An anonymous documentary photographer started taking photos of women working in the red light district since 2009. The district nicknamed the ‘angel’ formed around the US military base. Even now, women are dancing and selling laughter in order to maintain a means of living. The photographer came across one woman who was a mother of two children. One of them passed away a little after the photographer has gotten to know the family. The photographer, inspired by the woman who has to overcome so many hardships to sustain her life, made a collection of photographs depicting stories of women of this ‘angel’ district. The photographer held two exhibitions which have been introduced in several internet websites. He received a world-renowned award by a documentary magazine.
Time passed and people were starting to forget about the city of ‘angel.’ One man who appeared in one of the photographer’s photos sued the photographer for violating his portrait rights. In the photo, the man is drinking with a few dancers at a bar in the Philippines. The photographer had asked the man if he could take photos in English and the man had agreed. Camera-conscious, he voluntarily posed for the camera. Three photographs were taken of him and one of them was exhibited. The man in the photograph insisted that his portrait rights have been violated by the photographer.
Then, who is to blame: The photographer or the man?
Portrait rights are a human rights issue that grants us the right to show/not show our personal information. Portrait right issues are simple if we only look at it as a matter of revealing someone’s information. They are complicated because there is the notion of freedom of expression. Human rights and freedom of expression both are important concepts but are hard to coexist especially in the field of Art. For example, in New York, photographs taken in public places do not pose a problem as long as they are not distorted to reflect misleading information. In France, portrait photography in public events is not a problem.
Then, what about in the case of Korea? Many photographers say that our society is too sensitive and misunderstanding when it comes to portrait rights. One photographer claimed that it is probably because we never discussed seriously on this issue.
Photographers have a desire to take photos of people. Photographs by Bresson or Robert Frank are beautiful because they reflect the society by showing the people in the streets. However, many photographers dislike being photographed by someone else.
The Court declared the photographer guilty because he did not get the approval from the man to show the photographs in his show. Many fellow photographers who heard about this Court’s ruling were taken aback. They found that the photographer did not neglect necessary responsibilities following showing of the photographs since he had already asked the man prior to taking a photo of him. Their consensus was that even though certain responsibilities follow the use of the photographs, presenting of photographs should not be a problem.
These days, about two-thirds of Korean people pick photography as their hobby. We are the people who enjoy taking photographs and whose pictures are taken by other people. Therefore, portrait rights and expression of freedom should be considered together. We need to protect human rights of both the photographers and the people in the photographs. We need to distinguish the purpose of showing photographs in public: whether for an artful purpose, the public interests or an individual’s economic benefit. Portrait rights are a serious matter that we need to discuss and decide.