Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Reading National Geographic

Title: Reading National Geographic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993)

Authors: Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins. Lutz, an anthropologist, is now at Brown and writes that her interests include "cultural understandings of the emotions, popular photography and ideas of race and gender in the U.S., changes in local democracy with economic restructuring in the last part of the twentieth century, and militarization and its shaping of social life beyond the battlefield," but that for the last ten years she's been working on projects dealing with society and the military (she also works for the American Friends Service Committee!) Her most recent book is about Fayetteville, NC: Homefront: A Military City and the American 20th Century (Boston : Beacon Press, 2001). Collins, who is now in a sociology and women's studies department at Wisconsin, lists her interests as "Qualitative Sociology, Rural Sociology, Sociology of Culture, Sociology of Economic Change and Development, Sociology of Gender." Her most recent book is Threads: Gender, Labor and Power in the Global Apparel Industry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Argument: The Geographic, a middlebrow cultural production par excellence, has been normalized as an "educational" and "positive" publication, one which Americans and other Westerners look to for an enjoyable and "objective" window on non-Western cultures. Lutz and Collins hold that the production of the photographs in the magazine is regulated by a system of understood rules and norms held by the publishers and editors, imparted to the photographers, and expected by the public. These rules and norms (especially during the period they propose to examine, 1950-1986) demand(ed) a portrait of the non-Western world that is free of strife, violence, hunger, and trouble; colorful; sensual; inviting; and positive. Overall, these qualities are meant to add up to what L & C call a "conservative humanism" - a view of the world that normalizes the "other" by proposing that "we're really all alike under the skin."

L & C hold that, in the end, although this point of view is nominally positive and affirming, it means that the photographs have "rarely cried out for change, raised painful, unresolvable questions, embarrassed, or caused general, they have existed as a beautiful, somewhat compelling body of evidence that the third world is a safe place, that it is made up of people basically like us, that the people who are hungry and oppressed have meaningful lives, and that the conflicts and flare-ups we hear of in the news occur in a broader context of enduring values and everyday activities. These images obscure the American relationships with the third world that have structured life there in profound ways; they deny real social connections even as they evoke empathy" (280).
In their survey of readers' attitudes towards Geographic photographs, L & C found that pictures showing children (particularly, happy children) were consistently ranked as the "most enjoyable." "The magazine's focus on children alone or in other groups of children is consonant with the sociological reality in which children are not integrated into the adult world of work or leisure and with the cultural belief that the child is a special kind of person rather than a miniature or even protoadult" (107). This photograph of a Garifuna child, by Susie Joy Rust, is titled "Joy in Motion," and its caption reflects this bias toward romanticization of childhood: "Beaming with pleasure after doing flips with his friends, Antheon Petillo of Dangriga romps along a well-worn path that connects his schoolhouse to a palm-lined Caribbean shore. Antheon and his classmates at Sacred Heart Elementary School are being taught Garífuna history and language, part of an effort in Belize to keep this culture alive."

Chapter by Chapter:
One: Comfortable Strangers: The Making of National Identity in Popular Photography: An introduction which situates the Geographic in the realm of "mass culture" (using the Frankfurt School's formulation) and points out that among "edutainment" products, very few have the "cultural legitimacy of the Geographic" - a legitimacy that stems, in part, from its associations with "the state, national identity, and science" (7).

Two: Becoming America's Lens on the World: National Geographic in the Twentieth Century: A history of the formation of the Geographic's cultural authority (as laid out in the previous chapter). Includes information about early Geographic editorial guidelines for content in the magazine (27), the story of the magazine's adoption of color photography (32); the magazine's association with the government (34). Overall, describes the development of the Geographic's idea of American national identity: "rational, generous, and benevolent" (46).

Three: Inside the Great Machinery of Desire:
Perhaps the most interesting chapter, methodologically, in which L & C gain access to the internal workings of the magazine, attending editorial meetings, hovering over layout artists while they work, and interviewing photographers and editors about how they "frame" a story during its development. Also presents interesting information on how the marketing and advertising departments contribute to choices of subject matter and frame: "Africa is an unpopular subject, as are social problems...articles on small, endearing animals, or endangered species" are popular (83). The process of creating the magazine, the authors write, is a "highly negotiated" one, in which the editors seek to receive a "constant supply of what they consider very good pictures - photographs that operate within traditional realist frameworks, yet contain elements of surprise and interest", while still allowing photographers a degree of autonomy (85).

Caption written by Geographic website: "A Woman of Faith, Photograph by David Alan Harvey. With nine decades of living etched on her face, Mãe Filinha exudes the quiet authority of her position as leader of the Sisterhood of the Good Death. This religious group practices Candomblé, a belief system based on African traditions and influenced by Catholicism and South American Indian rituals. The sisterhood is known for processions marked by singing and praying as members move through the streets of Cachoeira. During Candomblé ceremonies adherents enter trances and commune with their gods. The chanting and beating of drums can last well into the night." Interestingly, the site also includes information about the technical details of the photographic equipment used, intimating that the reader could (should?) participate in the production of similar pictures.

Four: A World Brightly Different: Photographic Conventions, 1950-1986:
An analysis of the "surface content" of the photographs, done by coding a random sample. In this chapter, the authors introduce the wide range of themes they will problematize in future chapters. The view the authors see emerging through this sample is one of a non-Western world "of happy, classless people outside of history but evolving into it, edged with exoticism and sexuality, but knowable to some degree as individuals" (116). They hold that the evaluation of this view should be based "not on the intentions of the magazine's makers but on the consequences of its photographic rhetoric" (117).

Five: Fashions in the Ethnic Other:
Here, L & C describe shifting interests in "other" cultures throughout the postwar time period, pointing out differences in regional coverage (the Pacific Islands receive far more attention, proportionally, than other regions, for example), and changes in coverage during times of US political involvement in the country in question (see: formerly positive, then negative portraits of Ferdinand Marcos).

Six: The Color of Sex: Postwar Photographic Histories of Race and Gender:
Interpretations of photographs of non-white females, with emphasis on how they were used as exemplars of "unspoiled" sensuality and womanhood (and maternality), in contrast to a Western womanhood perceived "ruined" by education and careerism. Here, too, an analysis of the bare-breasted issue - the darker the woman, L & C found, the more likely she was to be bare-breasted in the magazine (this is still true).

Availability and sensuality of non-Western women is a mainstay of the Nat Geo appeal. "Introduction" and caption written by the Geographic: "Salvador, Brazil, 2002. Photograph by David Alan Harvey, Magnum. Introduction: 'I call Brazil the "land of the 10,000 senses" because of the lushness and diversity of it all. Just the Amazon rain forest alone fills the sense with its sounds, smells, colors, even its silences.' -National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis. Caption: In Bahia, Africa cultural traditions are strong and set the rhythm at Carnival. That most sensual of festivals hold sway every February from Recife to Rio."

Seven: The Photograph as Intersection of Gazes:
An intimate analysis of the"gazes" to be found in Geographic photos, including the direct gaze at the camera (which was more likely to be seen in photographs of the powerless - darker, younger, poorer, more female - subjects); the gaze within the photographic rectangle; and the gaze of the subject upon his/her own reflection in a mirror, a Polaroid, or a camera's viewfinder.

Eight: The Readers' Imagined Geographic: An Evolutionary Tale:
Introduction of the sample of white Americans used for the ethnographic portion of this book. The most interesting part of this chapter is the assessment of the evolutionary views of the readers - an assessment which finds that "the categories of primitive or traditional, civilized or modern, were assumed by virtually everyone we talked to in the interviews" (236) and that "modernization is sometimes viewed as analogous to transmitting disease - as a kind of physical, determinate process outside human intentionality" (240). L & C found strong currents of Rosaldo's "imperialist nostalgia" (246) within readers' reactions to photographs of modernizing peoples, but also point out that the overriding contradiction and confusion of readers' responses mitigate against any pinpointing of operative ideologies - readers were more likely to use and combine several different ideologies while describing a picture's content.

Nine: The Pleasures and Possibilities of Reading:
A final chapter that seeks to examine the real-life implications of the reader responses that the Geographic solicits. Here is where L & C arrive at the conclusion that the humanism provoked and enforced by these pictures is essentially conservative, and that human differences "that could tell us something important about history...or be turned critically on our own society...become construed as superficial, even if attractive, flourishes that can be pulled back to reveal a confirmation of important Western values" (277). This humanism, they claim, following Barthes, "cannot accommodate differences of interest or account for incidents of injustice" (282).

Here, a Western scientist working in Guyana to study catfish employs "local residents" to help him gather the fish. The scene, which depicts non-Westerners stooped over and supervised by a white Westerner, evokes questions about colonial relationships, especially ones shaped around "science"; questions not examined by the Geographic-written caption ("'Hard Science,' Photograph by Randy Olson. 'It’s very difficult to catch fish in streams with large rocks and fast water,' says Larry Page. So he hired help. Raising a ruckus, local residents drive fish into the scientists’ nets. In calmer waters researchers go 'hoggin’'—wading into the shallows, then sticking a hand into a log or other dark, wet place. 'You pull out whatever is in there,' says Page, 'and hopefully all your fingers as well.'"

Reviews: In a long review in AQ, Kathryn VanSpanckeren wrote that the book is "comprehensive," "generous-spirited", "readable", but adds, "This straightforward book does not offer striking new theoretical formulations...instead, it bristles with specific information and offers concise reviews of theoretical positions only if they are helpful in understanding the magazine." Her main criticism lies in the omission of text in the analysis, and says that techniques of literary theory and the greats of postcolonial theory could have been employed to advantage. She also holds that L & C should have done a better job at situating the magazine within magazine history. Most of all, she criticizes the book for re-inscribing the central fallacy of the magazine itself: not allowing the non-Western peoples a voice. In Science, Heidi Larson (of Unicef) wrote that she wished the captions themselves had been given more attention, especially in the chapter in which the authors interviewed white Americans using uncaptioned pictures as prompts. Reviewing the book for the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Joseph Wood liked the way the book "turned the tables" on National Geographic, examining it the same way it examines others, and writes that the book "illustrates quite effectively how our view of the world is socially constructed."

This photo, called "Afghan Girl", by Steve McCurry, ran in a 1985 edition of the Geographic. In 2003 the magazine made an effort to find the subject, named Sharbat Gula. The way that the magazine wrote up this search is fascinating, in light of the conclusions Lutz and Collins draw: the search was framed as an exploration in and of itself, looking for the anonymous woman whose "direct gaze had intrigued the West for so long" (see L & C on the gaze of the photographed, chapter 7). By dramatizing the search in this way, the magazine appears to have glossed over the fact that the reason Gula remained anonymous was that the magazine had failed to identify her in her initial portrait (see L & C's conclusions on the anonymity of the non-Western subject), as well as to re-inflect the viewer's relationship with the subject with significant overtones of desire.

The follow-up picture, which has Gula, now a mother, holding the magazine, echoes previous Geographic pictorial compositions in which the subject is seen as engaging with his/her depiction in the magazine - a construction which L & C holds is fundamentally reflective of the idea that the Geographic, and by extension, the Western world, has brought self-awareness, history, and change to the rest of the world (208). The Geographic's reflections on the search for Gula also noted that she had not even seen the photograph until they "found" her - a fact which the Western reader could see as indicative of the tremendous difference and distance between Gula's life and their own, given the iconic nature of the photograph. The slightly icky connotations of this relationship - isn't it sort of weird that we've been enjoying her beauty for so many years, while she's been living in a refugee camp in Pakistan, an experience which has clearly aged her beyond her chronological age? - are not explored.

Follow up: " often portrayed in popular culture as a kind of sister state to the United States, complete with the same vast area, wealth of resources, frontier with Indians, and much immigration" (125).

New words:
"hebete" ("dull, stupid, obtuse"); "ludic" ("of or pertaining to undirected and spontaneously playful behaviour").

Books to follow up on: Secondary:
Christopher Lyman, The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions: Photographs of Indians by Edward Curtis (1982); Sander Gilman, Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness (1985); Bernard MacGrane, Beyond Anthropology: Society and the Other (1989); Susan Moeller, Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat (1989); Roy Preiswerk and Dominique Perrot, Ethnocentrism and History: Africa, Asia, and Indian America in Western Textbooks (1978); Richard Ohmann, Politics of Letters (1987) (on the development of the magazine market); Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth (1989); John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (1988); Min-Ha T. Trinh, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism (1989); Eric Wolf, Empire and the People Without History (1982).

Poem: "In the Waiting Room", by Elizabeth Bishop

In Worcester, Massachusetts
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist's appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist's waiting room.
It was winter. It was dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
"Long Pig," The caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked, women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover;
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came a "oh!" of pain
Aunt Consuelo's voice
not very loud or long.
I wasn't at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn't. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I we were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you'll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should I be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
I couldn't look any higher
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.
Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, of even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How I didn't know any
word for it how "unlikely…."
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn't?
The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

1 comment:

Jay River said...

Some of the best photos are distortions, or illusion, or simply misleading. This is the magic? of photography... transporting your mind to a conclusion.

Learn more about Edward S. Curtis from a recent film: The indian Picture Opera