Kim Jong Il Looking at Things

KCNA / Corbis
KCNA / Corbis
A propaganda picture of North Korea's reclusive leader Kim Jong-Il posed in a field of grain with a group of cadres in Pyongyang, Nov. 17, 2004.

We all look at things. Loved ones, traffic lights, television, the sky — you name it, we look at it. Along with reasoning, and the conscious use of tools, looking at things is an integral aspect of the human experience. In North Korea, this elemental, quotidian activity has been transformed, ingeniously, into a propaganda device for the country’s regime. The beauty of that transformation, meanwhile, is that one culture’s propaganda is another’s source of humor, and wonder.

Case in point: the popular, uncannily simple blog, “Kim Jong Il Looking at Things.” Launched in October 2010 by a Lisbon-based art director named João Rocha, KJILAT is nothing more and nothing less than what it purports to be: a series of photographs of the Dear Leader looking at things.

Jean Boîte Éditions

A selection of these compelling photos have now been published in a book by Jean Boîte Éditions: Kim Jong Il Looking at Things. The pictures, originally distributed by the official Korean Central News Agency, depict the late North Korean leader, always accompanied by an entourage of compatriots who appear both fawning and terrified, examining objects ranging from machinery to snack food. The images are, one presumes, meant to celebrate the notion of North Korean independence and superiority by illustrating Kim Jong Il’s endorsement of products and services manufactured or offered by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The spare, almost clinical look of the images, meanwhile, coupled with the often profoundly mundane nature of the objects at hand lend the entire portfolio a tone that is one part humorous and three parts crazy.

Visual Culture Blog curator Marco Bohr contributed an essay to the book, analyzing how and why both the blog and the book versions of “Kim Jong Il Looking at Things” succeed on their own, admittedly streamlined terms. Bohr suggests that the blog and book tap into a type of unpretentious humor “by using matter-of-fact captions that, firstly, withhold any subjective opinion, and secondly, do not self-consciously attempt to be funny in the first place.” The success of the meme “relies on deconstructing the ridiculousness of [Kim's] propaganda apparatus.”

The book is the newest installment in Jean Boîte Éditions’ series, FOLLOW ME, Collecting Images Today, which seeks “to highlight another art scene, [one that] establishes the online collector as a creator, and the ephemeral in the perennial.”

A spin-off blog featuring the Dear Leader’s son and successor, Kim Jong Un, was launched hours after the announcement of Kim Jong Il’s death on Dec. 18, 2011. The original blog, which continued to add images for a full year after its subject’s death, posted its final image in late December, as Rocha reached the end of his archive.

Fortunately for all of us, the Dear Leader lives on in Rocha’s book, where we can look at him looking at things to our collective hearts’ content.


Kim Jong Il Looking at Things was published by Jean Boîte Éditions in December 2012.

Tanner Curtis is an associate photo editor at TIME.com.


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