Gumbi asked a frequently-asked-question about taking pictures in Korea and photography, which I'd like to address, since it took me awhile to figure out myself.
First, a word about street photography, privacy rights, and the American law.
In the States – and variations of this is true in most other countries – the photographer has a right to shoot in any public place, and no one actually has any "rights" as to what they are doing in such a public place. This includes the streets, most open places, and even some places you might not think are public, but are, such as university campuses. Here, we're talking about the right to take a picture – not yet about rights having to do with use. Also, taking pictures from any place that might reasonably be considered public is protected. This is where the paparazzi get their power – standing on the sidewalk and snapping a picture in the direction of someone's living room window with a non-zoom lens that is close to something approximating the magnification of human vision is fair game. Of course, if you're stalking someone and interfering with their life, something called a restraining order is going to come and get you. Not fair game is snapping pics standing outside someone's bedroom window, or using a 600mm lens to get shots of someone nude sunbathing. That's where lawsuits come into the picture. Pun intended.
There are specific places where photography is restricted because they are private spaces, such as most shopping malls and other places of commerce. Also restricted are hospitals and government facilities, as well as other kinds of sensitive areas. In these cases, the publishing of the image is caught up in how they were generated, so publishing images taken in a department store or nuclear reactor facility will get you sued in the former case, and arrested for violating security something or other in the latter. However, these protections are lifted when something become "news" – some event understood to be within the realm of the public's right to know. This is when private spaces become public ones, such as when the Frappe Makers' Union of America decide to go on strike in the local mall. Their demonstration becomes news, but sometimes this becomes tricky, since people paid by the hour might not be up on the latest Supreme Court decisions regarding photojournalists' rights.
As far as I have seen in cases in American law, no one has the right to take your film. Even you are arrested (which should never happen – you can't be arrested for taking pictures, only for interfering with police business) or removed from the premises, NO ONE has the right to relieve you of your film or equipment. If a police officer damages or takes your equipment, or the overzealous security guard does the same, you can press charges against that person. Of course, if the police officer is going to beat you down, you'll have to deal with that one later. But of a security guard in the local shopping mall doesn't know the law and takes your camera from you, call the police – it's theft. Police officers can also not prevent you from taking pictures – they can only cordon off areas and prevent you from entering. But sometimes, even these public servants don't know the law and overstep their bounds.
Now, there are exceptions regarding people's privacy and reputation. Of biggest concern is misrepresenting someone or what they're doing, which will simply get you in trouble in terms of libel (remember, "slander" is orally making false statements or defaming someone). But also, you might be accused of putting someone in "a bad light." Kinda vague, but if you defame someone with an image that ruins or hurts their reputation, you might be on the losing end of a suit. But remember, they also have to show damages, so showing someone eating a sandwich with sauce dribbling down their chin may be in bad taste as a photographer (kind of an unwritten photojournalism rule to not publish pictures of people eating), but what damages have they experienced for being show to be a messy eater? I doubt if anyone's lost a job or business because of that.
So as long as you keep it reasonable, you should be safe. And as long as you're not publishing your pictures for commercial purposes, and the pics were taken without having fallen under any special conditions, that person has nothing to say about the image, except that it not be used for selling Oreos or MP3 players. It can be used in a newspaper, exhibit, or photo book (except not on the cover, which is considered a commercial use).
Now, let's talk a bit about Korea.
Pretty much everything's the same except for one caveat: the concept of the "right to one's image." In Korean, this is called the 초상권, and it actually confuses a lot of people. This is a special right, in which people have the right to determine how their image is used, regardless of having been in a public place or doing something understood to be in the interest of the public's right to know (news). So people technically have the right to sue more easily, because they have the right to their image – period. Ah, but there's a rub.
Just like in the case of people suing in the States, the person still has to show damages in order to collect anything. So the value of suing anyone becomes pretty minimal. So I could be sued for using someone's image without permission, but as long as it's not for commercial purposes, or people's reputations haven't been damaged in any way that can be concretely demonstrated, people hardly ever sue strictly based on their image having been print or broadcast.
After reading through an overview of the major cases in a book on photojournalism in Korea, these major lawsuits that send chills down the spines of the media here all have to do with using people's images for commercial purposes. In terms of the lawsuit thing, people technically have a lot of rights to how their image is used, but generally don't really do anything about it, nor do they seem to care. Most reaction to having images taken generally seem to revolve around the false notion that someone is going to make major bucks off their image – so where's my check? A newspaper photographer told me to not even worry – if anyone calls about picture in a photo book, a couple hundred thousand won and a polite thank you would do the trick. And he assured me that this would hardly ever happen, in any case.
Now, regarding that "right to the image," Koreans have a pretty inaccurate view of their actual rights. The right to one's image has nothing to do with my right to take a picture. No one has the right to touch me, my equipment, nor seize my property. Of course, this is of little assurance when the riot police are beating you over the head, but this has never happened to me. On a side note, I find the riot police remarkably polite to foreign photographers. Well, I guess it's in their best interests to be.
As for the "real" police (I use that term guardedly here, since I respect "professional" police officers here about as much as I do the criminals they ostensibly are supposed to exist to capture – the one major run-in I had with them involved a fight in which basically, a group of American and Canadian girls in Itaewon were attacked by a Korean hooker and a prospective client. The girls were not on their best behavior after one of them was clocked on the back of the head by this random drunk guy, but then again, this hapless girl did get sucker-punched in the head for absolutely no reason. So when the girls came to the aid of their friend, they were understandably mad and throwing some prickly language about. Well, that's when the Korean woman got into it and attacked one of the girls, thereby pulling the whole group into a brief brawl that was actually stopped by a couple of the girls themselves. Well, when then police came, of course they were trying to take away the foreign girls only, without even questioning (!) the Korean woman. The American dude who started the whole thing had taken off long before. Anyway, the girls were understandably scared and angry, so they were yelling as they started getting manhandled and shoved into the car as the Korean woman looked to be getting fancy free. Well, I had decided to play my civic duty by very obviously snapping shots off with my big flash attached, to warn the police that they were being watched. I never did, nor have any intention of using the pictures of these girls having a bad moment in their lives. Nor would I let myself publish a picture of that sex worker, for obvious ethical reasons. But I would publish pictures of those officers behaving illegally and unprofessionally, since they are/were public servants engaged in "professional" misconduct. I'll decide whether or not to do that later. You just might see that picture soon.
But the real reason I took those pictures has to do with the fact that they not only were physically abusive to those women and my flashes surely kept them on their P's and Q's a bit more than if I had not been there. This was evidenced in the fact that one officer made a motion to hit me, as he told me to stop taking pictures. My hunch in my right to be taking pictures (as most relevant Korean criminal and civil law is a reproduction of American law, with some notable exceptions) was confirmed when I yelled, "Are you trying to stop me taking pictures? Is this against the law?" He said nothing and just looked frustrated and looked like he really wanted to hit me. He asked me if I wanted to be arrested for interfering with police business. I countered by asking him how I was "interfering" by taking pictures and why he was making illegal threats. He had nothing to say. I added that I was also a witness to the entire incident and were completely ignoring one of the main assailants in this whole fracas, so why wasn't she being taken in as well? At that point, the Korean woman was begrudgingly put in another police car to be questioned at the station. The "questioning" at the station was done while I was being made to wait outside the station, while I listened to the older officers shoot them single-syllable questions such as "You hit?!" and "Who hit?!" No translator was provided even as decisions were seeming to be made as to responsibility based on their oral arguments. The Korean woman was listened to at length as the foreign women were repeatedly told to be quiet and even "Shut up!" in English. Disgusting. I was allowed, after standing outside for around 2 hours with a foreign friend of theirs who had come out to help translate, and never allowed to offer an oral account of what I had seen. I was made to fill out only the formal written witness form, which was difficult to do in my excited yet tired state write in front of all the parties involved. In any case, this is just one of several run-ins with the "po-po" here in Korea, and lemme give you all a piece of advice – if you're assaulted in Korea, you better have frickin' videotape, eyewitnesses, and bloody murder scratched all over your body, since the Korean witnesses that night were pretty partial to "uri nara." And they certainly weren't eager to hear the testimony of a Korean-speaking brown man. Or a Korean-speaking white man, for that matter.
Anyway, in sum – I generally take pictures wherever I want, as long as I'm not putting people in danger or making them uncomfortable. And I'll take pictures to help keep people out of danger. The question of private vs. public spaces is answered if and when someone asks me to stop photographing, or if there's a sign expressly prohibiting photography. I generally abide by such rules. In general, thought, 95% of the time people don't even know I'm taking their picture, and I do not believe this practice to be unethical. Getting "model releases" for every picture taken is not only legally unnecessary, it is logistically impossible and obviously destroys any spontaneity, not to mention blowing your cover. And since the very act of stopping a person you don't know and asking them to sign a form signing away their rights to their image usually scares anyone into declining to sign, such a ridiculous practice would destroy the art of street photography itself.
So no more Doisneau's kissing couple in the square (even though that picture was posed, actually), or the poignant and important image of the fireman holding the dead baby after the Oklahoma City bombing, the haunting images of frightened New Yorkers looking up at the doomed Twin Towers, or just about any other iconic image in your mind that has defined history for you, or the mundane beauty of the everyday. Actually, the law has actually pretty much killed the art of street photography in France, where you need the expressed, written consent of everyone in an image to publish a picture. Ironic, Paris being one of the birthplaces of the art of shooting on the street and all.
As for the ethics of using people's images, I find myself far more ethical than the majority of Korean photographers I have seen, who as a rule pose and set up shots as fact after the fact. I feel it is possible to say with authority that ethics and the media are distant acquaintances in Korea, where print journalists routinely re-pose reality and often don't even attend the very events they are ostensibly covering. Yes, we hear about such journalistic scandals in the US, but yes, they are scandals because such behavior is considered beneath contempt in the journalistic community. If and when people do flub and Photoshop, they are playing with professional fire. Consider the case of one photographer who simply cloned together bodies in the background to fit them into the frame. He was just saving space, but when suspicious photo editors looked into and reported the case, he was blackballed for life. His name is mud and he'll never work again as a photojournalist. Here, such behavior is standard procedure. If you don't believe me, go watch any major protest and watch the post-protest posing begin. It's appalling.
So I publish images that I think are of use as social criticism and am extremely careful about the quality of reproduction of people's faces in the image. As for other images, I think nothing puts anyone in a "bad light" in the American definition, so even a technical violation of people's "right to their image" would have to go pretty far to prove damages. Images of people walking down the street, selling fishcakes, or watching a soccer match are not casting people in a way that would harm their reputations. As for my critical look at the construction of femininity in Korea and letting my male gaze guide my lens, my ethical line is defined by photographing people simply as they mean to present themselves. So snapping a woman walking down the street in a short skirt may cause you to question my motivations for taking the picture, but I consider anyone in a public space fair game. But a picture that violates a person's intent to present themselves, such as Japanese-style "upskirt" shots, are clearly unethical. So yes, if I were sitting across from a woman in a short skirt and her panties were showing, I would consider that stepping over the line, since that was not an intentional act that anyone would reasonably think appropriate.
Of course, there are no hard and set rules, and you readers will likely think of many mindbendingly complex potential situations and examples. But before you get to trying to trip me up, just think of the photos I publish, which are a tiny fraction of the pictures I have taken. I have 800+ rolls of film, many of which have images I'l love to use but won't allow myself to. I always shoot first and second-guess myself later. Sometimes I do find myself passing a picture over for all kinds of particular reasons, and I am always questioning the ethics of publishing images.
But I almost never second-guess myself when I shoot. And yes, I often feel uncomfortable when I do shoot, but I push myself to make the image and deal with the consequences later. To my constant surprise, I am almost never actually disturbing people's space or perceived sense of privacy. So I just keep on shooting. If you second-guess yourself into a tizzy about when to push the shutter and when not to in the situation, you'll just end up a nervous nellie with lame, almost-had-it shots.
As my friend Ann puts it when describing anything worth doing in life, it's "balls-to-the-walls!" or nothing. Of course, you gotta define some ethical "walls" for yourself, but you need to have "balls," too. Well, figuratively, of course.
For those of you who were asking for more practical purposes related to your own photography, I just say SHOOT FIRST. Fret about it after you have the shots in front of you. I'd rather take a shot and not use or need it than want it later and regret not having shot it. Man, that would just keep me up at night.