National Geographic Omissions

May 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

CA 94’s recent examination of the photographic image has offered a rich opportunity to discuss photography’s place in anthropology and in popular culture.  This is an important exercise, since it urges everyone involved to consider the day-to-day production of our own subjectivities.   At the same time, our readings have been helpful for CA 94 students thinking about how photographs and other media can be used as artifacts, methodological tools, and creative outlets for their own work.

The May 26 reading on National Geographic photography mentioned a number of immensely influential and talented photographers in its discussion of Western editorial photography between 1950 and 1986.  One such photographer was Henri Cartier-Bresson, an artists credited with being the father of modern photojournalism.  Even though his name was quickly mentioned, people unfamiliar with the art/profession/trade/science (you can pick whichever term works best for you) should know that he’s kind of a big deal.

Another name that stood out in the reading was James Nachtwey.  If you’re not familiar with his work, take a look at the documentary, The War Photographer.  The reason why Nachtwey caught my attention is that his work tends to evoke visceral reactions from viewers.  He’s well-known for producing images that convey fear, conflict, pain, and excitement.  In addition, he does all this in his coverage of war zones.  His work has appeared in many publications, but there is a marked difference between his National Geographic work and the images for which he’s best known.

Nachtwey’s National Geographic work:

The work for which Nachtwey is best-known: To read scholars talking about the contrast between National Geographic’s pages and those of other widely circulating magazines give us a sense of the different worldviews constructed by print media.  However, as Margaret Mead suggests in On the Use of the Camera in Anthropology, these things might not have meaning until we see the photos.  The contrast between Nachtwey’s images in different publications makes the production of vastly different narratives about the world and non-Westerners in the mainstream American media.

Nachtwey, like many photojournalists, stresses the difference that defines viewing subjects and objects of the gaze.  However, he also regularly produces troubling imagery that might inconvenience audiences with painful truths–and that is not part of the narrative reinforced or produced by National Geographic.

(At the same time, there are plenty of people who criticize Nachtwey for a number of things including his voyeuristic “witnessing.”  If you’re in that camp, feel free to chime in.)


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