November Issue: Faces of Adoption, a Photo Essay

This picture shows South Korean babies given up for adoption. Between delivery and placing them with a foster family, these infants usually spend their first few weeks in the adoption agency’s nursery, where a handful of caregivers look after them.

Faces of Adoption

A photojournalist, herself a Korean adoptee, presents the very intimate moments shared with her by birth mothers, adoptive parents and adoptees.

story and photographs by JEANNE MODDERMAN

It was clear when I started this project on Korean adoption that I could not be an objective photographer. That didn’t mean I wasn’t going to try. As a Korean adoptee trying to tell this story, I wrestled with how I could document all perspectives. I wanted to portray the facts, but also capture the humanity of this sensitive topic. I admit my adoptee status granted me special privileges in photographing this project. I was able to gain access to very personal and intimate moments because the subjects took comfort in the fact that I had some understanding of the situation. Still, I was unprepared for much of what I witnessed.

I’m not sure you can ever prepare yourself to watch a mother give away her 5-day old infant and the absolute despair that ensues, or see an adoptive family meet their daughter for the first time, or witness an adoptee reunite with her birth mother after searching for seven years. These experiences directly affected my own adoption story. After meeting one of the birth mothers, she made me promise to search for my own mother. It’s what she hoped her own child would do.

I wanted to cover the longing of many adoptees to return to their birth country and the result of some making their lives there. There is a large community of Korean adoptees from all over living in South Korea. As one who lived there for over a year, I can attest that it’s a time filled with complex feelings and emotions, often a struggle to decide how you fit in, but also a security in being with people like you. Working on this project opened my eyes to the many faces of adoption and allowed me to see it from new points of view. From the birth mothers, to the foster mothers, to the adoptive parents and, of course, the adoptees, there are so many stories out there waiting to be told.

The photos you see here are a work in progress. I don’t think I’ll ever be done or satisfied with what I have covered. I am grateful knowing there is still much to document. Adoption in Korea is ever evolving. Find out more here: and

Jeanne Modderman works as a photo editor in Washington, D.C., and lives in Maryland with her husband and newly adopted pit bull. She reunited with her birth mother in 2010.

There is a waiting period of five months for international adoptions. In 2012, the Special Adoption Act was passed by the Korean National Assembly prioritizing domestic adoptions and requiring the approval of a South Korean family court for all intercountry adoptions.

One week after giving birth, Sae-Rong, 18, put her baby girl up for adoption. She was unaware of her pregnancy until 7 months in, when she noticed she had gained weight. With strong objections from her family to keep the baby and no support from her boyfriend’s family, she made the decision, like many Korean unwed mothers, to put her baby up for adoption. While staying at a home for unwed mothers, she wrote a letter to her baby, saying,

“When we were sending you off, I wanted to keep you in my arms. How could I be giving up my own flesh and blood? Please don’t forget about me and please look for me.”

Nick Breedlove stares out the window as he awaits the arrival of his adopted sister from South Korea. The Breedlove family decided to adopt Nick after they were unsuccessful conceiving their own children.

Laura Breedlove arrives at Dulles International Airport with Lily, her adopted daughter. Laura spent two weeks visiting Korea and meeting Lily before returning home.

Korean masks hang over the Schulken’s dining table. Susan and Jeff Schulken adopted their daughter Jocelyn from Korea seven years ago. They regularly talk to her about her adoption. They hope to take her to Korea for a visit soon.

Jocelyn and her mother share a moment at the park. Jocelyn attends Korean culture camp every summer and often tells people that she is adopted from Korea.

Maria Leister, a biracial adoptee, holds a baby at her adoption agency’s nursery. This is Maria’s first time back to Korea. While there, she went back to her birth city to search for any clues about her birth family.

Kim Thompson, an adoptee living in Seoul, gets her hair cut at a salon in Hongdae. She has been living in Korea for the past four years and makes her living by proofreading and editing English texts. She currently does not have a date of return to the United States.

Peter Vinyard, an adoptee, goes shopping with his birth mother to buy a hanbok. This is his second time back to Korea, after his first trip when he met his birth mother.

Jane Jeong Trenka speaks to a reporter from the BBC at the National Assembly. She is a Korean adoptee and noted author (The Language of Blood). She has lived in South Korea since 2004, and is an activist for adoptee and birth parent rights.

Melissa Konomos is a Korean adoptee who had been searching for her birth mother for seven years. After a phone call from her adoption agency, she found out that they had located her birth mother and that she did want to meet Melissa. 

Watch their video story below.