Reading National Geographic
Political Science 3835

Fall 2000

Reading National Geographic is a cultural analysis of the National Geographic magazine and the National Geographic Society that publishes the journal.

In their book Lutz and Collins claim that National Geographic magazine has a cultural authority that exceeds all other scientific magazines. At first I wondered why it is that National Geographic is one of the primary means by which people in the US receive info and images of the world outside of their borders? But as you read through the book you become more convinced that this is the magazine that American society identifies with. The magazine is built in such a way that it draws attention with exotic elements of the third world. The National Geographic wants the reader to empathize with the people living there. And that’s what the American society does, it empathizes and it’s being drawn to the unknown, and it is possibly being influenced on its desire to travel the world and experience other cultures.

The book is focused on the photography used in National Geographic. Photographs are considered to be artifacts that provide information about the culture, society and historical contexts that produced the photos. We are being introduced to a combination of the studies of photography and geography.

While the magazine does contain numerous articles, it has become most identified for its high-quality photographs. National Geographic has been the benchmark of photographic quality and beauty for many years, I’m sure a job with them is the dream of any photographer. To see how the magazine invites people to look out at the rest of the world thought the eyes of the world’s most powerful nation, the authors of the book closely analysed about six hundred photos. In their analysis of the “other” cultures through photography, the authors also look in to social, historical, and art theories, and closely examine ethnic and gender issues. Lutz and Collins structured their study "so as to gain insight into the process by which images are formed, selected and controlled, purveyed and read" (11). The authors claim that the photos are “scientific” in efforts to be objectively presenting evidence, "the objects presented actually occurred in nature in the ways they were photographed" (28). But by analysing this, you come to a conclusion that for the photo to appear real and “scientific” the image must be consistent with cultural expectations. And it’s the editors who consider under what conditions images will appear to be realistic. While writing the book, the authors were amazed by how the looks and looking relationships are capture in the photos, concluding that "all photographs tell stories about looking" (187). In chapter 7, "The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes," the authors explain more about the phenomenon of "the gaze". There are gazes in every photograph found in the National Geographic: one or more persons looking at the camera, people looking in a variety of directions, the photographer’s gaze (represented by the camera’s perspective), the magazine’s gaze, and the magazine reader’s gaze. These gazes can establish a sense of intimacy and communication, but this "contradicts to some extent [National Geographic’s] official goal of presenting an unmanipulated, truthful slice of life from another country" (198).

The National Geographic has “always been private, but has powerful ties to government; it is a “scientific” institution, yet dependent on the sales and popularity of its magazine; its photographs are realistic, yet highly stylized.” (15). Not only it have ties with the government it also has ties with corporate interest. At the same time the magazine “claims to articulate a national vision, addressing the concerns and curiosity of all US citizens.” This makes me wonder how could a publication connected with the government or corporations not be influenced by either one of these organizations. National Geographic Society constituting itself as an important and reliable interpreter of third world realities, wouldn’t the government impose its point of view or somehow influence the interpretation of certain analysis of the editors. So how could National Geographic put themselves into an encyclopedia category, as its mentioned in the book, if the magazine is not completely factual but more an interpretation of editors and the photographers putting it together?

So, why is this magazine so popular, why is it the