From the introduction to the book Kim Jong Il Looking at Things published by Jean Boîte Éditions in Paris:
‘Kim Jong Il looking at things’ is the eponymous title of a photoblog that took the Internet by storm. Created by João Rocha, an art director at an advertising firm in Lisbon, the blog is a collection of photographs which depict the ‘Dear Leader’ of North Korea apparently engaged in the act of looking. Since its creation in October 2010, every few days Rocha posts a photograph appropriated from the Korean Central News Agency. These photographs consistently focus on Kim Jong Il who stands in the centre of the image as his loyal countrymen and women obligingly introduce him to a person of interest, a product, a machine, a new invention, an animal, a food item, a vegetable or indeed anything else that can be looked at.
The photographs produced by the official press agency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are remarkably consistent in what they depict and in the way that they are photographed. Kim Jong Il usually stands in the centre of the image, wearing a grey suit or overcoat, as he is accompanied by members of the Communist Party, military personnel or senior advisors. While the main subject of the photographs are characterised by their remarkable similarity with each other, the background to the photographs is different in each image: Kim Jong Il can be seen in a computer lab, a factory, a kitchen, a farm and so forth. In short, the anonymous photographer (or photographers) of the Korean Central News Agency represented Kim Jong Il with a great deal of attention towards visual coherence and aesthetic continuity. João Rocha’s creation does not lie in taking the photographs as such, but rather, it lies in discovering this coherence, editing images accordingly and then publishing it for others to see.
From its beginnings as a blog with a few images, to the enormous cultural impact of ‘Kim Jong Il looking at things’ as a global Internet phenomenon, this essay seeks to uncover some of the elements that made the project so popular. The essay seeks to establish that part of the popularity of ‘Kim Jong Il looking at things’ lies in a type of humour that was historically used to critique fascist, undemocratic or simply unpopular leaders. João Rocha’s extremely dry captions beneath the photographs are key to the satirical dimension of the project. Apart from that however, the essay seeks to deconstruct the Kim Jong Il photographs which ultimately had the greatest impact on the popularity on the project. By looking at ‘Kim Jong Il looking at things’, the viewer becomes increasingly aware how carefully constructed (and at times contrived) propagandistic imagery can be. III The extended essay, analyzing the popularity and attraction of this Internet phenomenon in more detail, can be found in the recently published book Kim Jong Il Looking at Things.
Thank you to the photographer David Kregenow and thank you to Rémi Coignet, founder of the blog Des livres et des photo, who created the Photography Maps of Berlin and Paris. Photography Maps of London and Tokyo are online as well. Please get in touch if you want to contribute to the Photography Map Project.