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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Previous comments
Mr Hogwallop's picture

Did I miss the link to the photo in question?

Deliberately omitted for, what I would have called, obvious reasons.

Apparently, I was wrong.

After all the fuss over Sharbat Gula, this is a situation for which they ought to have been prepared. They ought to have had guidelines set up. (Yes, UNICEF has guidelines, but does NatGeo)?

I could not find the rules for the 2016 competition, but the 2019 rules state;
The Submission must not, in the sole and unfettered discretion of Sponsor, contain obscene, provocative, defamatory, sexually explicit, or otherwise objectionable or inappropriate content.
>>>>>>><<<<<<< https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/contests/travel-photo-contest-...

I guess that makes THEM the judge of what is objectionable, inappropriate, provocative, or sexually explicit. However, the rules also state;

If the photograph contains any material or elements that are not owned by the entrant and/or which are subject to the rights of third parties, and/or if any persons appear in the photograph, the entrant is responsible for obtaining, prior to submission of the photograph, any and all releases and consents necessary to permit the exhibition and use of the photograph in the manner set forth in these Official Rules without additional compensation. If any person appearing in any photograph is under the age of majority in their state/province/territory of residence the signature of a parent or legal guardian is required on each release.
>>>>>>><<<<<<< https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/contests/travel-photo-contest-...

There seem to be no release available. This is, however, for the 2019 competition.

Here is what they say regarding images in “Your Shots”, which is very surprising;
National Geographic supports ethical photography that accurately represents cultures, ecosystems, and wildlife. We expect that the welfare of people, animals, and their environments take precedence over photography. In other words, don’t harm or manipulate the subject or its environment for the sake of creating an image. This includes no baiting the wildlife for photographs. Baiting can cause harm to eating habits of wildlife and we do not condone these actions. This also includes images taken where a photographer may be trespassing or in violation of the rules at a location. For example, if a photo is taken in an area that is closed off to the public to preserve the environment, this would not be allowed.
>>>>>>><<<<<<< https://yourshot.nationalgeographic.com/photo-guidelines/

It seems that their ethics statement is more concerned with the posing, the environment, and local laws, than they are with the welfare of people, based on the further discussion which follows the guideline. That being said, their terms of use of their service states,
You agree not to use the Services to:

• Post, upload or otherwise transmit or link to content that is: unlawful; threatening; abusive; obscene; vulgar; sexually explicit; pornographic or inclusive of nudity; offensive; excessively violent; invasive of another's privacy, publicity, contract or other rights; tortious; false or misleading; defamatory; libelous; hateful; or discriminatory;
• Violate the rights of others including patent, trademark, trade secret, copyright, privacy, publicity or other proprietary rights;
• Harass or harm another person;
• Exploit or endanger a minor;
• Post, upload or otherwise transmit an image or video of another person without that person's consent;
>>>>>>><<<<<<< https://www.nationalgeographic.com/legal/terms.html

So this photo may possibly be in violation of their ToS. Why it is allowed is beyond my comprehension.

LA M's picture

Not just NG...many large commercial organizations were built upon the same issue. As someone else pointed out, times change and what might have been ok before is now poor form.

I'll point out that even the 'exploited" can be totally unaware that they are being used and that such things are wrong. I went through school in the southern US looking at NG mags and was well into college before my eyes were opened.

Adriano Brigante's picture

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

The author has to know his argument is weak. Why else would he write this, knowing full well that the photograph he's talking about doesn't show naked people in India? He knows he has to shift the goal post in order to make his case.

All I see here is an argument about invasion of privacy, not about racism. It may be an invasion of privacy, sure. But how is that photograph racist? This sentence doesn't even make sense! How *could* a photograph be racist?

Er, maybe you don't find it racist, but I do. Maybe it is because my roots are from India. Maybe because I do not like to be identified by “sauce.” Maybe because sensitivity is cultulal and you do not understand the culture.

Maybe you do not understand that the part that suggests that the photographer is racist, is how he entitled the photograph.

P.s., I can easily see at least one naked child in that image. I do not have to look hard.

Adriano Brigante's picture

Racist photographer, maybe. Racist caption, maybe. Racist title, maybe. But racist photograph? Nope, still doesn't make sense.

PS: I *had* to look hard to see someone naked. I honestly didn't see at first glance, when watching the whole image with composition and stuff in mind.

«Racist photographer, maybe. Racist caption, maybe. Racist title, maybe.»
Headlines are headlines. Stop commenting on headlines. We can do that all day, everyday, on every headline in every paper and magazine. read the article and comment on the content. “…and has drawn angry comments for the intrusion of privacy and a caption that has been deemed colonialist.”

Clearly the racist part IS about the caption & description.

«I *had* to look hard to see someone naked.»
Maybe. I did not. …But, “Women and children lie peacefully together, *most [ONLY] partially clothed,* one child completely naked, all unaware….”
Saying that their is only one naked which you had to look for is missing the meat. How hard did you have to look to see partially naked minors? When Sally Mann published partial nude images of her own children with their full knowledge, and parental permission, the world was outraged (for the most part). This guy did partial nudes of other peoples children, without knowledge or permission.

I have to agree that the photo is a gross invasion of privacy. There are social rules for when people sleep outside like this. That is one is expected by social conventions to respect the privacy of the sleepers. During a stay in Iran I had to sleep outside like this in summer. It was impossible to sleep indoors because of the heat and the fact that mosquitoes trapped indoors were unbearable. The moving air and cooler outdoor temperatures made mosquito bites less likely. No one looked over into the sleeping areas of other families. Children are naked or partially clothed because of the heat. The parents are not expecting that some voyeur will be taking photos of their unclad children. This is like photographing into someone's bedroom or bathroom, just because there is no roof over them does not mean you aren't photographing into their homes. Note that there are walls!

Kirk Darling's picture

It appears that the photographer's roots are also in India.

From where do you get that? It seems that she is from Australia, with possible Hispanic roots, although the surname, [REMOVED], is most often found in Germany.

Jonathan Brady's picture

I thought the same thing when I read the title. How can a photograph be racist? Also, I'm relatively certain that people have forgotten the actual definition of "racist" in their quest to be outraged about anything and everything. Here it is, copied and pasted from Merriam-Webster...
"a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race"
How does the picture illustrate a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and that these folks are inferior or superior because of it?

Adriano Brigante's picture

Could you please provide an example of a racist photograph? Not a photograph shot by a racist, not a photograph of a racist person, but a photograph that is itself racist?

Andy Day's picture

Do the reading, come back to me. At the very least, read John Berger's Ways of Seeing. https://www.amazon.com/Ways-Seeing-Based-Television-Penguin/dp/0140135154

The question could easily be on the finals of an undergrad sociology/philosophy/anthropology/etc exam. Photographs do not exist in a vacuum and nor do they appear from nowhere. It's not too different from asking "how can a word be racist?" as though six letters, the first being N, stand separately from what they represent, their history, who is speaking, and who is listening or being made to listen. The question should be, "does it celebrate or indulge in a difference of power built on historic subjugation that means treating people according to different standards based on the colour of their skin?" In this case, I would argue yes, and the fact that Nat Geo has chosen not to offer its thoughts is telling.

Adriano Brigante's picture

Thanks, but I don't need to read this. I've already read a lot about this and I know what you mean but I disagree nonetheless with the way this problem is framed. It's a matter of definition really. Can a picture (or a word) be *perceived as racist* or *be used in a racist manner*? Sure! That doesn't mean it is itself racist. Phonemes and pixels have no intent and no bias in and of themselves. Let's take your example of the N word. The French equivalent (I'm a French-speaking person) is "nègre" which can be used like the N word in English, but it can also be used with the meaning of "ghost writer", without any perceived negative connotations. QED.

Andy Day's picture

"Thanks, but I don't need to read this."

Ok. I guess we're done here. It's a shame, cos it's a fascinating topic.

Adriano Brigante's picture

I also said I've already read a lot about this topic, but if you're not even reading my entire reply, I'm clearly wasting my time, so I guess we're done indeed.

Andy Day's picture

Feel free to send me your reading list. I'm interested to know if it explores structuralism/post structuralism, representation, linguistics/semantics, photographic theory, identity, epistemology/ontology, etc.

michaeljin's picture

"Do the reading, come back to me."

You literally gave five books at a combined price of nearly $200 (admittedly cheaper if you own a Kindle or are willing to purchased used) to read in order to continue a discussion on a comment thread... Rather than taking the lazy way out, you could at least summarize your argument or, you know, just answer the actual question being asked and explain why you believe that the image itself is racist as opposed to how the image is used or how individuals may interpret it.

Adriano pretty clearly explained his point of view and you're just evading and hiding behind a mountain of reading that is not relevant to the actual point of contention. That's like having an argument about cars and me telling you to go read up on the theory of relativity because it is tangentially related to the topic since cars have mass and they travel across space-time.

All that having been said, thanks for the suggestions. Other than the Berger book, I haven't read these so I'm going to buy them used on Amazon.

Andy Day's picture

Michael, that's a fair point. However, if it were an argument about cars, I'd probably be telling you to go and read some physics and chemistry. In this case, I'm telling him to go and read some neomarxist critical thinking as this topic deals with hierarchies of power, eurocentrism and scopic regimes. I'd struggle to summarise without unpacking all of these terms and each one is a book on its own.

I'd love to go into it all further but it's a meaty topic and I have a house to renovate. Apologies! 😊

Oh boy, so many people are so eager to jump on every 'racist' bandwagon and lead the 'racist' parade. Outrage is how they seek relevance and signal their virtue.

Oh boy, outrage and virtue signaling is how many folks seek approbation and relevance within their crowd.

Myles K's picture

"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."

You're actually wrong here. If a subject can be SEEN from a PUBLIC space, a subject can be expected to be photographed without your permission as well (i.e. no expectation of privacy) regardless of whether the subject is in a private space or not.

On another note, this isn't remotely racist. Pushing that this is racist is just trying too hard.

Andy Day's picture

If it's not remotely racist, why is Nat Geo so reluctant to respond? Why do Indian people find it offensive?

That's a fair argument regarding the public space, though I'd still argue that giving prizes to such an image is inappropriate.

Adriano Brigante's picture

"Why is Nat Geo so reluctant to respond?" That's fallacious. People almost never respond to the crazy things Alex Jones says about them. Does that mean Alex Jones is right?

"Why do Indian people find it offensive?" That is also a fallacy. Anything could be viewed as offensive by someone somewhere. Does that mean everything is offensive? I could say your b&w profile picture is ablist. If not, why do color-blind people find it offensive?

Myles K's picture

Ditto with Adriano. But I'd like to question, does something being offensive automatically mean that it is racist or colonialist? No. As far as I'm concerned, the only racists here are the ones accusing the photographer and/or NatGeo of being so.

In many places, including the EU and the USA, if a person can be seen in their homes from the street, it is still an invasion of privacy to shoot them. If the view goes beyond a privacy fence or beyond a wall, it is an invasion of privacy. A rooftop IS beyond a wall, although here we are speaking of India, not the EU nor USA, and I have NOT attempted to look into Indian law.

that being said, Nat Geo operates out of the USA, and has ToS , rule guidelines, and other things, which suggests strongly that this image ought not have been allowed in Nat Geo.

Myles K's picture

No it's not an invasion of privacy, not in the US, EU, or even Australia where I'm based. Look up Arne Svenson for the USA. As long as the photographer is standing on public ground, they are (generally) allowed to point the camera wherever they want, and photograph whatever they can see from where they are.

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