Portland, basically means starting over from scratch. I need to rebuild my business, so the last ten months have been about arriving here and adjusting. It’s been a complete change and it’s a new adventure. I just started putting my things together in January, advertising, and focusing just on my work again so that I can generate some assignments and put my name out there.

The good thing is that I had previous experience building a business in Miami, so I know the steps I need to take.

And you’re still traveling back to Miami to work sometimes too, right? Yes. I do a lot of weddings, events and portraits, and I still have some weddings booked in Miami. You build a relationship with the couple, planning this unique and special day together. Also, weddings are booked 6-12 months in advance, and it was important to me to keep the commitment to my clients. I couldn’t make so many trips, so I passed a few weddings on to my associate photographer. It’s also been a good excuse to visit Miami. I can work, but also spend time with friends. My last wedding in Florida will be in June, and my plan is to move everything here to Portland after that.

It can be a long process, rebuilding your business in a new place. Have you found that transition to be challenging now in Portland? I have moved so many times in my life, and I have prior experience with building a business, so I am able to take all the exact same steps. I’ve been able to allow myself the time I need to arrive before focusing on the next steps of how I can get work.

Secondly, my daughter is nine years old now, so that’s easier too. She’s very independent, and she transitioned super well to school here.

Photo: So-Min Kang

I live with an artist myself; my husband, Tomás, is a musician, so he needs a lot of space and time. Not just for his work as a professor, but also as a musician. He has a lot of projects going on at once, and he needs time to practice. I’ve learned that it’s important to communicate with your partner. You have to talk about what you need, the space you need, the time you need, and work with it. Also, now I’ve tried to work a lot while Yuni is in school, from 9:00-3:00 in general. During that time I say “ok, now I have to go back to work.” It’s much easier now.

We moved back to Florida in 2009 when Yuni was one and a half. I was in heaven being back in Florida, and had no worries at all about starting from scratch. Tomás and I both received our green cards that year, and the door was open to start looking for work. The desire to focus on personal projects and artistic work was rather hidden in my heart, because the main focus was to make an income. I did, however, find an ad on craigslist, and I was able to work with a wonderful wedding photographer for about two years until she decided to close her business. I eventually built my own business and started getting really busy within three years. It felt good to be productive and establish some sort of a stable career in photography that still gave me the flexibility of being a mom. It was a new feeling, and one I liked, having worked hard to create my career on my own.

Photo: So-Min Kang

How else did your life change, after having a baby, moving, and starting a business all in such a short period of time? What was your schedule like? I tried to squeeze everything into my six hour time frame, and take time off as much as possible, while Yuni was in preschool. After 3:00, I changed back to my mommy role and dedicated most of my time and attention to Yuni. I loved spending time with her and meeting our mommy-daughter friends at the playground. The exchanges I had with my friends were incredibly supportive and fun.

‘I started to get depleted. I experienced intense insomnia and felt restless and exhausted. I didn’t feel aligned with myself. I was doing too much, and I needed to slow down and give myself attention.”

Our weekends started to get more occupied with my weddings and Tomás’ concerts. I also started booking meetings and additional corporate events during the week. The editing process never seemed to end and there was little time to update the website and blogs. It was quite challenging to quiet my mind from work. Tomás and I worked to build a stable support system around us, utilizing sitters and friends, and using Instacart to shop for food and to avoid traffic and losing time and energy. Sometimes the grandparents were able to visit us from Argentina during a busy month to help us out with Yuni and cooking. What a blessing! To add to the busy schedule, Tomás also did his doctorate at the University of Miami, and Yuni started having afternoon activities. I added Ashtanga Yoga to my plate—a very obsessive and intense workout.

I started to get depleted. I experienced intense insomnia and felt restless and exhausted. I didn’t feel aligned with myself. I was doing too much, and I needed to slow down and give myself attention.

I decided to take a short break from wedding photography, and focus instead on portrait photography for income. I needed to slow down with yoga as well, as it took three hours out of my day. And, as I got into a quieter mindset, I realized that I wanted to work on personal projects that have a meaning to me. I was looking for inspiration and subjects that were emotionally and intellectually stimulating.

“I could sense an enormous amount of power in their womanhood, freedom in their spirits and deeper connections with themselves.”

Can you talk about your work outside of wedding photography, and the work that you do that generates income? What are some of the artistic projects you’ve been working on? I know you have a beautiful project photographing women over 40. The woman project is a very heartfelt project of mine. It’s not that far away from what you’re doing with Mother Maker, but it started with a different goal. As a photographer you are not “just” a photographer anymore. You do most of your work at the computer, retouching and editing. I realized that women, especially women in their 40s, are sometimes very difficult to please with their portraits. They come to me and ask to change things, erase wrinkles and puffy eyes, worried that they look old. For this project I pieced together all of the retouch requests that I received, and talked to so many women and moms about the transitions they had been through. There’s so much happening in this time of life. That gave me the kickstart to do this photo project.

All photos: So-Min Kang

The project is basically an interview. It’s titled, “#UNRETOUCHED #WOMEN #AGE 40-50 #WANTED!” We get together, I take their photographs, we have a little conversation, and we go beyond aging and the images in the portraits. I work to expose their natural beauty. So the portraits are very raw, but so are the conversations. We talk about accepting ourselves instead of just judging flaws. It has been very powerful for me to do this. I met with more than 40 women. Sometimes their kids are already bigger, they’ve gone back to work, or they’ve chosen a different path in life, but I think in general what they all had in common was that as women, they’ve grown within themselves; spiritually they’ve become more aligned as mothers, as friends, as women. I could sense an enormous amount of power in their womanhood, freedom in their spirits and deeper connections with themselves.

I would like to resume my project and hope to create an exhibition this year. I am in the process of preparing a Kickstarter campaign to finance the fine art prints for the exhibition.

“If you share things with other women it gives you a kind of relief. You feel like it’s okay, you’re not alone.”

How did that project change your perspective on that time of life? Did it influence you at all in the way that you think about yourself? For sure! I think the dialog was really empowering. If you share things with other women it gives you a kind of relief. You feel like it’s okay, you’re not alone. We are going through the same process. But it’s also good to see how they get more and more in tune with themselves. I think especially when you’re in the early stages of motherhood, it’s so much about giving. And then, once the kids get bigger, you come back to yourself. Find things that make you happy. Work on achieving balance in life. Take time to nurture yourself—be a mother, be a wife, be all the roles that you are, but also focus on yourself.

Photo: So-Min Kang

What did life look like when Yuni came into the picture? I was again in transition; we were just moving again. Every time something important happens in my life I think we move! Tomás got this job in Amarillo, Texas, around the same time I found out that I was pregnant. We saw it as something very positive, because when you are a freelancer, you worry about financial issues. But, luckily, Tomás had this new job, so I felt I could take the time to be pregnant. I was not allowed to work anyway because I didn’t have a green card at the time. I could fully enjoy pregnancy in that sense, and take the time without the pressure to work. Amarillo was not the most inspiring place for me, so creatively I felt more in a “winter sleep.” We were there almost two years, and I was completely busy with Yuni. I felt complete happiness, because that time is so magical. I didn’t have my family or friends around that I could share it with, but I had the time with her. I really appreciated that I could take the time off and be a mother.

“I felt complete happiness, because that time is so magical.”

Early on, I took my mother role very seriously, because the baby needed me so much. I organically transitioned to this traditional picture of a woman: wife, housewife, cleaning lady, everything. And it was okay because in our situation, Tomás had to work full time so I had the time to dedicate myself to all of these roles. Also, creatively speaking, I didn’t have that much desire to work. Amarillo artistically was not a very nurturing space for me. For that reason, I was very happy when we moved to Miami. By that time Yuni was a year and a half, and that is when I felt like it was time to create again.

Photo: So-Min Kang

I love that you embraced your role as a mother, taking the time you needed. I think so many times artists feel pressure to make work right away for fear that they will lose their skills. I think it’s so important to recognize that it’s okay to just honor where you are in your life now. Absolutely. For me, I was in a space where I did not feel creative, so I embraced motherhood. Also, thinking back to my own childhood, I should say that I grew up in a family where work was always present. My parents worked nonstop, and I was in daycare at an early age, kindergarten, after-school programs. I have great memories of my childhood, but my mom always said, “I wish I had time to sit down with you and do homework,” so I am very appreciative that I can spend the time with Yuni and be very present with her. But again, after a year and half, I was ready to focus on my work.

How have you seen Yuni influenced by your work as a photographer throughout her life? When she was little, I took her to many jobs actually. She sees me working at the computer, and going on shoots, and she likes it, but it’s more a struggle for me because I can’t really separate my workspace. I am a mother there too, when Yuni is there. She would interrupt me when she was little. Now that she’s bigger she has an understanding of what I’m doing, and she understands that everyone needs their space and time to work. I explain everything to her, telling her that it’s the same as when she does her homework or reads a book, and she doesn’t like to be interrupted. You are basically your own director when you are in an artistic field of work. You need to create that type of structure, which is something I am still learning.

Photo: So-Min Kang

Has your daughter directly inspired any of your projects in any way, or if not, how has she inspired your career? I think what happens through motherhood is that you grow. You are exposed to so many tasks and you try to balance everything out. The growing part of being a mother helped enormously. Understanding who I am, what I want in life, my purpose. I think in this sense, Yuni had a huge impact on who I am now and how I think and perceive things. And because of that, I feel more drawn to certain subjects.

I was always interested in doing a project about kids, and I think that being a mother reinforced that more. In Miami I volunteered on a project for Empowered Youth USA, a grassroots organization founded by Colleen Adams, that serves the at-risk young men of Liberty City. I worked with kids who were growing up with really, really difficult family situations. It’s always very interesting to see and to support those types of projects. I admire those people who put so much work into altruistic endeavors. I try to find ways that being a mother influences that kind of desire.

So-Min volunteered as a photographer for Empowered Youth USA, an organization that serves at-risk youth in Miami, FL.

Is Yuni an artist? She’s very artistic, because she really experiences a lot of it at home. She sees Tomás practicing and rehearsing, and me working on images. She loves to draw and she is actually really skilled in crafts. She’s also very musical. I think it naturally comes into her persona. But we always tell her to do it for fun! At the end of the day we remind her to choose what makes her happy.

Do you have any advice you want to offer to other mother makers? What has really helped me is communicating with other moms. You need to have some sort of support system. And you need to make space and time for yourself, because you are in this giving mode, and you do it wholeheartedly, but we come to a point when we feel depleted.

I started my journey when I went back to work, and I started getting really busy, which I was happy about. I was fulfilled, I had more and more work, and at the same time I started doing Ashtanga Yoga, a very intense form of yoga. I was so obsessed with it. I would try to do it all and I would be so exhausted just getting through the day. And I still had to be a wife, I still had to be a mother, I still had to fill all these roles. I learned you can’t do everything in one day.

“You have to accept compromise, and be present with doing one thing at a time.”

What helped me was talking to other moms, reading books that helped me to be more structured, and also books that were intellectually stimulating. You need something that nurtures you. Even if it means taking a retreat for one or two days to just be by yourself. Don’t try to be super mom. Multitasking is a skill that we have as women, but I think it just makes us more stressed. You have to accept compromise, and be present with doing one thing at a time.

A colleague of mine gave me this amazing book called The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss. It’s actually for business owners, but it has good advice for anyone. It basically teaches you to be more efficient and effective. Minimize social media, and when you work, just focus on two tasks per day. Don’t run behind on your work by trying to fit everything into one day. There are many guidelines that I found so supportive.

So that, and chill out!

I enjoy being a mother. I haven’t really had that much of a struggle. I enjoyed the toddler years so much. But I think what we lack in those years is energy. We are tired. We have so many roles that we have to fulfill, but it’s good to just take time out. Some things you can worry about tomorrow. It’s fine.

That’s so refreshing to hear you say. Just enjoy it. I think it’s so easy to get into this complaining mindset, like, oh I didn’t realize that I was going to have to question my identity now. So you’re thinking about how hard it is all the time. But you say you just enjoyed it. Yeah! I did! It’s a fleeting moment! That’s the thing, it’s gone so soon. I see Yuni and she is nine now. I still look at these baby and toddler videos and I’m so happy that I was with her at the playground, every day, twice. And then when she was in daycare, I was so happy that I had my own time, and then afterward I still went to the playground. I was still doing little things for me—you know, yoga, work. The stress came when I did too much. That was when I felt like a hamster. Everything was challenging, even my relationship was very challenging. And then you have to sort that out again.

“Love…That alone is the most beautiful thing about motherhood.”

What is your favorite part of being a mother? It’s very simple to put it into one word: Love. Just feeling the amount of love and that power. That alone is the most beautiful thing about motherhood.

The bottom line is that I absolutely love being a mother and do not feel restricted, rather enriched. Throughout the years, I’ve gotten to really understand my limits and needs. I try to balance all the roles that I fulfill as a Mother Maker, because everything important needs presence and attention. And as Dr. Suess says, “life’s a balancing act.”

Photo: So-Min Kang

  • Published May 26, 2017
  • Interviewed by Emma Koi on May 15, 2017
  • Edited by Alissa Zimmerman-Exley
  • Photography from: