Ajumma and Agasshi: Lessons on Culturally Sensitive Photography
Photography is a dangerous sport. The convenience of iphone cameras, and rapid access to wifi and social media platforms means that many of us can discretely snap or upload images of anonymous strangers while we travel, usually with little thought to the subject’s privacy or personal space. With the immediacy of twitter and apps such as Instagram, we can distribute street photos in a snap, without any thought to how this image may be culturally inappropriate or perhaps degrading to the local people. While living in Korea, I have spent a substantial amount of time getting in people’s faces, aggressively seeking raw photo opportunities, and hoping to not get caught. I love photography, and I go to fierce lengths to secure the most absurd and unusual scenes. I have been reprimanded for taking photos of American military tanks. I have been scolded for taking photos in a Korean sauna. Along with my artistic freedom to point and shoot at anything I find visually interesting, I must also consider whether or not I am respecting the people and places I photograph. Here I have outlined some of the ethical and social implications of street/travel photography in South Korea.
South Korea is officially still at war with North Korea, and as a result of this, constant military activity can still be seen taking place in and around Seoul. For example, Kwanghwamun, an older part of Seoul lined with temples and historical monuments, is also a hub for a number of US military tanks, Korean soldiers, and bullet-proof vested officers marching and standing guard at all of the national embassies located in the area. By American law (and perhaps Korean law also), civilians are not permitted to take photos of American military equipment in active duty, so it is important to keep this in mind if you find yourself setting up your camera tripod in front of a military canon. Also, if you enter an American military base in Korean, you will likely be warned that you are breaching the law if you take photos (so my friends have informed me).
Surprisingly, in Korea, people don’t mind if I politely photograph their children. If a Korean child is perched on his mother’s lap in a bunny suit, the mother with often politely allow strangers to tug at the child’s cheeks, or snap a picture. I find this very unusual, as in Australia (my home country) people may have criminal charges pressed against them for taking pictures of other people’s children in public. The Australian public has legitimate and not-so-legitimate fears regarding street photography and paedophilia, and the assumption that anyone with a digital or wide-lense camera is a paedophile has become a sensitive talking point among street photographers in western countries. In Korea, however photography of children is never considered dangerous or related to any criminal behavior. That said, I only take photos of children when I feel like a have established some form of verbal permission or eye-contact with the parents.
Korea is arguably the number one country in the world for the amount of alcohol consumed, and Jinro Soju (a Korean brand of rice wine) is the highest selling alcoholic beverage in the entire world. Korea’s drinking culture is dynamic. This presents the travel photographer with a diverse array of artistic inspiration, as every night of the week in Korea you can witness salary men stumbling clumsily like zombies through the crowded streets of Seoul. I have witnessed staggering old grandfathers side kick pedestrians, old men falling asleep vertically against trees, naked salary men asleep in parks, and salary men peeing inside and outside coffee shops on their way home, oblivious to the coffee drinkers and staff watching them. It is not unusual for foreigners to take pictures of these alarming scenes and upload them online, however, I understand that capturing images of these individuals is obviously invasive and it also questions some of the basic ethics of street photography. I stumbled across a blog recently in Korea where foreign residents could submit their photos of drunk Koreans who have passed out in an intoxicated state on the street. When I first viewed the site, I was rather amused, but when I continued to click through the images, I realized that this is harmful to Koreans and also depicts foreigner photographers badly as well.
Obviously, after spending some time in Seoul you might notice that there are quite a significant number of hostess bars and places for ‘massages’ in Korea. This provides some interest for foreigners in Korea (to put it mildly), as many countries outside of East Asia lack a unique form of ‘hostessing culture’. One of the things that many new people in Korea do not realize is that there is a substantial difference between a ‘hostess’ and a ‘prostitute’, so we should not make any generalizations about women who are working in these particular bars or singing rooms in Korea, because many times these women are strictly paid only for pouring drinks or making light conversation. Out of respect for these girls, you should probably not photograph these women unless they have agreed to being photographed, and even then, be aware that publishing these photographs could potentially affect their education or their future profession, as internet search engines do have a way of damaging people’s careers in the modern era.
This might sound like common sense, but if you are bathing naked with hundreds of other Koreans in a Korean bathhouse, you should perhaps leave your camera in the locker. Taking photos of naked people (of any nationality) scrubbing their inner thighs is just not kind. I do like to take photos of myself in my neon sauna uniform, with a towel wrapped around my head, but this is done very stealthily, after I have patrolled the area to establish I will most certainly not get caught. I take all Korean sauna photos very very discretely, because I am concerned about getting fined or accused of sexual harrassment. Neither of these scenarios have played out as yet, but I feel that it is always better to err on the side of caution when there are naked people around.
I admit that I do take a lot of photos of innocent people on the subway without their permission, mostly because I am fascinated by their appearance or I am slightly curious about their behavior. Taking photos of anonymous individuals riding the subway to and from work is most likely breaching the ethics of street photography, particularly as Koreans are especially sensitive about maintaining their privacy in public spaces. So if I really feel so inclined to photograph the girl on the subway carrying three small dogs in tiny suits, I know that I have to use an editing application to blur out the face of my subject before I carelessly upload this picture onto any social media platform. I did get in trouble once for uploading a picture I took on the subway of a girl who was wearing the most disturbing hello kitty attire, as I had neglected to adequately disguise her identity.
My Korean friends like to take photos of themselves working out in the gym. I find this a little odd. When I lived in Australia three years ago, one of the rules of my local gym stated that all members were prohibited from carrying their phones inside the gym. This provision may have changed in my absence, but the policy at the time was enacted to try to protect individuals from being sneakily photographed by other gym members, to protect personal privacy. In Korean gyms, however, there is no such prohibition, and anyone can take photos of themselves using any kind gym equipment. In a number of Korean gyms I have witnessed Korean men pressed up against the mirrors, snapping pictures of themselves flexing, and lifting their shirts up. Nobody gets upset about it.
Korean couples are very photogenic, and not always for the right reasons. Young Korean couples (not all, but a visible proportion) are renowned for wearing matching backpacks, matching t-shirts, matching underwear (indeed…), and matching winter beanies. This can be somewhat of a novelty, but it can also be a bit mind-boggling when you are confronted with some of the more unattractive color/fabric combinations. A boy and girl in matching brown and orange velour tracksuits? Really? The urge to get in there and take a photo is irresistible, however, you have to be strategic about this, and I find myself invasively snapping photos of these couples from behind, rather than getting caught waving my camera in front of them to get their neon matching couple sneakers in the shot. Also, if you are waiting for the subway and trying to take the photo from behind, be aware that the couple can probably see you taking the photo in the reflection of the glass barriers.
The Homeless as Art
It is unfortunate that in some parts of Seoul, such as in Yeoungdungpo and Seoul Station, you can see so many homeless people struggling to survive, sometimes amongst some very high-end department stores, such as Times Square. This is one of the sadder aspects of Korea’s rapid development, and an expansive cross-section of society was displaced physically and socially in Korea’s move away from an agricultural-based economy, and many Koreans also found themselves unemployed after the 1997 Asian economic crisis. While some subway stations or open markets are filled with beggars and homeless people, which foreign photographers often photograph because they consider it ‘arty’, I have never felt compelled to photograph these people because I was never sure of how to photograph them sincerely, in a manner which was not degrading or critical of their existence. I don’t agree that taking photos of homeless people constitutes ‘street art’, and I don’t agree that it is tasteful (in most situations, where the homeless person is not aware they are being snapped) to photograph homeless people and claim it as ‘one’s art’.
Plastic Surgery Patients
Almost every day on the subway or inside shopping malls in Seoul I see post-op patients with their heads hidden under bandages like mummified cats after they have undergone cosmetic surgery procedures. Seoul is, after all, the plastic surgery capital of the world. I do find it a little odd that these patients would want to venture out in public with their thick bandages and dark sunglasses after they have had their jaws rewired and noses reset. I’d personally be taking painkillers and staying in bed, but I suppose Korea is fast-paced and people don’t like to rest here. Of course, when there is a large pack of bandaged mummies wandering through the department store, I do feel tempted to take a photo, but I know that it would be very improper of me to do so, so I put the camera down.
Self-Camera (Selca 셀카):
If you like taking photos of yourself, Korea is the place to be. In fact, you are encouraged to angle your camera above your head in public spaces, angle your chin down, and push your nose towards the camera to create ‘ulzzang 얼짱’, the ideal ‘best’ Korean face. Every day in Seoul Korean girls (and occasionally guys) can be seen angling their smart phones above their heads, in every subway stop, subway mirror, coffee shop, street, park bench, and department store. In other countries it may be considered rude to start rampantly taking photos on public transport or in small public spaces, but in Korea, self-camera photos are permitted in almost every public space.
While I do feel conflicted about some of the photos I take in Korea, I keep in mind that my photos are not about shaming the individual, and I do not intend to necessarily promote a political message through my photography. The ethics of photography are most certainly grounded in culture and cultural relativism has a huge impact on what we perceive is an appropriate or inappropriate photo subject. Taking photos of certain subjects across certain cultures varies greatly, as is the case with the sensitivity (or lack thereof) surrounding children in street photography. A private moment that we photograph in another person’s country may not be an honest or holistic representation of this culture. Taking one sneaky photo of a domestic public dispute may seem amusing now, but there may be repercussions if you share that around. Considering, for example, the fact that Koreans and foreign residents occasionally upload pictures or videos of strangers on the subway without their permission, which can then incite a massive internet shaming. This individual is found and isolated and they may be publicly humiliated for the rest of their life (for example, a girl who let her dog poop on the subway but didn’t realize someone was filming it and uploading it on a public forum, which later led her to become infamous in South Korea). Street photography should be honest, but ideally I do not want to exploit whoever or whatever I am shooting.