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Windows on a Parade

This incredible photo of a South Korean office building actually tells a story

Kim Do-Hun
In each issue of The New Republic, Geoff Dyer meditates on a news photograph and its meaning. 

LOCATION: Seoul, South Korea 
DATE: October 1, 2013 
Photographer: Kim Do-Hun

Recently, I came across a picture of North Korean students walking in line to lay flowers at the base of statues of the late leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il. Behind them was a large relief of revolutionary heroes heading in the opposite direction. So there was an immediate irony here, a suggestion that history had ended up—insofar as history can ever end up anywhere—going the other way.

So deeply have the language and grammar of film permeated our way of reading images that, when I saw this picture, of office workers watching a parade in South Korea, it seemed as if they were looking down at the people in the other picture even though there was no connection at all between them. Except there was and is because North Korea and South Korea are condemned not only to spend their energies looking at and monitoring each other in a perpetual neighbors-from-hell stand-off, but to define themselves in relation to what the other is up to. Hence the frequency with which we hear about a show of force or a display of aggression and so on.

Pictures of people looking out of windows have an obvious appeal: the old us-looking-at-them-looking-at-something-else effect of which Edward Hopper was so fond. This being a contemporary image, a number of the people looking are doing so through cameras. So we’ve got people in a room—in Latin, a camera—staring out of a window that is also a kind of mirror (of us looking).

I should, of course, have written rooms, windows, and mirrors plural. But because these windows with their surrounding white frames are exactly the shape of color slides bunched together on a light box or hanging in a viewing pouch, it takes an effort to remember that this is a single picture of multiple windows, not multiple pictures of a single window. The mistake is encouraged by the way that the sequence seems to unfold in an approximate narrative from top left—“Look, there’s a parade!”—along the top row, climaxing with moments of peak interest (in the first pictures of the bottom two rows), when the frames are crowded with observers, and ending at the bottom right-hand corner, when the office is empty, suggesting either that the parade has passed or that everyone is so taken by the festive mood that they’ve decided to call it a day and join the party.

What I love, though, is the way that the selection has edited itself by way of the blinds. The first picture, second row is effectively marked “Doubtful”; top row, second from right: “Definitely, no!” Or maybe that’s wrong. That one is perhaps too interesting—potentially the most festive room of all. Either way, the temptation to Photoshop the picture and bring the narrative to a perfect close—to rearrange the slides—so that this one came last (“Show’s over, folks!”) must have been immense.