Photographers' Blog

Death of god

By Kim Kyung-Hoon

Nobody knows when and where death will visit us.

The death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il shows that this phrase applies to everyone. Death is inevitable, even for an absolute ruler who was believed to be an eternal creature in his reclusive kingdom and who provoked the international community with a nuclear weapons program and brinkmanship.

(Kyodo photo)

Hours after the tearful announcement by North Korea state TV of their Great Comrade Dear Leader’s death, I was on a flight from Tokyo to Seoul to reinforce our Seoul bureau. On the flight, I recalled the chaos when North Korea’s founder and Kim Jong-il’s father Kim Il-sung died in 1994. At that time, most Koreans were haunted by fear of a possible outbreak of war. This fear made South Koreans rush to shops to stockpile basic necessities. It also triggered an intense debate between conservatives and pro-unification activists who insisted on a condolence call for the main culprit of the Korean civil war. My mother stayed awake at night worrying about the outbreak of war because I was supposed to go to mandatory military service in just a few months.

However, what I found after landing in Seoul was different from what I had worried about and imagined. There were no empty shelves and no fierce clashes between riot police and pro-unification activists on the streets. Signs of chaos and rejoicing over the death of a mortal enemy were hardly seen in my country as Seoul cautiously responded to the abrupt news that came at the end of 2011.

As I searched for visual subjects to illustrate this calm response, I met several North Korean defectors who had witnessed the death of Kim Il-sung in North Korea and now were viewing his successor Kim Jong-il’s death from the South. Most North Korean refugees who presently live in South Korea are not political asylum seekers but instead escaped from starvation. They said they experienced disbelief when they first heard the news of the death of the dictator but soon the disbelief turned to delight.

An orphan boy who lost his father in a life-threatening escape said he was filled with pleasure as if he finally had revenge for his father’s death. However, most said their joy soon changed to concern as they began to think that the suffering of the North Koreans would continue under the rule of Kim’s son and successor Kim Jong-un. Even though the new young leader has tasted the freedom and wealth of developed and open countries in Europe during his adolescence, this new supreme commander who ordered his troops to be human shields and bombs to defend his rule will hardly take a path of reform or open his kingdom. An uprising from North Koreans who have been brainwashed for more than half a century is beyond imagination, the defectors said.

Inside North Korea: No one said anything

A ground staff of North Korean airliner Air Koryo thrusts a hand in front of her face at the airport in North Korean capital of Pyongyang October 12, 2010. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic

Questions immediately filled my mind when I learned I would be part of a Reuters team heading to North Korea to cover a ceremony, where it was rumored Kim Jong-il’s son and heir apparent would make his debut.

- Would I be able to take pictures of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il? No photographer outside North Korea had taken his picture for a while.
- What access would I have to the parade? I worried they’d put us in some corner far away from the action.
- How would I transmit my pictures? Some people said we wouldn’t have Internet connections.
- Where would we sleep? I had heard there are two good hotels in Pyongyang, but one is on an island and difficult to leave without close supervision.
- Would I be able to shoot photos of ordinary street life?

Upon landing in Pyongyang with about 70 other members of the international media, we went through the passport and custom control where we handed over our mobile phones. I took a couple of pictures at the airport and no one said anything.

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A Week in Pictures 3 October, 2010

At the beginning of the week I had my doubts that we would actually see pictures from two major events taking place in Asia; North Korea's ruling Workers' Party conference, the biggest held for 30 years intended to push ahead the succession process for Kim Jong-il's son Kim Jong-Un and the opening ceremony for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. As it turned out, the pictures from both fronted publications around the world.


Kim Jong-un (8th L, seated), the youngest son of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il (C), poses with the newly elected members of the central leadership body of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK) and the participants in the WPK Conference, at the plaza of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace in Pyongyang in this picture released by the North's KCNA news agency September 30, 2010. North Korean state media released a photograph on Thursday of the reclusive state's leader-in-waiting Kim Jong-un. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il anointed his youngest son as successor this week, promoting him to senior political and military positions. REUTERS/KCNA

The pictures we received from KCNA, the official North Korean news agency, are truly historic in the visual tradition of  announcements by the communist state - a very wide group picture including everything . It is the cropping of these images that reveal their true value. Sometimes I am asked what pixel quality do we need for news pictures - the answer is simple - if the picture is important enough it doesn't matter what the quality is, it will get used.  The two pictures below are cropped from the group portrait.

from Russell Boyce:

Asia – A Week in Pictures September 26, 2010

A tough week for India as athletes began arriving  for the start of the Commonwealth Games. On September 21, a pedestrian walkway outside the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi collapsed; the very next day a portion of the ceiling in the weightlifting arena also collapsed. Social and mainstream media showed pictures of blocked drains, dirty bathrooms, soiled matresses and unfinished work in the athletes' accommodation.  Team members started to pull out of the games, undermining the status of the event. The enormity of the clean-up task seemed insurmountable, this concern beautifully illustrated by Parivartan Sharma's picture of a man sweeping dust in the streets with a hand brush - a seemingly pointless task when CWG president Fennell said that there was still "considerable work to be done". Have a close look at Reinhard Krause's picture of the roof of the weight lifting arena and make your own judgement on the workmanship of the construction.  As someone who has not got a great head for heights I fear for the safety of the workers walking on the roof of the building.


A man sweeps under a flyover in front of the Commonwealth Games athletes village in New Delhi September 25, 2010. Commonwealth Games Federation President Michael Fennell said on Saturday there was still a considerable amount of work to be done and there was great concern about the security and safety of athletes and officials. REUTERS/Parivartan Sharma


Workers climb down the roof of the weightlifting venue for the upcoming Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, September 22, 2010.   A portion of false ceiling in the Commonwealth Games weightlifting venue in India's capital caved in on Wednesday, a day after 27 workers were injured when a footbridge collapsed near the same sports complex.  REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

North Korea – From the outside looking in

Recently, I went to the Chinese border-town of Dandong on the Yalu River to see what I could photograph to match stories about reports that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was sick. Dandong is one of the closest towns on the border to the secretive country, and was the obvious choice due mainly to the chances of a journalist entering the highly restricted and reclusive country at such short notice being practically impossible. They don’t accept journalists at the best of times, let alone when their ‘dear leader’, as he is officially known, is not well. Kim has led communist North Korea for 14 years and if he was dead, the potentially nuclear-capable country could quickly become a scary and somewhat horrifying scenario.My hope for the assignment was that maybe I could get pictures of North Korean soldiers on border patrols, or perhaps even people working in the fields – something that showed life on the ‘other side’.

A local contact told us of boats for hire about one hours drive north of Dandong. I thought ok, it would be something like a small fishing village where the locals occasionally subsidise their incomes by taking people for rides to see the secretive side of the river, but when we arrived we found a thriving, well organised tourism industry. There was a fleet of six large boats that took 20 people at a time, or a fleet of speedboats that took five at a time. You could go for 20 minutes or for over an hour, cruising along the Chinese side of the river photographing or filming North Koreans washing their clothes or themselves, riding bicycles, tending their crops, or just fishing as they tried to get any extra food to supplement what measly portions they were obviously receiving.

Myself, text journalist Chris Buckley and Reuters cameraman Johnnie boarded a boat and headed towards the small town of Qing Cheng which was once connected to China via a bridge that protrudes from both sides of the river but had it’s middle portion blown-up 60 years ago – a symbolic reminder that this country is separated from the rest of the world.

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