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

You are wrong. I am right. we disagree. Ask someone in the EU, or UK.

Nn, you\re wrong. I'm in EU. But keep fighting.

JetCity Ninja's picture

you cannot speak for your whole race.

I just checked out your instagram. Nice pics. But I think your feed is problematic, because you barely have featured any people of colour even though Paris is such a diverse city.

Adriano Brigante's picture

No handicapped people? That's ablist. No old people? That's ageist.

David Pavlich's picture

What's next? Photo content by percentage of race or religion or gender or age or :pick your topic:? If I go to a car show and shoot nothing but Fords, does that make me 'Chevyphobic'?

Diversity for diversity's sake is not a good choice. Choose by content or by excellence or simply by what you enjoy. Being dictated to by numerical representation leads to a good dose of mediocrity.

Andy Day's picture

That's some weirdly tangential whataboutism. I'm curious as to how the supposed exploitation of a racial power dynamic that you found in my imagery has a bearing but feel free to elaborate!

Jeff McCollough's picture

How can you demand privacy if you are sleeping on the freaking roof? People ARE going to see you and now that everyone has a camera in their pocket your picture will probably be taken. I wouldn't let me family sleep like that ever, not because I am afraid of a NatGeo photog but because I am afraid of predators.

So, if I say to an African American, “Hey, I bet you like watermelons and fried chicken,” that is not racist? If I say to a Chinese person, “I know this partial derivative equation must be easy for you people,” is that not racist? If I say to a White American, “l know you have no rhythm, so let me show you a few moves before we go out,” is that not racist?

I find the caption and description VERY racist, and I am speaking for ME, not all Indians, yet, I bet that MOST Indians would feel similarly.

To be clear, I do not find sleeping on the roof, partially/fully nude, with animals, offensive at all. What I find offensive, is that someone would take the picture, point out that animals and people are sleeping together, [EDIT] Which is NOT what is happening, [/EDIT] AND ask that question. It is just as offensive as when Oprah said that she was surprised to find that Indians STILL eat with their fingers, as if we ought to have stopped by now for some strange reason. The photographer is suggesting —by his description— that their is something wrong with Indians for what they are doing, and then mocks us for being who we are —by his caption.

P.s., the “roofs” were all enclosed. They are not visible from the ground, (nor similar roof level). She had to climb seven flights of steps, then look over a wall to see them.

Maybe Nat Geo hasn’t responded because you and others haven’t done any research on the photographer and therefore lack context. I hate to have such a condescending tone, but, it doesn’t seem like you did much research before writing this piece. Meaty and provocative, but not insightful.

Here’s a small, important, snippet about the photographer: “Yasmin is an ambassador for Slow Travel Magazine and believes in the philosophy of slow travel. Slow travel is about connecting with your surroundings – people, food, nature, and culture. As such, Yasmin has for the past three years facilitated and taught the photography program at a summer school for underprivileged girls in rural areas of Telangana State, India. This involved writing the summer school curriculum, training photography teachers, and overseeing the program that was taught across five camps of over 300 children.”

She’s also a food photographer and food stylist (for shoots other than her own), volunteers her photography for an organization for female rape victims, as well as an organization that works to reduce food waste, claims to love food (shocker that she pointed out the only food in the photo that’s easily missed), and has tons of other work that focuses on culture and colors.

It’s easy to make assumptions based on the fact that the photographer is white. It’s also easy to do a little research before writing a well meaning but inflammatory article. Context is key.

The only possible problem here is that it could be an invasion of privacy. But you don’t know where she was standing. Is there public access? Did she simply look down and see a beautiful scene and capture that? Did she point out the curry because it’s hard to spot and she loves curry because she teaches underprivileged Indian girls and has it often? Does she love to cook curry? Did she let the people know she’d be photographing them? Did you ask any of these questions before writing this article?

«Here’s a small, important, snippet about the photographer….»
NOT in the least bit important. Her pointing out food in the caption of a travel photograph in the “People” category, simply because she is into slow food, does NOT justify it at all. The fact that she spent three summers in India does nothing to justify anything.

You want important snippets? How about this one:
“I instinctively climbed the 7 sets of stairs to the rooftop…. As the sun was rising I looked over the right hand side of the balcony and my jaw dropped with disbelief. Below were families - mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sister and dogs all sleeping on the top of their houses.”

Hardly a plain open view, when one had to climb seven flights of stairs, and hardly anything less than an expose of the ‘jaw-dropping, unbelievable’ situation. ….And what of, “…and dogs,” part? I see wild monkeys doing what wild monkeys do, and I see a goat tied, on a rooftop by itself.

It is indeed easy to make assumptions. What I do know as fact, is she took an image because of jaw-dropping disbelief, she claimed in the description that families, including dogs, were sleeping together, and she captioned it, “Can you spot the curry?” I also know as fact that she is selling prints of these people, including a woman with an exposed breast, from AU$260.00 to AU$1,250.00.

What I still do not know, since the photographer refused to comment on the issue, is if she ever got permission, or model releases, or if the individuals were ever made aware. Nothing in your little snippet made a difference, as it neither altered the facts, nor gave enlightenment to the unknown (concerning the image).

Reread, try again. Seven flights of stairs? No problem for anyone with functioning legs and a decent cardiovascular system. Most likely right next to other families.

Stop trying so hard to be offended. I’ll be careful next time I point out literally anything that I can see with my eyes. I may offend someone by drawing their attention to something that they may not have seen. How emasculating. Even worse if it’s something that I’m passionate about. (Food, in this case.)

Nothing about any of your absurd assumptions have given any enlightenment. Funny how I can point out the respectable work someone has done and it does nothing yet you and Andy can make assumptions, which, mind you, are different than presumptions, and you’re totally okay with going off on tangents.

chris bryant's picture

A snowflake dealing the racist card. People should decide not a self appointed kangaroo court.

Nnam Mono's picture

There's a gross and frankly irksome presumption by white savior oriented people that everything else that doesn't look like them is beneath and to be done with, whatever they see fit. Shame on NG for not dexterously reviewing the photo, we shouldn't even be having this conversation if White supremacy isn't so blinding.

michaeljin's picture

"National Geographic's decision not to at least enter into a discussion about this is concerning."

Why is it concerning? There's no winning in this scenario. Whatever rationale or justification you're going to give is ultimately going to spark more argument from people who have already made up their minds. The notion of this being a "discussion" is laughable. It's never a discussion. It's a bunch of people on two sides who are already entrenched in their worldviews shouting at each other with neither side actually listening. I think National Geographic's decision not to even entertain this and let the photos stand on their own to be interpreted by all parties however they want is the smartest course of action in this scenario.

Also, mind you that National Geographic is a private publication and they have no obligation to justify anything to anyone. Don't like it? Cancel your subscription (if you even have one).

"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."

No longer acceptable according to whom? Perhaps Ali should take the issue up with the UN or the various local governments that are photographed instead of National Geographic. UNICEF is not a governing body of any sort so they can establish whatever guidelines they want and it doesn't mean anything. This is a case of a bunch of private entities trying to govern the behavior of another private entity. You want this kind of thing to stop? Send your letters to the governments of these countries to make it a crime. It won't stop it completely, but it'll certainly deter photographers who might not want to potentially be arrested and jailed overseas.

chris bryant's picture

Considering India STILL has a caste system where for centuries the Dalits or untouchables have faced prejudice, discrimination and racism. No Indian can EVER moralise to me about racism. EVER!!!

Andy Day's picture


No they do not. The Caste system was outlawed years ago. Stop spreading lies.

Does India still have prejudices based on the caste system? Yes. Does America still have prejudices based on the slavery system? Yes. but neither slavery nor Caste are legal anymore, so stop saying that.

chris bryant's picture

You are living in fantasy land and a complete bullshitter. Caste system legal or not is still very much alive in India.

…And White Supremacy is still alive and kicking in America. You missed the point.

chris bryant's picture

Yes it is, absolutely. It is a white country with 77% of the population white. America has a terrible problem with race, especially it seems, in the police.

Rick Nash's picture

All this PC stuff is getting very tiring.

Mutley Dastardly's picture

Isn't that too strong language from the author?

The image may be a tiny bit over the edge - but in fact is gives us a reality where people have to live in. Why are they sleeping on the roof? Is it by poverty - is it to escape the heat inside the house? The image makes us think - isn't that something good?
In certain countries we see there's more outcry for nudity by incident - than when people are harrassed in mass - or gunned down for whatever reason.
What does this picture have to do with colonialism? Nothing i assume. Just an wise academic putting labels on it, maybe? Just to score an easy goal - as always. I'm fed up with people making labels of everything everywhere - forcing other people to think what they want us to think.
Who gives the author the authority to talk like this? A master diploma? I'm not an academic - and i'm happy not being a part of that breed. I'd like to make my own mind up - and i'm trying to stay moderate. And i certainly don't appreciate people to sensor things too far.
Being smart is different from being reasonable - and being balanced. This article is seriously biased.
Rules should be there - but a judgement should also include an evaluation the intention of the accused. Is the intention to hurt people - or is the intention of documenting things?
The writer here is cop, procecuter, judge and jury in one person.
When you take away these photographs - you're censoring the future research sources - and in fact you're doing what lots of dictators do - rewrite history, Censoring Art...
The moral censors in here - should think before generalizing - that's dangerous. There's art, there's documenting images, and there's voyeurism and unwanted intrusion into the privacy of someone else's environment.
The consequences of what he's writing and some of you - is rewriting history - is censoring documentation - that can be used by next generation of academics and historians.
The one commenting on - is coming from a culture where censorship is the rule - we cannot blame him for feeling offended - but he should learn to live with that conflict of interests.
Should we bow to his wishes? I don't think so.
The author of the image is right not willing to comment on this - that's a smart move - not to comment - just to let things cool down.
I do support fully the views of National Geograpic - it's the right thing to do.

This holier than thou standpoint is nauseating. For the past 150 years, National Geographic has been at the forefront of showing the world to as many people as possible. Prior to the internet, it was the primary way large swathes of people even knew about other pets of the world. They have always focused on making sure there is a human element to every story to give you context. Coincidentally, it is context that is missing in this piece.

We’re on a slippery downward slope into tyranny with this puritanical approach. In the crusade to cure the world of all perceived slights, we will lose ourselves...