Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins - Reading National Geographic - 1993
Dec. 9, 1998
The Paper Museum: Reading National Geographic
I admit that I have always loved the National Geographic. It has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, usually associated with my grandparents and their fundamental efforts to provide a world education for their kids and grandkids. The more I read Lutz's book, the more I come to understand a possible influence on my own desires to travel the world and experience other cultures. This makes me a bit defensive, but it also solves a small mystery for me.
It was declared in the beginning weeks of class that Americans have a fixation with being happy. At first I thought this was a most wonderful observation, simply because I believe that happiness is a worthy goal, but then I realized what was being said: we do our best to ignore the unhappy. Why paint an ugly picture when you can create a beautiful work that will appeal to you and brighten your day every time you view it? It seems that National Geographic has taken this desire for beauty and happiness and institutionalized it. I call to witness rule six of the magazine: "Only what is of kindly nature is printed about any country or people, everything unpleasant or unduly critical being avoided." (p. 27) They have actively chosen to only show one side of the world in order to gain further readership, which this idealistic college student says is reasonable but, well, wrong. Human nature is a beast of light as well as shadow, and one is rather flat without the other. When it comes to portraying other cultures it is all the more important to not be superficial or two-dimensional.
Which brings me to the art of photography. NG has for me always been the apex of photographic quality and beauty - a job with them is the dream of almost any aspiring photographer. Lutz states that the photos are sharp and "scientific" in efforts to be objectively presenting evidence. A long depth of field (having both the foreground and background in focus), as they employ, is in a way less emotional and to me more redeeming of the NG photographers. If they used the art to create emotion and particular perspectives of the photographer, such as maintaining focus just on the foreground, then they would be manipulating the image for the sake of the argument of the article, just as the words might be subtly twisted to present an opinion hidden in supposed scientific prose. Perhaps I have been duped by NG photographs, made blind to other aspects of the composition and content that, while not appearing emotional or artsy in production, are in fact selective and overly beautiful. I believe that is Lutz's point, and here again I am a willing victim.
The idea of the NG as a paper museum of sorts intrigues me. Influenced at its roots by positivist notions of a knowable and ordered world, it feeds us by limiting the depth of the material to the thickness of a page, removing the anxiety of the unknown infinity behind it. Westerners truly are collectors in this way - putting things in glass cases and providing a narrative path along which we can travel. As we go an argument is made, each point building on the previous, until we reach the only logical conclusion, that which the curator of this particular museum deems true and necessary. I hate to think that we are all sheep in this way, unable to question what we are presented with, but when your "evidence" is limited to what you have been given, there is only so much you can do. This is why curiosity is healthy - it leads to investigation of introduced material - and why magazines like NG can be redeemed in a certain way: just as orientalist accounts of foreign lands may be sensationalist, they also foster curiosity, calling (softly) for the dis-proval of their own claims. Whether or not this can be done depends on the motivation of the reader and the reader's own resources such as money, which is why the middle-class consumers of the NG may not be able to go beyond the page, making them the perfect, unquestioning audience. I do feel, however, that we jump to villainize things, especially those involved in mass culture, taking the responsibility off of us, instead of cultivating in ourselves the ability to question what we are given.