Photography and the Dear Leader

Looking at the wall

A tumblr site dedicated to Kim Jong Il Looking at Things is the latest online craze in visual culture. As the title of the site suggests, it’s a collection of photographs depicting the North Korean dictator ostensibly caught in moments of ‘looking’. By now, the site is so popular that the tumblr server periodically breaks down. The timing of the tumblr site is impeccable: launched on the 26th of October 2010 by an anonymous user in Lisbon, Portugal, the site was barely up and running for a month as North Korean missiles hit South Korean targets, killing two civilians on the 22nd of November 2010. By that time, the tumblr site already had a solid following. In this time of mounting tension between the two Koreas, it appears that Kim Jong Il’s image was never as popular as it is now.

Looking at fish

What is it about these photographs that makes them so popular? As the viewer is looking at Kim Jong Il, he is looking at fish, a factory, a radish, a powerpoint presentation and so forth. Sigmund Freud defined this dualistic relationship between the pleasure of looking and being looked at as Schaulust, or scopophilia. The viewer is drawn to these photographs of Kim Jong Il by the scopophilic drive to encounter the Other. Here, the Other is a notorious dictator, bathing in the cult of personality, reigning over a introverted and closed off regime once described by George W. Bush being part of the ‘axis of evil’. In a sense, the popularity of photographs of Kim Jong Il points to the desire to put a face to this Western construct of evil.

Looking at wheat

The anonymous photographer taking these pictures must have worked under immense pressure to produce flattering images of Kim Jong Il. One of the big problems is that Kim Jong Il is short built and, despite a special pair of plateau shows, consistently appears smaller than those who are supposed to be ‘below’ him. The photographer seeks to avoid this visual contradiction by photographing Kim Jong Il from a lower vantage point. This methodology is apparent in most photographs in which Kim Jong Il conducts so-called ‘tours of field guidance’ – a tradition he inherited from his father Kim Il Sung. In the photograph of Kim Jong Il looking at wheat for instance, the lower vantage point of the camera underlines his position as leader, looking forward, his gaze directed to the future, while everyone else (including the camera and by extension the viewer) is looking at him. The tragic irony in photographs of Kim Jong Il looking at his country’s agriculture is that chronic food shortages have caused millions of deaths in North Korea over the last two decades. Here, the photograph is clearly part of a propaganda apparatus that seeks to establish that the North Korean regime is capable of feeding its own people.

Looking at a radish

However, the photographs are also, although they are not intended to be, tragically funny. There is for example the image of Kim Jong Il holding a radish with this right hand. The left hand, like in most photographs of the ‘Dear Leader’, remains hidden or tucked into a pocket. The West has long been speculating that Kim Jong Il’s health is fading and that his left side of the body is partially paralyzed. In the photograph, the physical decline of Kim Jong Il is signified by the radish (the phallus) pointing downwards thus prompting a look of disapproval by the dictator. Next to Kim Jong Il is his Vice Marshal Ri Yong-Ho, one of the most senior military officers in North Korea, with a notepad. A cursory glance at the collection of photographs reveals that people standing next to or near Kim Jong Il customarily carry a notepad and a pen. They are, as it appears in the images, always prepared to make a note of sudden bursts of ingenuity exclaimed by Kim Jong Il. He is the speaker while others make note of it.

Looking at hats

Looking at buckets

And while senior military staff and members of the Politbüro are always prepared for guidance by their leader, the photographer too, is prepared to react when Kim Jong Il indulges in his well-known eccentricities. In one image he puts on a straw hat, while in another he appears to crack a joke about a red bucket. These are the kind of uncanny moments that humanize Kim Jong Il. The photographs of him smiling and making others smile don’t sit well in the larger context of military aggression and brutal state oppression. The discomfort felt looking at these photographs of Kim Jong Il is comparable to a key scene in ‘The Downfall’ in which Adolf Hitler is depicted petting his German Shepherd. How can evil be caring? In the same way, how can evil be funny?

This is maybe the main reason why these photographs have become so popular recently: the uncanny desire for a visual encounter with the Other during a time in which a simple dichotomization between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ through a Bushian looking glass seems to fail. And while American and South Korean warships gather in the East China Sea in preparation for an all out war with Pyongyang, effectively turning the geopolitical gaze from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq to North Korea, a little site depicting a little man keeps on attracting new visitors eager to look at him – trying to understand, who is this man.

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One thought on “Photography and the Dear Leader

  1. The left hand is clearly visible in four of the five photos here, and it is grasping a hat or touching a chin in two of them.

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