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Interview with Ryan Yoon, Editor-in-Chief of The GROUND

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Over the past five months, I had been interning at The GROUND, a relatively new art, fashion, music and charity magazine based in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea. When I began my work there, the magazine was hot at work preparing its second issue, while I worked to generate content for the magazine's website. Before my internship was formally finished, The GROUND had introduced new social features to its website to better achieve its own, and its viewers' and collaborators' own visions.

Recently I was able to sit down with The GROUND founder and editor-in-chief Ryan Yoon, who told me all about his unique and multi-faceted educational and professional background, and how his experiences led him to spearheading a fresh and new experiment in the print, web and creative industries. Yoon is soft-spoken and always with a smile, and any discussion about his magazine inevitably turns to expressing a genuine desire to help gain exposure for innovative and new artists.
--Joe Sutton

Joe Sutton: What is your education background?

Ryan Yoon: I studied computer science in Korea. From 1999 to 2001 I was working on web design; I started my own web design company, but it was kind of becoming boring to me.

I watched the movie Jerry Maguire in Korea; that was kind of a tipping point for me, and I was inspired to go into sports marketing. I thought: "What am I doing here? I need to go somewhere!" so I just had to come to the United States.

That was 2001. I was about to come here in September 2001, but then the 9/11 attacks happened, so I postponed for a year. I eventually went to Utah to study language and general subjects, and then I went to South Carolina to study sports marketing. At the last minute, I watched some fashion TV and thought "Oh my God, that looks good!" I had a moment, and instead of sports marketing, I switched again to study fashion marketing.

JS: So you kept changing what it was that you wanted to do.

RY: Yeah, sometimes you can make decisions from one big incident. After studying computer science, and after I came here and studied fashion marketing, I then studied photography. Back then I was doing more documentary than fine art. But after graduating college I was more focused on solely fashion photography.

JS: How did you make the jump from documentary photography to fashion photography?

RY: Personally, I love documentary film. So the first pictures I encountered were more in the vein of documentary photography. I started looking more at documentary photography. I was really into Magnum Photos back then, and later I realized that fashion was more like a business career goal that I wanted to pursue.

I came to this country for sports marketing; if I continued on that business path and combined that with my creative interest in photography, maybe I could've gone into sports photography, who knows? But my business and career interest changed to the fashion industry, and I combined my interests.

JS: How did you move from fashion photography to wanting to make a magazine?

RY: We have the title of being a "fashion, art, music and charity" magazine. But if you see a typical fashion magazine that covers "art and music," about 70 percent of the content is not exactly writing or delivering a voice itself. Our first issue was a new trial for us; the second issue is really trying to deliver our voice strongly. Content-wise, we have almost a half-and-half: a visual voice through images and at the same time a written voice. Those two perspectives give us a journalistic perspective and a photographer's perspective. I was more focused on fashion photography, but at the same time I have both perspectives in my head at the same time.

Regarding my own experience and how the magazine came about: as a fashion photographer I experienced frustration in the fact that it is extremely hard to break into the industry, which involves publications, having a relationship with designers, having a relationship with editors. I saw the same frustrations in artists and writers and everybody. At the beginning stage of my photography career, whenever I had a fashion story, I sent it to every possible publication to publish the work, with little luck.

I experienced those frustrations and imagine, assume, how many people out there -- whether photographers, writers, individual artists -- are just as frustrated as I was? For people who already have connections, who already have the path before them, it's really easy. But for those who don't have those connections, it's extreme frustration. I experienced that kind of psychology, which little by little gave me the inspiration to create some kind of platform to connect artists together and allow them to share their work.

JS: The GROUND, according to the statement in the beginning of the magazine's first issue, seems big on cross-pollination, for contributors working outside of their own fields. For example, a fashion model writing an editorial, or a photographer writing interviews--a perspective outside of what you would expect. Could you talk about this?

RY: Most people -- like me, as I explained earlier -- don't know what they're really good at, or what it is they really want to do, or how those two things match up. If you find that early on, you're such a lucky person! When you do something for your career, you will likely end up settling down. You might try other things, but because life is short you probably won't be able to devote enough time to trying everything.

We feel for passionate people who have already settled down with their career but who might want to try something else. For example, models: among them, there are a lot of singers, writers, painters. They have a dream of goal to achieve, but while focusing on their careers it's hard to try something else. We want to give them room to try something else.

Another thing I want to achieve is to break a stereotype. "Models are pretty, but dumb." No! They are capable of doing other things as well. We're trying to break that stereotype we have in our heads, and at the same time I want to give the opportunity to people to find what they like to do, what they can do well, and that balance in between those things.

JS: The magazine also states that it is committed to charity. Could you describe what its goal is involving charities?

RY: The notion of "charity" is the most important part of our foundation, charity being something that people need to pay attention to in the world. Charity causes need the very best artistic approach, but from a design or creative standpoint I find the majority of them to be lacking. The art, music and fashion worlds -- our content and our audience -- need to pay attention to charities and use their skills to help make the rest of society pay more attention to those charities.

I'm not trying to raise money for charities through the magazine or its website; I'm trying to change the way people approach charities. If people see an ad for a charity and think "This is a really ugly design, an ugly picture," they will not pay attention to it, if an art or fashion magazine would want to publish it at all. But what if industry-leading media, like Vogue, thinks putting a charity ad on the front page, as we do, is a cool thing? Everyone else is going to do it.

So that's how we approach charity: to make people more familiar with, and to better like, charity. But it has to look good -- and that's why I brought charity into this project.

JS: The GROUND changed its name; the first issue is called Virgine. How did the name change happen?

RY: When I tried to print the first issue, the first words that came in my head that described the project were: fresh, new, innovation, and new beginning. I was trying to find all the words that could explain what I was trying to do with the material. I settled on the terms "virtual," then "virgin," as in new, and then I came up with "magazine." I didn't want to call it "something-or-other magazine," and figured it would be simple to combine the different descriptors into one word. To come up with a word that would describe the medium we were trying to create, I combined those three terms into a single one, Virzine, but it looked kind of weird. So we came up with Virgine instead.

One of our articles was extremely popular, and my fashion story "All You Can Get," in which I created fashion garments out of everyday objects that are around us all the time. They became so popular that word spread all over the world over the Internet. Millions viewed, and the stories became big news before our magazine hit the newsstands. Just when it did hit the newsstand, I got a call from Virgin Enterprises.

There is a law called Dilution Law in the United States, in which if someone confuses one brand with another brand, both sides have a responsibility. Virgin Enterprises does not have a fashion magazine, or any magazine, called Virgin yet, and according to the Dilution Law we can dilute their possible profits in the future. So we were contacted by them.

In the beginning it was hard to negotiate with them because what they wanted was, simply speaking, that I give up everything I had done. I tried to talk to them, and we tried to convince them otherwise because what we're trying to do is not just commercial; we're not just trying to make money. We want to make something different, and we have a lot of charity function with which we want to deliver a message. It took a long time but at the end we settled by changing our magazine's name.

While Virgine was more like an initial impression of what we were doing -- virgin, virtual, magazine--The GROUND is actually, eventually, what we are going to create. I took the meaning of the first impression of the project when I titled it Virgine, but with the second issue I am thinking more towards the end goal: we want to create some kind of ground that could help people connect to one another. That concept led to the title The GROUND.

JS: A lot of people say that magazines and printed publications are bound to fail because of the Internet. Did you have any reservations with print?

RY: Some say that print is dying, and some say print will live forever. And just as film photography switched to digital -- this could be the same, though digital photography still delivers a printed material. An online magazine does not deliver the same product. People will miss the actual touch of it, of paper.

But I believe a lot of magazines are going under not because the Internet has become bigger and bigger; it's more the fact that the Internet is changing so fast and magazines have the trouble of balancing between print and the Internet. For example, Condé Nast is so big it could do anything it wanted; they can focus 100 percent on the Internet and stop printing altogether and stay afloat. But they won't, because print is still a resource for credibility and they are still making some kind of profit from that.

But what if they're not succeeding through print? They will shift to the Internet. But while Condé Nast is able to move in any direction, small and medium-sized publications are having a hard time catching up, having to balance the two mediums. Online might be cheaper, but that's mistaking the situation because, while it seems you might be able to achieve more online, you need a bigger work force, and a different kind of work force, and more marketing.

JS: And The GROUND's website seems to cater specifically to the issue you mentioned previously, of artists sharing their work for exposure and making connections. Can you talk about how the website helps to achieve The GROUND's vision?

RY: The original idea was that the website was our main goal. I believe we can achieve more through the website since people spend more time online and things there spread faster. Still, people don't always trust online magazines; print is a more reliable medium to the public, so we have the print magazine also.

The easiest way to explain the relationship between The GROUND and the contributor is: we grow together. On the website, any artist or gallery may post and share artwork, which has the chance of showing up on our front page. Anyone can submit content that acts like a portfolio which -- we hope -- will gain them exposure and help them make connections. We don't know how the website is going to grow. I keep checking how people react to what we're putting online, and am trying to find the best platform to help people.

JS: There's a good amount of writing not just in the printed magazine, but the website as well. What is the relationship like between The GROUND and its contributors?

We find the right fit for our vision; we don't want to find people based solely on quality of work and then try to fit their work into ours. In building a roster of contributors to The GROUND we are not just looking for a certain quality of work. Quality control we can work on together; the voice must be your own individual voice. We want to combine together the best qualities of our individual voices into one coherent one.

JS: You mentioned many differing career interests of yours. Are there any secret hobbies or interests you have?

RY: I was riding a motorcycle for a while, I had a license for motorcycle racing and competition in Korea. Before I studied computer science, I always wanted to be an architect. So I have a lot of hobbies, but there are a lot of things I really wanted to do but never jumped on. A magazine, photography, online business, the military and motorcycling -- these things I actually did, but there are a lot of things I really wanted to do and never tried.

I really want to draw architecture-related things. Maybe I end up not doing anything architecture-related, but I can experience that through the magazine. But maybe I can't do big things but can still do small things, like furniture design, interior design or graphic design. Graphic design is similar to what I do already. So maybe I can jump there, because it doesn't help to spend 20-30 years of your lifetime... I don't know, maybe I'm thinking about it wrong, but architecture -- it's kind of too late to start now, but maybe interior or furniture design.

Also, I really want to do small movie directing. I think most photographers start with still images and move onto moving images. For me, photography always has a story behind it. For fashion photography, you can of course say there is a story behind it but it is always harder to tell, because you're selling a product behind it. Telling a story is a true calling for me, no matter what the media is.