"National Geographic" and the Modern Lens of Empire

By Leila A. McNeill

I can remember as kid pulling the yellow covered magazines off my family’s bookshelf and flipping through the pages of National Geographic. I don’t remember reading the articles in any great detail, but the photographs of foreign wildlife and native peoples in National Geographic were always stunning. Even as a child, I remember knowing instinctively that, first and foremost, this was a magazine meant to be looked at. The photos of native peoples from outside the United States instilled in me an overwhelming sense of difference and distance between me and them, and they still do. After all, it is because of their difference from Western life that they are featured in the magazine to begin with.

National Geographic has become the photographer’s lens through which we in the West, and in the US in particular, view the rest of the world. As of 2012, NG was ranked the 7th largest publication in the United States and touted an astounding worldwide readership of over 30 million people. The magazine’s mission page says that the organization is “driven by a passionate belief in the power of science, exploration, and storytelling to change the world” and that every year they “fund researchers and explorers around the globe who are working to preserve species and ecosystems, protect cultures, and advance understanding of our planet and inhabitants.” This sounds wonderful, but like a dog whistle to my historian’s ear, I hear the echoes of colonial imperialism and a paternalistic desire to protect less civilized nations from themselves. As an organization, non-profit though it may be, based in a First World capitalist country like the United States, NG cannot escape the power imbalance that surely follows from fully-funded explorers entering a Third World space and turning their cameras on a people who cannot turn a camera back. With its enormous readership and editorial authority, NG has positioned itself as a leading scientific institution in representing “primitive” cultures to the Western imagination.

Before NG articles and photographs were easily retrievable online, my family organized the magazines chronologically in rows on the bookshelves, and it was a familiar mainstay that I also recognized in many of my friends’ homes. They were things to be collected and displayed-- what does this say about the people photographed in them? Take for instance the famous Afghan Girl, photographed by Steven McCurry and featured on the cover of the June 1985 issue. This cover is by far the most successful NG has ever published. The girl never consented to having her photograph taken, and for years, she had no idea that her image was being bought, sold, and immortalized across the ocean. She never even had a real name until NG tracked her down 17 years later-- Sharbat Gula. An authentic copy of the photo can run upwards of $8,000. Her cover has been included in commemorative NG collections that you can also buy and place on your coffee table for sophisticated guests to peruse over drinks. We have collected her, and you can own her if you’re willing to pay for her.

The girl’s bright green eyes boldly look back at the Westerner, and her dark hair and face are framed by her faded and torn scarf. The green peeking out of the tear at her shoulder reinforces the fierce green of her eyes. She is at once exotic and familiar as similar images of Muslim women from the East have been naturalized in the Western imagination since the nineteenth century. She is also idealized as the quintessential refugee in need of a white Western savior; the Afghan Girl is now solidified in the popular imagination as The Afghan Girl. In 1985, Afghanistan was 6 years into its Soviet occupation, and The Afghan Girl was living as a refugee in Pakistan. Afghanistan wasn’t just fighting their own occupation though, they were also helping to fight America’s Cold War, and America needed the Afghans to help win that fight. By representing Afghanistan as the the war-torn refugee girl with the fierce and resilient gaze, we could all collectively justify the West’s intervention and its exploitation of the Afghan people. After 9/11, The Afghan Girl had a resurgence in popularity as the Bush administration used her as an emblem of Islamic oppression to sell their war in the Middle East. The way we understand and respond to The Afghan Girl has been intricately related to the imperial interests of the West. Her photograph then tells us more about ourselves and how we see ourselves on the world’s stage rather than the true lived experience of Afghan women and Afghanistan as a nation.

The way that NG photographs women from the Middle East in general is more than a little troubling. On the cover of the October 1987 issue, a young girl sitting on a swing smiles back at the camera and an adult Muslim woman, perhaps the girl’s mother, looks into the camera through the slit in her veil with the caption “Women of Arabia” in the lower left hand corner. Later in 2002, The Afghan Girl now identified as Sharbat Gula appears again on the cover, this time completely veiled and holding the original photo of her youth. In the West, even though many Muslim women themselves passionately argue the opposite, it is hard to see the veil as anything other than a symbol of male oppression, especially since one sign of women’s liberation in Western culture is how naked a woman is allowed to be in public. NG has been a key participant in and an active maker of this singular narrative about Middle Eastern and Muslim women. In both these covers, the photographers create a sense of tension between the promise and freedom of unveiled girls next to their veiled futures. In the 17 year time span of these covers, from The Afghan Girl to her rediscovery, NG has portrayed the position of Middle Eastern women as stable, unchanging, and forever backward. No matter how much Muslim women advance or exercise agency over their own lives and clothing choices, the West keeps them trapped in the veil of its own imagination.

Set within the framework of a scientific and educational publication, these images of Muslim women seem to escape the political, racial, and gendered dimension that they so clearly take on. Though NG journalists and writers usually aren’t scientists themselves, they work within a tradition of using scientific language to describe native people and their customs as if these are objective ways of looking at people who are ‘different.’ With this seemingly scientific objectivity, they prompt us as readers to press our curious faces up to the glass and observe Middle Eastern women in their natural habitat. When we believe that the same scientific lens used to capture the snow leopard also represents people and their culture or when we see photographs of wildlife on one page and native women on the next, it is not surprising that we think this is an objective way of looking at the different Other. NG itself claims that their content is “unbiased,” but photographers approach their subjects first as Westerners (among other identities) and second as professionals. Photographers and we as readers in the First World place ourselves, either consciously or unconsciously, in a place of power over the women of the Middle East when we commodify and collect their image and presume to know the complex inner lives behind the veil.

Further Reading:
Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins, Reading National Geographic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

Wendy S. Hesford and Wendy Kozol, eds., Just Advocacy?: Women’s Human Rights, Transnational Feminisms. and the Politics of Representation (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2005).