Emerge Music + Impact Conference is created and produced by ABP Media’s parent company, A Beautiful Perspective. Leading up to the conference, we’re featuring some of the musicians and speakers who’ll be performing in Las Vegas this November. (Editor’s Note: Some of the photos below involve nudity. But they’re art, so it’s all good.)
Miru Kim is deep in the Peruvian Amazon, a four-hour speed boat ride from the nearest city, sitting naked with a bowl of worms in her lap.
They are larvae really, the immature form of the palm weevil, a bright red bug that devours palm trees from the inside out and is considered a pest in much of the world. But here they are a delicacy, a coveted source of fat and protein, served roasted over an open flame.
The grubs are fat as your thumb with pale, corrugated bodies that end in tiny brown heads. They squirm and wriggle, sometimes escaping the bowl and crawling up Kim’s thighs as she gently tries to wrangle her unruly charges. She’s remarkably calm considering that 1. she’s naked and 2. they bite.
“They have these very strong pincers,” Kim laughs. “They eat wood.”
Until recently, these same larvae would’ve sent her into a panic. For as long as she can remember, the photographer and artist has been afraid of worms, caterpillars and especially the kind of creepy crawlies that she posed with in Peru. Now she refers to them lovingly: “They became like my babies, only they got eaten in the end. I was like, ‘Oh no, my babies!’”
Kim’s larval adoptees and others like them are the subject of her current project, Phobia/Phagia, a photo series focused on “overcoming fear and turning it into something creative, something beautiful.” Not only is the photographer confronting her fear before the camera, but she’s taking an incredibly intimate additional step—she’s eating it.
Kim, 36, is best known for photographing herself naked in surprising settings: atop the Manhattan bridge at night, draped over bones inside the Paris catacombs, perched among the rusty confines of an abandoned power station in Philadelphia. For The Pig That Therefore I Am, she ventured into factory farms, posing in the buff among hundreds of hogs. For The Camel’s Way, she traveled to remote deserts in Egypt, Mongolia, Morocco, Jordan and India, walking the dunes nude alongside herds of the humped animal, sometimes in areas where local women dressed fully veiled in black.
She first started contemplating her phobia of larvae after an unfortunate incident in 2011. The photographer had been away from New York for the summer, and when she returned to her apartment, an ex-boyfriend’s coats had caused an infestation.
“I found these larvae rolling around. There were these fat white larvae, and they were everywhere.”
A home full of worms is no one’s idea of a welcoming committee, but for Kim, it was horrific. Her greatest fear had arrived, multiplied and infiltrated her living space.
“I had this Tyvek suit, and I would wear goggles and put on gloves just to feel safer and that I wouldn’t come in contact with these things,” she says. “I was not in a good state for almost two months. It really affected my life.”
After the great invasion, Kim decided to deal with her aversion to worms. Method of choice? Exposure therapy, scrolling through online photos of spiky caterpillars and writhing maggots while she freaked out at any falling hair or dust that brushed her skin. Eventually she discovered something surprising among the images of chubby grubs: People were eating them.
If exposure therapy involves facing your fear by slowly desensitizing yourself to it, actually ingesting what terrifies you takes the practice to a dramatically more intense, more intimate place. For the last few years, Kim has been doing just that, traveling to South Korea, Mexico and Peru, where she’s ingested silkworm pupae, moth larvae and palm weevil larvae, respectively. In Yunnan, China, where Kim says insects are a common ingredient, she dined on crispy, fried worms while her mother took snapshots for research.
“Some of the big ones had soft filling, and I freaked out,” Kim recalls. “When the camera is in front of me I go into a zone and just do it.”
Her first formal shoot for Phobia/Phagia was the one in the Amazon, where Kim used the larvae in portraits that evoke and respond to Paul Gauguin’s paintings of Tahiti, which feature local women in various states of undress holding baskets of fruit or flowers against a sub-tropical background.
“I thought about using that idea of reversing the male gaze because I’m the author and I’m photographing myself and I’m considered exotic,” Kim says. “Insects fit nicely with that theme. These larvae and insects they’re delicacies. They’re pretty much like famous fruits and what we consider delicious or beautiful. [Insects] might be considered the same way in those cultures, but we just don’t see them that way.”
At least not yet. In the course of her ongoing work on Phobia/Phagia, Kim has not only faced her fear of larvae head on and mouth open, she’s also discovered a robust and growing world of insect enthusiasts in the U.S. who believe that bug protein is the path to a more sustainable future. While other parts of the world have always seen crickets, ants and worms as valid and valuable culinary choices, the West is just starting to catch on.
“It’s gotten really hip right now,” Kim says. “My friends in Brooklyn, they want to eat insect tacos and put insects on ice cream.”
The photographer, meanwhile, is planning further shoots and considering which worm she’ll sample next.
“I still haven’t tried the tomato horn worms,” she says of the caterpillars, which take on the flavor of whatever plant they eat. “They’re green and they’re huge; they have a horn in the front. It’s like, ooooh!” she shudders. “I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet.”