Has National Geographic Awarded a Prize to a Racist Photograph?

Has National Geographic Awarded a Prize to a Racist Photograph?

National Geographic is under increasing pressure to strip the prize it awarded to a photograph portraying residents of Varanasi, India sleeping on their rooftops. Those voicing their complaints to the magazine argue that is both racist and a gross invasion of privacy while the magazine is refusing to engage in a debate.

The photograph that has caused the outcry looks down from a guesthouse window at families sleeping on the rooftops of their houses in Varanasi shortly before dawn. Women and children lie peacefully together, most partially clothed, one child completely naked, all unaware that they are being photographed in their homes. The image was awarded second place in the People category of the 2016 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year and has drawn angry comments for the intrusion of privacy and a caption that has been deemed colonialist. The original text accompanying the image noted that people and animals were sleeping together and asked viewers: “Can you spot the curry?”

Rather than focusing on the photographer, critics are directing their frustrations at the magazine whose editorial team thought it fit to publish the image and award it a prize. The image is beautiful and offers a remarkable insight into the everyday life of the city's inhabitants. However, this does not detract from the fact that the image is problematic for several reasons.

Double Standards of Privacy

Firstly, this is an invasion of privacy. If you are in a public space, you can expect to be seen and therefore photographed, and while the rules may vary in a small number of countries, typically, you cannot object to having your image taken. By contrast, this photograph captures people in their private spaces and at their most vulnerable, completely unaware that they are being subjected to a foreigner’s voyeurism, and, given their various states of undress, clearly not expecting to be photographed.

The counter-argument is that sleeping on the rooftops of an Indian city during summer is far from unusual and those residents captured by the image will be aware that their beds are visible from nearby buildings. However, how does this differ from you being photographed through your bedroom window by a paparazzi photographer with a telephoto lens? Or being filmed — without your knowledge — partially naked in your backyard by a drone that’s hovering above the street outside your house? Just because a vantage point can be achieved does not mean that it is justifiable. The ethics may be subject to debate, but surely a magazine such as National Geographic — a magazine that very recently has been forced to address its colonialist attitudes — should have better standards.

Indian rooftops

Indian rooftops can be full of life. Does this justify their use as a vantage point from which to photograph the privacy of people's homes?
Photo by Jason Vinson | VinsonImages.com

Nat Geo's Ongoing Problem With Colonialism

If women and children were to be unwittingly photographed naked in their sleep in a Western nation, it would be deemed outrageous. Does the apparent exoticism of this being an Indian city somehow make this acceptable? Orientalism is the fetishization of eastern cultures for Western consumption, and this is a demonstration of how attitudes towards “lesser” countries can often mean that editorial standards are compromised.

UNICEF, a charity that works to protect and provide opportunities for children in 190 countries around the world, has guidelines for how to document those under 18. When reporting on children, one should “respect the dignity and rights of every child in every circumstance,” and “pay special attention to each child’s right to privacy and confidentiality.” National Geographic’s publication of this image falls far short of these guidelines. Those featured in this photograph are robbed of their agency, and their homes are treated like zoo pens for the entertainment of a foreign audience.

As noted last year by Lauren Michelle Jackson on NYMag.com, National Geographic has a history of "investigating peoples and cultures like flora, splaying their images upon glossy pages with unchecked fascination." Fundamentally, if National Geographic uses different ethical standards for its imagery based on the geography and skin color of those portrayed, then, despite its efforts to acknowledge them, the magazine's problems with colonialism are still very much present.

National Geographic Refuses to Comment

Spearheading the complaints against the image, Afaq Ali tried for several months to get a response from National Geographic and eventually received a reply from Anna Kukelhaus Dynan, Senior Director of Global Communications. None of Ali’s points were acknowledged, but the caption was edited to remove mention of the curry. No clarifications have been made on the magazine’s corrections page, and the image remains online, complete with its award.

National Geographic responded to my inquiries, explaining that the image was initially chosen by a panel comprised of staff and independent judges. Kukelhaus Dynan confirmed that the caption had been edited following complaints from Ali but chose not to respond to any of my questions about the image's ethics. National Geographic's decision not to at least enter into a discussion about this is concerning. If the magazine deems the image unproblematic, why is it not willing to defend it? At the very least, the editors should be prepared to enter a discussion.

Ali emphasizes that he is not angry but instead keen to create a dialogue and demonstrate to the magazine that this mode of travel photography is outdated and no longer acceptable. As he explains: “the ‘third’ world isn’t a playground for photographers where moral ethics of photography go unobserved.”

The Next Step

Ali's campaign has seen more than 600 letters mailed by post to National Geographic in the last week, and he waits to see if the magazine will change its mind and engage in a discussion. Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

The photographer responded to inquiries but chose not to reply to questions about whether permission was sought from the people portrayed in the image. Rather than seeking out the image and directing opinions towards the photographer, we urge readers to engage in a debate with National Geographic.

Responding to an email, the magazine stated: "National Geographic strives to continually grow representation of cultures and people, both in our own storytelling and through our photo contests and communities. This important dialogue is very active at National Geographic, as we continually work to evolve our storytelling."

Lead image by Jason Vinson, used with permission.

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84 Comments

Rob Davis's picture

“If women and children were to be unwittingly photographed naked in their sleep in a Western nation, it would be deemed outrageous.”

Hardly. There’s a whole industry dedicated to doing this and we see them every time we buy groceries. There are usually bounties to be paid to paparazzi for the first images of children of famous parents.

Nude photos also often appear in those publications. People who are sunbathing in their backyard, the balcony of their hotel, etc...

Publications even fly drones and helicopters to get such images and very few people bat an eye.

Very few? Whee are your sources for that statistics. I, for one, have never bought a tabloid in my life, and probably never will. I am certain, (without providing any statistics to back me up)*, I am NOT a minority.

*Over 270 million adults live in the USofA, estimated circulation of American Tabloids is tremendously less than 135 million, so I guess I do have statistics in my favour.

Rob Davis's picture

The statistics you just said in the previous sentence you didn’t have? :)

Someone is buying them. It’s not a charity.

No. The statistics I said I wasn't providing. Tremendously less than 135 million is not a useful statistic, except to say that it is less than half the US adult population, ergo, I am not a minority.

Nobody claimed they are not being bought, just that it is incorrect to say, «very few people bat an eye,» to such use of such images.

Rob Davis's picture

Where did you get 135 million from? I never said 135 million. How many people do you need?

«Where did you get 135 million from?»
Half of 270 million.

«How many people do you need?»
More than half participating, for those not participating to be a minority (by definition).

Logics:
Premise Ⓐ : Over 270 Million adults live in the USofA.
Premise Ⓑ : Tremendously less than 135 million people read Tabloids.
Conclusion: People who do not read tabloids are NOT a minority.

Rob Davis's picture

More than half is an arbitrary line in the sand. I never said a majority of people approve. I said very few object. Maybe they don’t approve, but it’s generally accepted as the norm and has been for as long as I’ve been alive. The premise was photos like this would cause outrage in the West, that there’s a double-standard, and that is a weak arguement to make. There probably are double-standards but that isn’t one of them. Showing images of the dead would be a much better one.

Also, the US population is closer to 325 million now.

«More than half is an arbitrary line in the sand. I never said a majority of people approve.»
Follow a conversation. I SAID, that I was not a minority. I SAID I was not a minority. I SAID I was not a minority.

Half is not arbitrary. Half is the delineation between majority and minority.

«…it’s generally accepted….»
AH, HAH! “Generally accepted,” means, by definition, well over half. Generally accepted means a great majority. Generally accepted means only a small minority of dissenters.

«The premise was photos like this….»
Two things; ) That was NOT the premise, and ② none of the examples you gave were “photos like this.”

«…cause outrage in the West….Just because a small minority accept them in tabloids, fine art, and journalism, does not mean that their is no outrage for what this photographer did, (which is neither tabloid, fine art, nor journalism).

«…the US population is closer to 325 million….»
① That does not help your case, and ② I said the US ADULT population. Follow a conversation. (I just assumed that children don't consume that sort of stuff, and, if they do, lack the capacity for a mature reaction towards it).

I am in agreement with Rob. It is weird for anyone to assume that someone not buying a tabloid means they "bat an eye" over what tabloids do.

I, personally, have never bought a tabloid, yet I completely agree with what tabloids do to get their photos and think that they should be able to publish anything they want to without any fear of consequences or censorship.

So I am one of the 135 million who have never bought a tabloid, yet I am fine with everything that tabloids do and how they exploit the privacy of people - I have no problem with that at all. It's entertaining to me when I stand in line at the store and page through the tabloids while waiting, or when I wait at the barbershop.

Rob Davis's picture

Here’s another such social commentary absent any permissions in the west.

That one is different for a few reasons.
Ⓐ it is actual photojournalism, (and follows such rules).
Ⓑ The minor's face is hidden.
Ⓒ No nudity, or etc.,
Ⓓ these people were on a public thoroughfare, not the privacy of their home.
Ⓔ There is no racism nor cultural inappropriateness.

I'd say, “Come again,” but I am really not interested in having you attempt to justify the unjustifiable.

Rob Davis's picture

National Geographic is not photojournalism???

There are versions of this without the minors face hidden, arguably more compelling. The absence of presence of nudity is just your own projection of what morality is and means nothing.

The fact it doesn’t fit into your labels doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. The foundation of cultural appropriation is the exploitation of vulnerable populations by powerful. If you believe addiction is a disease, this is very much in the same ethical box.

Again, all this does is undermine the argument that this kind of thing isn’t acceptable in the West and it obviously is. Someone out there will always object to anything. That’s not significant, trends over time are.

«National Geographic is not photojournalism???»
Not their photo competitions. Those are photo competitions. …And, no. They are photographic storytellers. ;-) You should read what Nat Geo says about Nat Geo in Nat Geo.
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/04/from-the-editor-race...

«There are versions of this without the minors face hidden….»
Personally, never seen them. Personally, outraged that the East Liverpool Police Department would release those (except in court). Outraged that any journalist would publish those. Perhaps done by passersby with smartphones? IF true, still does not change anything.

«…absence of presence of nudity is just your own projection of what morality is….»
Er,… no! It is a UNICEF resolution ratified by all but two member nations of the UN. It is pretty much law in most countries. It is not MY projection of any morality. It is rights, and responsibilities, and laws.

«…undermine the argument that this kind of thing isn’t acceptable in the West and it obviously is.»
If it “obviously is,” then why does the West have so many laws protecting minors from such abuses? I think you are projecting your morality now.

«…trends over time are.»
…And the trend over time are for more and more nations to outlaw and prevent this type of exploitation.

michaeljin's picture

"Er,… no! It is a UNICEF resolution ratified by all but two member nations of the UN. It is pretty much law in most countries. It is not MY projection of any morality. It is rights, and responsibilities, and laws."

UNICEF is not a governing body so no, it's not "pretty much law". Their guidelines are just that—guidelines.

Those were TWO DIFFERENT REMARKS.

…And it being ratified, although is different than making it law, —although influenced how it became law— shows the RECOGNITION by all but two nations, the need.

Rob Davis's picture

A famous image by Weegee taken in New York City.

Tell me about this photograph. I can show you a thousand photographs of nude/partial nudes, and it means nothing.

For one, we know that Weegee was, at times, a photojournalist. That, as stated previously, is a different thing. Second, we know that Weegee staged many of his images. Again, a totally different situation.

Am I saying that this particular image is either staged, or photo-journalistic? No. I am saying, without context, you are making no point, and missing the point of the article entirely.

So, please do not try again.

Rob Davis's picture

Yet I feel so compelled to. This does have context. It's a commentary on poverty, family, community, the weather, ethnicity, class and probably many more. There's no question there's a dark side to any type of voyeurism, but there is a positive side as well. Surveillance videos of domestic violence that we've seen come to light from professional athletes. Should the fact that the athlete is a person of color and such a video plays into a certain racist narrative about African-American men override the social value of seeing just how horrific it is when a man beats a woman?

Should we not photograph prostitution because many of the women might be out on the streets against their will as victims of human trafficking?

These images of poverty will undoubtedly be looked at with derision by some people, but many people will look at them and see the ongoing legacy of colonialism, the social cost of cheap international labor, pollution, consumerism, etc... I do at least. I imagine most people who subscribe to National Geographic would too.

«This does have context.
• …type of voyeurism….
• Surveillance videos of domestic violence….
• …prostitution….
• …images of poverty….»

There IS NO CONTEXT!!! We do not know what is happening here, because ALL WE SEE is an image and are left to make one of so many assumptions!

Was thin a staged image? Was this voyerism? Was this journalism? Was this an art piece? Was it a family portrait? THERE IS NO CONTEXT!

We have the context for the image in the article. We know why, where and who shot it. It was NOT journalism. It was NOT a portrait. It may have been voyeurism, but it IS EXPLOITATION! We do not know much about the Weegee photo, because YOU posted it without context.

But let me give you some context; it was probably staged, as Weegee has another photo entitled, “Tenement Sleeping,” taken on the same fire escape, with one man, no kids, on one in the window, and with a writeup saying, “New York, New York, United states, (Place Created).”. It seems that either Weegeee was going from apartment to apartment, taking voyeurism/journalism photos that day —unlikely— or he went to an apartment with some models, posed them on the same fire escape, took some images, and entitled them for sale —highly likely, based on his studio. Like I said, nothing near the same as what this article discusses, and you gave absolutely NO CONTEXT!

…And you still missed the point of the article. It is not about people seeing these things, it is the context of everything about the situation; unaware people being exploited, as opposed to aware models being paid, (and children's rights).

Thanks for trying again. I hope you see why I suggested that you do not.

Rob Davis's picture

You think you want journalism, but you really want propaganda.

You think you know what I want.

Rob Davis's picture

Yes. Journalism with rigid guidelines as to what’s acceptable and what’s not is propaganda. Propaganda always appeals to some noble higher purpose as well. It might even be noble, but the result is the same, seeking to deny the public the opportunity to judge for themselves what’s valuable and what’s not.

Oh, so everything ought to be put to the PUBLIC for them to judge, even the PRIVATE?

NO! The private is NOT for the public to judge. Let the public judge the public, but leave the private, private.

And, no. I am not in the least interested in journalism nor propaganda. (Definitely NOT propaganda). Most importantly, the idea that, “the people have a right to know,” is a false doctrine. We have no such right, in the general sense. We may have such a right in very specific scenarios, and this is not one of them.

You have no idea what I want, or you would not have suggested such a ridiculous notion.

Rob Davis's picture

Luckily for us you don't make the rules! It's okay that you don't like it. This is a comments section after all and you'd be welcome to say you don't like this sort of thing and wish journalists should think more carefully about the ethics they employ in their photographs. All valid points.

What I don't appreciate is how you're brow beating every person in this thread that doesn't see the situation the way that you do. It reminds me that this is precisely why the public's right-to-know is so important, even if it isn't perfect.

So often appeals about morality are really just about control. About making the world more like the way you wish it were, not what's truly best for others.

«… how you're brow beating every person in this thread….»
HUH?!? Come again?!?! Stop reading emotions into typing.

«…public's right-to-know is so important….»
Give me a reference to the public's allegded “right to know.” It DOES NOT EXIST anywhere! (Who is brow-beating now???)

«<…appeals about morality…»
Why is it so hard for you to understand that this is NOT an appeal to morality? It is an appeal to law! It is about obeying the law the way it is!

«…not what's truly best for others.»
My entire point is about what is best for others! We agree! The problem is that you think that “the others,” refers to you, where I think that, “the others,” refers to the people in the photograph whose images are being sold for profit by a stranger who refuses to comment on whether she had releases or sought permission.

Jeremiah Fulbright's picture

"The image was awarded second place in the People category of the 2016 "

I'm sure if we go back year after year, we can find things that were previously considered "ok" but are now considered "bad"

Not to mention, the photograph in question isn't linked nor displayed in this article.. at least footnote it or provide references.

It was footnoted. It was referenced. You even quoted the reference in your post; first line.

The actual image and a link was omitted for, what I would have called, obvious reasons. Apparently, I was wrong.

SJWs at it again.

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