'Imaging Cannot Be Separated From Imagining'. A Note on David Shim's Research

Post-classical International Relations research developed a strong interest in marginalized groups and individuals, in oral and performative expressions of memories, in the production of narratives and visual cultural artifacts. Is IR going anthropology? A new senior research fellow at the Centre, David Shim has a background in cultural geography, area studies and international political sociology. Visual politics is the common denominator of his multifaceted approach, dealing with geopolitical (Korean Peninsula), social (Fridays for Future, environmental activism), and gendered (representations of masculinity in the German armed forces) objects of study, using media (satellite images, photo essays, film, installations) as a source and elucidating text. 

In a foundationally analytical essay, Shim reflects on the relation 'Between the International and the Everyday: Geopolitics and Imaginaries of Home' (2016). He grounds and proofs his argument in reading two distinct media products: 'The Land of No Smiles,' a photo essay about North Korea by Tomas van Houtryve, published 2009 in US magazine Foreign Policy, and the Iranian film drama A Separation, directed by filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, which, among others, won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. While Shim admits that 'both accounts seem to be wide apart', this exact approach seems to establish a fruitful strategy for him. With a note on Shapiro (Studies in Transdisciplinary Method, 2013), Shim reflects on montage as a heuristic tool:

The purpose of juxtaposing texts from different genres—in [Shapiro's] terms creating a montage, which he, in turn, borrows from Walter Benjamin—is not to validate certain knowledge claims or the truth of particular statements. Rather, and to paraphrase Shapiro, the value of engaging these aesthetic texts lies in the way a subjective reading is able to prompt critical thinking. (6–7)

The pictures, depicting everyday life in North Korea, finally unveil their potential to tell something underneath, something about the way they are perceived by the photographer, the publishing company and lastly the targeted audience.

A representation in this sense is [...] always an interpretation, or, put another way, an imagination of the image maker. As such, the politics of positionality […] reveals itself in these images, in that it says much more about foreign—or, more precisely, American—desires and imaginations than it does about North Korea’s actual everyday. As a consequence, 'The Land of No Smiles' is rather a reflection of how 'real' life is imagined by the photographer and editors of these pictures, because, to put it simply, imaging cannot be separated from imagining. It follows that foreign imaginations of North Korea’s daily life affect how domestic spaces and the everyday are shown to external audiences. (12)


Whereas photos and films show the ability of images to be put in context, to illustrate a story and convey a message, Shim used another work of art to scrutinize an additional dimension, something that he calls 'rhetorical materiality'. In 'Memorials’ politics: Exploring the material rhetoric of the Statue of Peace' his object of study is a memorial commemorating Korean women, who during the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula before and during WWII were forced into sexual slavery, their suffering unveiled only after decades. Shim observes several unique qualities of this memorial. The statue serves the commemoration of victims. Erected in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2011, the Japanese government has demanded its removal since then and this repeats in other countries where copies of the original statue were erected in similar contexts. A special quality of the statue comes from an empty chair. Located beside the bronze statue itself, this empty chair invites engagement from the audience. For instance, a gesture of solidarity was performed by a Japanese artist Yoshiko Shimada in the Japanese consulate in London and at Glendale Central Park, close to Los Angeles, which features an identical copy of the peace statue. These copies, in a way constitute additional political spaces (like diasporas) and subscribe to the performative quality of a piece of art that has managed to produce political space by not only telling a story but by locating that story and inviting physical engagement from by-passers.

On the other side of the spectrum, Shim is interested in pictures that are not secondary to knowledge but that, as he emphasizes in a talk with us – in a non-illustrative sense – are knowledge themselves. Take satellite images. He approached this field of study (together with Delf Rothe) in a 2018 article 'Sensing the ground: On the global politics of satellite-based activism', expanding on his own 2014 piece, 'Remote sensing place: Satellite images as visual spatial imaginaries'. What makes the view on this topic fresh is the thesis that 'NGO activism is not challenging the sovereign gaze of the state but, on the contrary, actually reinforcing it'. The article's argument fits the perspective of the Centre especially well, in that it deals with the policy fields of human rights and environmental governance. Activism is in itself an interesting object of research, because technologies are used for analysis and political action at the same time and these aspects are deeply intertwined. Rothe/Shim thus examined three dominant types of practices: looking (analysis), showing (political action), and interacting (with the subjects under surveillance). Activists thus reproduce a dominant Western gaze on the humanitarian and ecological ‘other’, while keeping a belief in 'the perceived neutrality of the technologically mediated view and its possibility to abstract from local meaning subjective – viewpoints'. Knowledge is power and NGO activism may reproduce more of a dominant discourse than people are aware of.

In a fresh contribution to the upcoming special issue of the Centre's Quarterly Magazine on climate and environment, David Shim will have a look at the ‘Friday's for Future' movement. Shim, together with his colleague, Gijs de Vries, will ask in which ways protagonists of the movement are shaping visual narratives with purpose to have the desired impact: '#UprootTheSystem - Exploring Fridays for Future’s Visual Climate Storytelling'.

In history, pictures have been a rare currency and the archeology of knowledge is full of stories that show how long it can take to have a picture of actors, events, developments, not to speak of a full picture of historic events. The massacre of Kwangju in 1980 was not known to the outside world at first. Then it was known to the outside world, but went unacknowledged by the South Korean Government for some time. Documentary pictures (worth satellite images at the time) that revealed what happened, left the country via secret channels, a German cameraman the solitary eyewitness with connections to the Japanese broadcaster NHK. The film A Taxi Driver, in the box offices decades later, told that story to the South Korean broader public and got the blessing and promotion of the South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a human rights lawyer in the 80ies himself. In 'Cinematic representations of the Gwangju Uprising: Visualising the “new” South Korea in A Taxi Driver' —part of a special issue of the Asian Studies Review on Visualising Korea. Guest Editors: Roland Bleiker, David Chapman and David Shim —Shim seems to show that the true hero, as always, are the pictures themselves.

David Shim will be a fellow at the Centre until August 2022, and we are curious what comes next.

IN-EAST Research Forum

Wed, Nov 10, 2021, 10–11 h
David Shim   Käte Hamburger Kolleg / Centre for Global Cooperation Research
Memorials’ Politics: Exploring the Material Rhetoric of the Statue of Peace