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Lutz and Collins take us inside the National Geographic Society to investigate how its photographers, editors, and designers select images and text to produce representations of Third World cultures. Through interviews with the editors, they describe the process as one of negotiating standards of "balance" and "objectivity," informational content and visual beauty. Then, in a close reading of some six hundred photographs, they examine issues of race, gender, privilege, progress, and modernity through an analysis of the way such things as color, pose, framing, and vantage point are used in representations of non-Western peoples. Finally, through extensive interviews with readers, the authors assess how the cultural narratives of the magazine are received and interpreted, and identify a tension between the desire to know about other peoples and their ways and the wish to validate middle-class American values.
The result is a complex portrait of an institution and its role in promoting a kind of conservative humanism that acknowledges universal values and celebrates diversity while it allows readers to relegate non-Western peoples to an earlier stage of progress. We see the magazine and the Society as a key middlebrow arbiter of taste, wealth, and power in America, and we get a telling glimpse into middle-class American culture and all the wishes, assumptions, and fears it brings to bear on our armchair explorations of the world.
Posted October 12, 2003
If you have ever thought about the Western gaze, the Other, exoticization of women of color, Western misrepresentations of other cultures, sale of representations of bodies of color to white audiences-- this book is for you. As it turns out- all the theory feminists/ race theorists have been writing about the intersection of race/ class/ gender materialize in this 'coffee table' magazine. Case in point: There was a case reported from National Geographic in the 1960s of a partially naked Polynesian woman being darkened 'in order to render her nudity more acceptable to American audiences.' Lutz 82. The president of National Geographic at the time, Melville Payne, explained, 'We darkened her down, to make her look more native-- more valid, you might say.' Id. Translation: white audiences literally buy the magazine because what they think is more exotic (and appropriate to gaze upon) is BLACKER. And it reflects the common criticism that only non-white women are nude in Nat. Geo. (To readers, it reaffirms their place in the world, etc.) The editorial decisions made for this magazine make you wonder. The examples in the magazine, and the example of the magazine itself, easily lead one to think of racist parallels across our society... Buy this book, it is great, especially for those interested in Women's Studies, African American Studies, and those who critically question anthropology.
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