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.
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.