Surrounded by demonstrations in South Korea

November 13, 2009

It was October, 1990 when I was on a street in central Seoul for the first times as a news photographer. My first job: to cover an anti-government demonstration by students and workers. Protected by a helmet and gas mask, I shot pictures with a Nikon FM2 without the help of a motor drive. It was a battle. The protesters, hundreds of them, had steel bars, stones and petrol bombs. They were forced back by riot police, armed with tear gas, heavy sticks and hard-edged shields.

It was in those last days of the country’s period of autocratic rule, riots and mayhem had become almost daily routine. Sometimes, the photographers, including me, were victims of attack from both sides

By 1997, news photography had become my full-time job. By then too, South Korea had a democratic government in power and major protests were less common. When they did happen, the tear gas may have gone but the tactics were tough and people got hurt. But now there was public opinion to worry about. There was an unwritten rule that members of the media should not be attacked.

This year, things changed again.

In May, I was covering a rally against the government of President Lee Myung-bak, an ex-businessman who had taken office in February 2008, promising pro-business reforms to set the economy on a new path of growth.

Thousands of people rallied in the capital’s center against his policies and to mark the mass protests a year earlier against his government’s decision to allow imports of U.S. beef.

One evening, I saw several policemen using force on a local newspaper photographer. She was shooting protesters being detained by police. Suddenly, an officer ordered his men to detain me. I asked what I had done wrong. The response was to drag me away from the scene, kicking me and using some pepper spray. I was let go after about half an hour, still without explanation for what I might have done wrong.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Choi Youn-seck

After protests, a police officer came to my company’s office to apologize.

A little later, one of my friends told me that I was partly to blame and should not have argued with the police. I was quite shocked. Would the same treatment be meted out to a text reporter standing there with a notebook and pen?

A photographer’s job is to get the photo. He or she must get into the fray and, in the process, risk getting hurt. But it is reasonable to expect not to be a target of any violence, especially by the enforcers of the law, when photographers are just doing their job. Isn’t it?


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News media always portraits Korean men as highly militant. I visited Seoul couple times and reality is not like this. They are quite gentlemen.

Posted by Stella | Report as abusive

Jaewon, you might be interested to know that during an anti G8 demonstration I was assigned to photograph in London I was presented with a nicely printed card from a masked demonstrator that read ‘Media are legitimate targets” and we continue to be so from both sides

Posted by Russell | Report as abusive