Is National Geographic Still Perpetuating Racist Stereotypes?

Is National Geographic Still Perpetuating Racist Stereotypes?

Earlier this year, National Geographic examined its own role in creating and perpetuating racial stereotypes and acknowledging that its coverage in the past has been racist. Its last two magazine covers have drawn criticism, leading some to wonder if anything has changed.

Kainaz Amaria, an editor at Vox, called attention to the National Geographic covers, suggesting that one conveys a "heroic white cowboy" narrative while the other perpetuates a “primitive other” stereotype.

In drawing attention to the magazine covers, Amaria sparked some constructive debate. Charlie Hamilton Jones, the photographer of the monkey hanging onto the child’s head, explained how closely he works with isolated communities and that he was shooting a phenomenon that he saw around him regularly. James also pointed out that the article connected to the cover photograph talked about many of the myths surrounding these tribes.

Others were keen to point out that while he might have been depicting what he saw around him, it was part of an editorial tendency to seek out such images and deliver “what Nat Geo [is] looking for and what audiences love.”

With a respectable amount of grace, James acknowledged that as journalists and editors, they will make mistakes and always welcome the thoughts of others. For National Geographic, the difficulty now sits between creating compelling images that grab their readers' imaginations while also maintaining their journalistic integrity and ensuring that they do not perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes of distant people and view them through colonialist eyes.

Where does this balance sit? How do photographers provoke by creating something compelling but without reducing something complex to mere surface? Your thoughts in the comments, please.

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58 Comments

Han Seoul-Oh's picture

who is more ignorant, the "primitive" culture photographed on the cover or the person to whom the article is attempting to appeal?

but let's be honest, taken out of context, any image can be used to serve a narrative. that's what's clearly on display here.

Tim Ericsson's picture

Context here is most certainly the issue. I haven’t read the articles (I don’t know anyone who still has a NatGeo subscription!) but the western image has a head note that questions land ownership: a concept far different from the heroic cowboy trope. And the Amazonian tribe cover describes preservation efforts by indigenous people: far from the noble savage concept.

Ironically, those crying fowl have reduced the images to their base meaning-similar in method to the accusations they make against NatGeo.

Christos Dikos's picture

Outrage, outrage. Can't get enough outrage.

So, a cover with a white person on it is racist, and a cover with a non-white person on it is also racist? I'm so tired of everything being racist. Let the magazine do stories on whatever they want to do stories on. If you don't like their stories, don't buy the magazine. Next, somebody is going to look at every story published by Fstoppers and determine that there's some bias present that Fstoppers needs to apologize for. We've gone way overboard with this nonsense and it distracts from the actual racism that still exists.

user-156929's picture

Fstoppers is clearly biased toward cell phones being better cameras than actual cameras! ;-)

FStoppers seems to perpetuate the myth that photographers are crotchety, pedantic, and condescending. Err, nevermind, that's no myth.

Matt Williams's picture

You don't seem to understand the context. A picture of a white cowboy is not inherently racist.

When you put such a picture next to all of the other pictures on Nat Geo covers, like the one above, there is a clear - very clear - trend in the photos that reinforces racial stereotypes.

By itself, neither picture is racist. In the context of, well, the world and hundreds of other Nat Geo covers, it's clearly an example of systemic racism. Not intentionally. I'm sure no one meant any ill will. But talking about these things is the only way for people to understand and change - or, for many people like yourself, just dig your heels in and complain about going "overboard with this nonsense."

"Actual racism" as you put it, is pervasive in every facet of our culture. You can't say "no, the real racism is over here" because it is EVERYWHERE. Pointing it out in one place doesn't detract from or negate it being a problem elsewhere too.

William Howell's picture

Now I don’t mean to be a smarty, but, and you knew there would be a but, by the very fact that you characterize Nat Geo’s photography as racist means that you yourself is racist.
And looking at your portfolio, I don’t see one person of color!

Marc DeGeorge's picture

Let's remember for a moment that a photograph may be truth, but it's not the whole truth. In reality it's only a slice of time. NatGeo, a business, be it not-for-profit or otherwise, will do it's best to try to sell as many magazines as possible, so they will choose to put something eye-catching on the cover, the way they always have and the way EVERY magazine in the world also chooses to do.

I think their reviewing their coverage to see if there is any level of bias is fine. But they alone are not going to combat the prejudices of every reader and potential reader out there. Of course, the key word there being "read" and if NatGeo fans would read the articles, and not just look at the amazing photos, they would see just how much there is to learn about cowboys or isolated communities out there.

Spy Black's picture

Too many people calling racist wolf. It's diminishing true calls of racism.

Perhaps the error is to think of Vox as being objective journalism.

Daniel Medley's picture

Exactly. The headline alone is suspect. When I opened the piece, the moment I saw Vox I just stopped reading. Dear God, when will the purveyors of outrage realize that seeing racism in almost every conceivable expression is itself racism

Vox - the company that pays 23 year olds to call everything racist

Michael Kormos's picture

Who's Vox, and who cares? P.C. police these days is making anyone afraid of publishing anything for fear of offending some tribe living under a rock.

Tim Ericsson's picture

So everyone is busy being outraged over outrage, and this enlightened fellow starts talking about tribes living under rocks. Yeah, maybe when we stop describing groups of other human beings in such a demeaning way can we then start bitching about the problem with PC culture with any credence.

user-156929's picture

If they are really "living under rocks", it's not demeaning. For you to decide their lifestyle is demeaning is more racist than any photo I've ever seen in NG.

Tim Ericsson's picture

It’s a phrase that describes a person or people who are ignorant and oblivious to the world, genius.

Stop sticking yourself in other conversations if you have nothing of value to say.

user-156929's picture

I could say the same to you but think everyone's opinion has value.

Tim Ericsson's picture

Good for you. We’re all very impressed.

William Howell's picture

Could you show us one photograph of a person of color you have taken, you know to prove your un-racist bonafides?

Tim Ericsson's picture

What an adorable little straw man you’ve attempted. I’ll say this: I’ve never described a tribe as living under a rock before, nor have I tried in a half-assed way to defend someone who did.

I don’t consider the content of this article racist, nor did I call anyone racist: I said describing people in that way was demeaning. Ironically, I’m being called racist by both you and Sam.

Nice try, honey.

William Howell's picture

So... you haven’t photographed a person of color?
Does this picture make you uncomfortable?

Tim Ericsson's picture

I've photographed many people of color, including my loving husband, but that fact is immaterial and your attempts at diversion are simplistic and derisive. I haven't labeled anyone racist here, but have been accused of being racist by both you and Sam. And only for bringing up the fact that describing a group as "living under a rock" is demeaning.

Check yourself, William.

William Howell's picture

You know that the comment about living under a rock was hyperbole, and you took the opportunity to pounce on a supposed insult. That’s not right or fair, thus my take on your comment, and it is true, I thought your comment was racist.
I’ll say most commenters on this site are not racist and most especially me! I have black friends and do business with my fellow African-Americans and I’m actively campaigning for blacks to vote Republican.

Tim Ericsson's picture

Hyperbole can still me demeaning, so that's moot. I call bullshit on the backtracking.

And I'm not impressed nor do I care how many anti-racist boxes you feel you check off by knowing and conversing with people of color. So spare me.

William Howell's picture

That’s the difference between someone like me and someone like you, I do care.

Matt Williams's picture

Award for stupidest comment of the day goes to Sam Fargo

Tim Ericsson's picture

He’s gonna need a bigger shelf...

Daniel Medley's picture

Observing the absurd is not outrage. Presenting different cultures and people around the world as being, well, different, is not racism. People and cultures are not all the same; thankfully. That's not a value judgement, it's objective fact. The notion that an image that encapsulates the gist of a particular cultural strata is not racism or stereotyping, it's encapsulating a differing culture in a single photograph. Sometimes messy? Yes. Can it be racist? Yes, but not automatically so.

However to the postmodern orthodoxy everything is based on identity and race, thus their racism is not racism and non racist behavior, like the presented photos, is racist.

Orwellian to say the least.

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