This week the National Geographic magazine was a central topic which generated quite some varied dialog. I can recall my grandfather having an enormous collection of NG that must have gone back decades. I spent countless hours leafing through them, taking in all the strange and exotic people and places. I certainly did not at that time think these peoples or places were somehow inferior, quite the opposite, I wanted to go there and see these things for myself, as I am sure countless others have been inspired to pick up a camera and go in search of adventure.
However, a closer examination of the National Geographic reveals its representation of the dominant hegemonic message associated with imperialism, and everything unpleasant that has ever flowed from it. Up to now I have never actually had cause to interrogate the imagery in the NG and think about how it represents other cultures against western values and how that could be interpreted as stereotyping of foreign culture. As Grundberg points out, ‘In some cases, non-Western peoples are portrayed as childlike, and animals are anthropomorphized shamelessly’ (Grundberg 1974, p. 174).
Although perhaps why should we expect the NG to look any different for the time period in question, these were the predominant attitudes adopted by the west, I am reminded here of the Family of man exhibition organized by the director of MoMA’s Department of Photography Edward Steichen in 1955. Considerable controversy surrounded the exhibition as it was not considered wholly representative and was the product of middle-aged white men, Sontag has this to say of the exhibition, ‘The “Family of Man” denies the determining weight of history – of genuine and historically embedded differences, injustices, and conflicts’ (Sontag 1977, p. 32).
GRUNDBERG, Andy. 1974. Crisis of the Real. Aperture.
SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. Penguin.