Pin It
Kanmin Kim, Private Affairs in a Public Bathhouse
Kanmin Kim, Private Affairs in a Public BathhousePhotography Kanmin Kim

These photos explore the transient intimacy of a Korean bathhouse

Private affairs in a Public Bathhouse by Kanin Kim reenacts the photographer’s unique memories of bathing with anonymous strangers

The intimate act of bathing unknown men from all walks of life is fairly unremarkable for photographer Kanmin Kim. Growing up in Korea, Kim worked in his parent’s public bathhouse – or jjimjilbang – when he was younger, washing the naked bodies of men and taking showers with them afterwards. Inside this private space, in which men and women gather communally before going their separate ways to bathe, Kim’s job was to scrub the male customers’ flesh with an exfoliating mitt, pour water on their bodies to wash away the dirt, and massage them as he brushed their skin.

“I used to do Akasuri scrub to men, which is similar to Turkish bathing. Part of my everyday morning routine was to take a bath with the customers in a large tub. It became normal to me to the point that I got into the habit of observing the naked men around me,” he says. “Slowly, I started to notice the curves and muscles of men’s bodies and what makes up their physical features.”

Kim eventually left this job in order to pursue his studies in fashion and a career in pattern-cutting, but earlier recollections of his time spent in the bathhouse continued to flood back. In order to explore these experiences, Kim began to recreate his memories of the encounters with strangers in the various tiled antechambers of the bathhouse. 

“Slowly, I started to notice the curves and muscles of mens’ bodies”  – Kanmin Kim

Private affairs in a Public Bathhouse is Kim’s photo series in which he sets up scenes capturing fragments of what he witnessed in the men’s bathing areas. While he refrains from full nudity, his pictures attempt to recreate the intimate, trusting, infantilising experience of being bathed by an unknown pair of hands.

Frequented by the young and old alike, Korean bathhouses offer a cleansing experience as a way for customers to unwind and destress. In Kim’s experience, his clientele often consisted of suit-wearing men popping by the public bathhouse for a quick scrub before they went on their work day. He would usher the men into a dank room to bathe them, instructing them how to lie down on the cushioned platform. “It was a place where I could feel contrasts, from suits to nudity and vice-versa,” Kim tells Dazed in conversation over email. The men, who were alpha in their fields outside the bathhouse, temporarily surrendered their dominance to Kim, allowing themselves to be pampered.

The images Kim created, together with a photographer friend Hanayo, tap into the inner curiosity men have over their counterparts. They steal subtle glances at each other as they sit by the tiled pools, bathe together, skinny-dip in hot pools, and soak in bathtubs. One man places his head on the other’s lap in the dry heat of the sauna, men tentatively watch themselves take showers in the mirrors.

“Getting close to men in a public bathhouse was inevitable,” says Kim. “Feeling and touching their skin as I washed them piqued my interest. I could see the features that make their bodies unique, from the texture of their skin and the number of moles they have, to the hardness of their muscles and the build of their bodies. As I scrubbed them in Akasuri fashion, I felt like I was forming closer relationships with them.” 

The bond that Kim and the naked men shared implicitly shows up in his images, brewing a visual tension that elicits genuine inquiry from men over men. Rather than oozing with sexual intimacy or brinkmanship, the subjects enjoy their transient closeness, keeping their private affairs in a public bathhouse for Kim to document.

Join Dazed Club and be part of our world! You get exclusive access to events, parties, festivals and our editors, as well as a free subscription to Dazed for a year. Join for £5/month today.