Week 6 – National Geographic

“The myth transforms history into nature” (Barthes, 1972, p.154)

I occasionally come across a copy of the National Geographic and I don’t remember the last time I read an article, often just looking at the images on it. Grundberg states that it represents cultural aspects as if they were universal, therefore creating a simple and reduced experience with it.

What many don’t realize is that it is a pictorial magazine and it represents the point of view of the Western world, so the idea that it is “saying the truth”, or representing “what they saw” is wrong, because every photograph represents something, there is no such thing as just a copy of the original. I find the following quote to explains well it’s inner core:

“If photography is perceived as reality, then modes of representations will themselves enhance that reality, in other words the photography is perceived as “real” and “true” because that is what the viewer expects to see: this is how it should be, becomes this is how it is/was .”  (Edwards, 1992, p.8)

The National geographic represents and show us people one visual style, and we learned to accept it without making any questions. Is shows the world the way I see it, therefore could merely being reproducing the stereotypes that are already in our culture.

On Indigenous people

When I think about indigenous people, it comes to my mind specially Amazon indigenous, and they are either in their tribes wearing indigenous coverings and tattoos, or they are in the cities, covered half in clothes, and half in their own feathers and makeup. I think I learned from looking such as National Geographic and television news. The news often reports the struggles they are going through, and the mix of clothes and indigenous garments are used to identify their culture and to intensify and backup what they have to say when protesting against an issue.

“Only what is of a kindly nature is printed about any country or people; everything unpleasant or unduly critical being avoided” (Foster, 2012, p.2)


Jay Dickman, 2013

Here is an example of a National Geography photograph representation of his arrival in Samoa, an indigenous man with leaves around his neck. As Sontag says, the photographer is like a super tourist, bringing back all the information they got on the trip. The Western world portraits them as inferior and as a culture that is stagnated, and the influence of the west would be necessary to improve their situation.

When the non-western are represented as progressive it comes as a stereotype. There is a big gap n between the culture photographing and the other represented. The representation of non-western are all of the same style, creating a myth: they are therefore more interested in the image than the facts of the people and culture.

The National Geographic possesses, and so do we, these images represent power: the illusion of the power of possession of these cultures resembles the history of colonialism.

“The tendency to subjugate the mission of gathering evidence to the demands of pictorial appeal, becomes especially obvious in the pictures. It is also an inevitable consequence of National Geographic’s definition of itself as a magazine of mass appeal.” (Grundberg, 1988)

On North Korea, Colombia and Saudi Arabia

On North Korea, it comes to my mind the big buildings and images of their leader and its political situation. When talking about Colombia, the view of the city of Medellin and its relationship with drug dealing and cocaine. On Saudi Arabia, I think of the architecture of a typical country of the Arab world and its involvement in killings and repression.

Reproducing/ power relations and my practice

In my practice, I realise that I could have power relations to sitters. I am working with representation of cultures and this has always been an interest. I realise that I have already being on the “national geography” path before, recreating stereotypes and reinforcing the power relationship with the subject to be photographed before.

This magazine, as one of the major distributors of images in printed form, is very powerful and reinforces this reality that doesn’t exist (myth). We, as public, can very easily fall into this trap. I became more aware of these ideological issues of representation and I am more careful now.





Barthes, Roland (1972) Mythologies, London: Jonathan Cape

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