The Aesthetics of a Dictatorship: North Korea’s Photoshopped Funeral

Reuters, via Korean Central News Agency
Reuters, via Korean Central News Agency
This photograph from the funeral procession of Kim Jong Il, taken by the Korean Central News Agency and distributed by Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Reuters, was proven to be digitally altered.

The authenticity of government-released photographs from North Korea has been questioned for years but not until this week, during the funeral of Kim Jong Il, was the issue as widely discussed and analyzed.

Early Wednesday morning, Reuters, Agence France-Presse and the European Pressphoto Agency transmitted a photograph from Kim Jong Il’s funeral procession sent to them by the KCNA, North Korea’s state news agency. The image was widely published, and was part of the January 9, 2011 issue of TIME magazine.

But shortly after TIME’s deadline, around 6:00pm Wednesday, the European Pressphoto Agency sent out a “kill” alert on the photo, advising media outlets not to run the image. Earlier in the day, a nearly identical photograph was sent out by the Associated Press, via Kyodo News, an independent Japanese news agency. The two photographs show crowds lining a Pyongyang street as the dictator’s body was driven past, led by a 1976 Lincoln hearse bearing an enormous portrait of the “Dear Leader.” However, in the KCNA version, a camera crew and their power cords on the left side of the frame, as well as a couple of stragglers near them, were removed, a patch of blurry snow in their place. Snow was also cloned to cover two other spots in the photograph.

Associated Press photo editors working in Tokyo saw the discrepancy and alerted Santiago Lyon, the Director of Photography for the AP in New York, who then contacted editors at the New York Times. Lyon told TIME that the AP, which recently opened a bureau in Pyongyang, has had a long-standing photo sharing relationship with Kyodo. Eventually, all of the news agencies that transmitted the photo sent out “kills”. But by then, our issue had already shipped and several other websites had been using the altered image for hours.

The big question is why did the North Koreans alter the image?

Aesthetically, the doctored photograph is tad bit cleaner, lines straightened, but hardly improved. Psychologically speaking though, the clone job adds order to an already tidy scene. In the undoctored version, the people on the left are drifting from the crowd, their attention elsewhere. The snow is less white. Both of those problems were easily solved by Photoshop. I’ve been examining photographs released by the KCNA for years and many are strikingly beautiful—enormous, perfectly-positioned crowds, immaculate and intricately composed. Now we may know why.

Postscript: On Thursday, a zealous Reddit user added to the frenzy by making note of a photo of an extremely tall man watching the funeral procession. The image, taken by a photographer with Kyodo News and distributed by the AP, spread across the internet quickly, with theories ranging from the man being a North Korean basketball star to another bizarre Photoshop slip-up. However, looking at two separate photographs of the same scene taken at slightly different times, I think the man is legit. The background and surroundings differ but the towering Korean remains in the image, so the likelihood he was cloned into two different photographs is slim.

Patrick Witty is the international picture editor at TIME. You can find him on Twitter @patrickwitty. For more photographs from North Korea, click here.

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