I don't want to belabor an obvious point. But too many people get by talking about Korea and talking about Koreans, or certain people in Korean society, without begin the language. I'm not going to get on a high horse here about how one can or cannot “understand the culture” without speaking the language in question, but I'll simply move on to a concrete point and reason that speaking the target language is in fact important. It's funny—if someone were writing the book about French culture or aspects of French society but didn't in fact the French, we would dismiss him or her out of hand. But for some reason, we let people get away with saying almost anything they want to about Korea, if these people can't speak their way out of a wet paper bag in the target language. Why is this important, you may ask? It's about to become very clear.
2. Do your own interviews in Korean.
Speaking Korean allows you to do interviews in Korean, as opposed to finding oneself limited to speaking with only the people that their language ability allows you to speak with. This automatically limits the number of informants you can use, down from the ideal group of the best possible informants to, usually, merely those informants who can speak English.
3. Interview the proper and most relevant people.
Let's start with a concrete example. If you want to talk to the ladies who work in the street food stands on the streets of Seoul, you should talk to the people who run street food stands on the streets of Seoul, right? You're not going to get very much that's useful just talking to Seoul National University professor who talks about the point of view of the old ladies who sell food at the street food stands on the streets of Seoul, simply because you're getting another entire filter in between you and the target subjects. it's funny that one even has to make this argument explicit in the Korean case, but unfortunately it is necessary. Let's take the recent case of the story that was published about the fire on Hooker Hill in Itaewon. this was published as some kind of in-depth piece of journalism on the 3 wise monkeys website. However, everything that was written specifically not from newspaper accounts and public records, as the seemingly authoritative interviews made with people who worked near the scene, was hearsay, and potentially very biased hearsay. Let me remind you what the definition of “hearsay” is: when you don't speak to or hear from the subject in question directly, but from some other source. This is the very definition of hearsay. Unfortunately, the writers of that article spoke to everyone except the most important person who needed to be interviewed for that article: the bar girl/prostitute who was the central figure and focus of a large part of the article itself. basically, the writers spoke to the people who were able to speak English, namely the bar owner whose establishment is across from the bar in question, as well as a rival bar owner and infamous "mamasan" a few establishments up the road. Both their accounts were used to establish that the bar girl in question had apparently and allegedly swindled the young soldier out of his money, which in some way lead to tempers flaring up into an actual fire. Glaringly absent from the article was any interview with the woman in question, about whom many theories were being spun and aspersions cast. I found this to be pretty irresponsible, and even unethical, since this was a story being reported about a person's allegedly immoral or even illegal actions, with her name attached, in a forum in which hundreds or even thousands of people could read about it. Their site seems to take itself seriously enough, so why don't they take basic journalistic ethics at all seriously? this is not even mentioning the fact that all of this writing takes place in a language in which the subject isn't able to defend herself in, had she even been asked for her side of the story in the first place.
Note: since I made a pretty decent reputation for myself on the hill amongst the girls working there with my pretty honest story on the aftereffects of the 2004 special anti-prostitution law, and the girls apparently all know who I am, if only by dint of the fact that I didn't told the standard pity-party line that most of the Korean media uses when talking about prostitution, I simply went and found the girl in question within 5 min. of inquiry, and asked her for her side of the story, which completely contradicts everything said about her in the 3 wise monkeys story.
5. You need to gain rapport and trust from your subjects. Then they will tell you the straight story and allow you access. Do the due diligence. Just be honest and tell the story that there, instead of bringing the story that you want to tell and simply using your subjects as fodder for it.
6. Just don't be a dick.
It's not actually hard to get your subjects to do what most people would even consider it be impossible, which is for a hooker hill Korean prostitute to pose for a sitting portrait that she knows very well is going to be published somewhere. There are creative ways to get around showing the face directly, without bumping into the problem of looking like you're purposely not trying to show the face to the extent that interferes with the naturalness of the picture. the environmental portrait that I did above was the result of a lot of photographic experience, but also the result of several years of having built good rapport with the people on the Hill, to the extent that they would even trust me with taking a picture that could potentially be misused to harm them. In the picture above, I had her shift her position such that identifying marks and tattoos would be thrown into the shadow side, since this was a concern that she had, almost as much as her face.
Had you asked me even a few years ago, well after I had become an active street and documentary photographer, if I would ever be able to take such a picture, my answer would have been an absolute “no.” But it's amazing the kind of reportage that one can get when one is ethical and direct and what's more, journalistically responsible. The latter concept is a lot more than simply checking back sources and link's or footnoting properly; it's about being an honest reporter of reality and acknowledging in the report one's own limitations and bias in telling the story.