Reading Reading National Geographic

a book review by Cora McGovern Iezza
© Copyright 1997

    Many Americans have learned to appreciate other cultures by reading National Geographic. Authors Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins say they, like many other anthropologists, root their life's work in early experiences with the magazine. Their book, Reading National Geographic, examines how editorial decisions at the Geographic shape the content until it reflects American culture far more than those of the peoples it depicts.

    The book focuses on photographic images. One would think that photos reflect an existing reality. But Lutz and Collins show how reality is created for Geographic readers in its Washington D.C. executive board room long before the photographer boards his plane to capture far away places on film.

    "The photograph can be seen as a cultural artifact because its makers and readers look at the world with an eye that is not universal or natural but tutored. It can also be seen as a commodity, because it is sold by a magazine concerned with revenues. . . . This book traces how the magazine has floated in American cultural and political-economic currents of the post-World War II period and asks what the photographs tell us about the American-fashioned world". (p. xiii)

    Geographic tells stories with pictures. One prefers to think the pictures capture spontaneous moments. But in fact many are highly staged. The amount of time spent shaping these images before they are assigned to writers and photographers staggers the imagination. Top editors must "sell" story ideas to the board, who then decide the story's theme. Graphic editors then select a photographer for the job and explain the theme and what types of photos must be included in the thousands of shots that will be snapped. Writer and photographer work separately and often do not meet on location. When the away-from-home work is done, layout editors take weeks selecting, sizing and juxapositioning photos to ensure the pictures tell the story the editors intended -- regardless of the actual situation.

    Photos are manipulated electronically as well. In one photo of bare-breasted Polynesian women, the skin color was darkened. The authors note the overtly racist implications of this action. Women with light skin have not appeared topless in the magazine. This editorial decision is not lost on the public. Comedian Richard Pryor has called National Geographic "the Black man's Playboy."

    Illustrating how the incredible resources of the magazine are used to recreate the Third World, Collins, who did her field work in South America, tells the story of how a Geographic photographer shooting an article on Latin America flew to one location, got a cab from the airport to a remote mountain village only to find the children were in school in another village. He took the cab to the school, gathered the children, took them home to change into costumes because he found their clothing too drab, and returned with them to the school. But by then the light had gone, so he took a few Polaroids for the villagers and left for the airport and his next location without any photos.

    In the book, excerpts from interviews with writers, photographers, graphics editors and management describe a typical para-military hierarchy, with ultimate power in the hands of one editor. National Geographic employees, like most American journalists, accept this "participatory dictatorship." Photographers "want to tell the truth about what they've seen, while editors and home staff may object, protesting that it is radically different from what they assume is out there." (p. 69.) Patriarchal authority at the Geographic rarely faces a serious challenge, although occasionally concessions are made.

    Even in the 1990s, the magazine's staff remains almost exclusively white and male. In the chapter "The Color of Sex," the authors examine the racial and gender stereotypes that fill its pages. Women of other cultures are eroticized. The authors show that topless natives are almost always teens. Sagging breasts have appeared occasionally to keep up the scientific front, but these photos are small and off to the side. Skin-color becomes an measure of character, with dark people appearing more hostile and fair people more friendly, indicated by facial expression and posture.

    The authors also describe how captions often divert the readers attention away from certain unpleasant aspects of a photo. In one photo showing a boy in rags riding a bicycle, the caption focused on the bike as a symbol of hope for a brighter future.

    "Caption writers do not consider their work to have a political dimension, although they concede that their word choice may be controversial. While terms like 'guerrillas,' versus 'freedom fighters,' can cause problems, they generally feel able to find neutral terms. We observed one case in a mockup, where the word 'elite' had been changed to 'prestigious' in reference to an African school. While 'elite' has connotations of class and exclusionary social practice, 'prestige' connotes a status conferred by public opinion based on merit, and thus plays down the issue of inequality."(p.81)

    Lutz and Collins, through carefully controlled random selection and coding of photographs, provide an objective look at what normally would be considered entirely subjective determinations. One random photograph was selected from each of the 594 articles featuring "non-Westerners" from 1950 through 1986. Each photo was coded by two people for twenty-two characteristics.

    "Although at first blush it might appear counterproductive to reduce the rich material in any photograph to a small number of codes, quantification does not preclude or substitute for qualitative analysis of the pictures. It does allow, however, discovery of patterns that are too subtle to be visible on casual inspection and protection against an unconscious search through the magazine for only those which confirm one's initial sense of what the photos say or do.

    " An important set of themes runs through all National Geographic renderings of the non-Euroamerican world. The people of the third and fourth worlds are portrayed as exotic; they are idealized; they are naturalized and taken out of all but a single historical narrative; and they are sexualized. Several of these themes wax and wane in importance through the postwar period, but none is ever absent." (p. 89)

    According to Lutz and Collins, because people identify National Geographic as a scientific and educational institution, their depiction of other cultures carries more weight than other commercial sources. People accept these images as fact for a number of reasons. Mostly because the magazine reflects "facts" its readers already believe about other cultures.

    Through extensive use of its marketing department, the magazine determines what readers want, and provides it. The Geographic's image of the Third World has not remained stagnant over time. Throughout most of the postwar period, Americans envisioned an exotic, safe Third World, where proud, hard-working poor people lived simple but satisfying lives. In the world according to National Geographic, no one suffered needless hunger.

    Its readers, however, are not ignorant, and as the Third World became more threatening to Americans during the Reagan years, the Geographic changed its depictions from places where technology and tradition live side by side to ones where technology has tainted once pristine places because backward people are simply not ready for its advantages. The born-again noble savage all but disappeared.

    Each month the magazine is seen by an estimated 37 million people worldwide. It has the third largest subscription rate in the United States. According to the authors, the Geographic carefully guards its demographics, so as not to appear to serve too narrow a group of the American public, but does share those that seem to show a broad range of readership. Fifty-five percent of the in-home readers are male, 96 percent white. The median age is 42. They are wealthier and better educated than the average American with 33 percent college graduates and 65 percent household incomes over $30,000.

    "Among popular magazines, the National Geographic sits near the top of the hierarchy of taste or status. ... Those hierarchies assert that some cultural artifacts are intrinsically more valuable than others (for example, classical musical over pop, oil painting over photography), when in fact the value of the artifact can be seen as the complex outcome of its histories of use, the class and gender ... of those who consume it and so on." (p. 7)

    The tax-free status the magazine enjoys, as an educational, scientific institution, allows for enormous expenditures on its highly polished product. The authors note, however, that this status seems to have influenced Geographic editors' decisions in supporting U.S. state policies. In the 1950's as nationalism surfaced in the Third World, Westerners appeared less frequently in photos of the third world, so as not to raise questions as to their role. There was no coverage of the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1959. Mainland China, frequently covered prior to Communist government, rarely appeared between 1950 and 1976, but returned to the pages after Nixon's visit in 1975. Vietnam was particularly troublesome, especially after media coverage turned most Americans against the war.

    The book successfully attempts to show how readers view of the "other" is shaped and reaffirmed by the National Geographic. The authors' methodology allows them to code what normally would be considered "subjective" measurements in an objective way. They add valuable insights into the ways in which the media both reflect and shape the public discourse.

    There are, however, some serious problems with this book. In the last two chapters, the authors describe the responses of fifty-five white readers, some from Binghamton, NY and others from Honolulu. The authors wanted to see if readers regularly exposed to other cultures (Hawaii) would respond differently than those who had little experience with them (NY). While many of their responses are intriguing, the sample size is far too small to indicate any patterns.


    Reading National Geographic is an enormously important piece of research for what it can teach us about ourselves. It shows some of the unseen forces that shape American attitudes and behaviors. It is said that one can never view the self objectively. Lutz and Collins combine content analysis and ethnographic insight in ways that can ripple the carefully constructed image in one's mirror. This book also is enormously important because it shatters the myth of journalistic "objectivity" in one of the most highly respected, widely read publications in America. If you can't believe what you see in National Geographic,can you believe anything in any "news" source?

    The authors briefly describe the "hierarchy of taste or status" that give the magazine enormous appeal to status-conscious individuals. It is a pity that they did not realize how elitist they were being when they decided to use so much academese and anthropological jargon. Lutz and Collins say they were horrified when a group of students eating lunch at a campus pub cheered a news bulletin that the United States had invaded Grenada. They could not understand "what forces had so shaped the American perception of other cultures that they applauded the prospect of dead and dying Grenadians." In light of this motivation, the decision to write the results of their research in a language that most of these very students could not appreciate was an amusing choice.

    For years anthropologists have written about people who would never read their reports. Today's anthropologists have run out of isolated cultures to study, so many have begun to turn inward. Lutz has a well-deserved reputation for innovative scholarship in this self-centered ethnography or ethnobiography. In Unnatural emotions, she uses her experiences on the Pacific island of Ifaluk to explore the social construction of emotion. Then, using that framework, she deconstructs some specific American emotions. The book was not without critics, but its findings are as profound as those in Reading National Geographic.

    Most of today's anthropologists abhor the legacy of their predecessors, which includes imperialist greed and historical racism. Yet it seems that only some of the sentiments have changed. Writing in a language that the subject cannot understand implies a continuing elitism. There is an implied responsibility in analyzing any culture -- including one's own. It is not unreasonable to expect that the findings be disseminated in the everyday language of its people.