Week 6 Activity: And when I am formulated sprawling on a pin

And I have known the eyes already, known them all,
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
And I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin?
T S Eliot (1915) The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Susan Sontag (1977: 155) accuses photography of being ‘acquisition’ and the ‘surrogate’ possession of the object. One that ‘means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge and therefore, like power’ (ibid: 4).

Post a short message that outlines your own ethical position regarding the inherent power relations involved in photographs.
• Outline the key ideas raised by Grundberg (1988) that you particularly agreed or disagreed with.
• Provide visual illustrations – including both negative and positive stereotypes.
• Evaluate how these practitioners do or do not achieve their goals.

Grunberg’s article was interesting to read. Grundberg presented the history of the publication and the journey it has taken from being “a dry, scholarly 19th century journal for geographers into a popular magazine” (Grundberg,1988). I do agree, though not having seen it myself, that the exhibition “Odyssey: The Art of Photography at National Geographic”, might have been better received (at least by Grundberg) had the images been curated to show the development of the magazine over time.

It is clear that the images are deliberately aesthetic and appealing in style and that this is the foundation on which it has expanded readership and made commercial gains over time. I have enjoyed growing up seeing the images of far flung places, peoples and creatures of the world and learning about events and dilemmas such as volcanic eruptions and near extinctions raising awareness for campaigns to save whatever it is from disappearing from earth. Indeed such images from this and other publications stimulated my interests in geography and anthropology, and my choosing to study the latter at college.

I do agree with Grundberg that constructed and staged images which do not portray the actuality of a scene or situation and therefore mislead the reader are to be deplored. I think there are degrees of misleading with an extreme being brainwashing the result of which is to totally convince others of a supposed “truth”. There is evidence that this continues to occur today. Our dynasties, empires, colonies and commonwealths of the world may change shape and size over time but there remains a core of patriotism and loyalty that drives the tenor of information fed back and recycled within that specific and unique culture. To that extent I think that all publications written and broadcast require careful consideration and reflection by the reader and viewer in order to be able to have an ‘own culture’ as well as ‘our world’ balanced understanding and respect for differences.

One example of many is to be found in the way in which Yosemeti National Park was portrayed in the 1920s and 1930s, with displays of might and power evident from the huge mountains and vistas within the images, little or no human or animal life included and widespread promotion as a place to visit being representative of white mans conquering power of this landscape. Ansel Adams made his name as a photographer with his images of Yosemite (e.g. Cain, 2017; Schama, 2018; Turnage, 2016). The indigenous populations having been cleared submissively to other locations. To that extent I agree with the statement made by Sontag (1977, p155) above and the following:

“The photographic exploration and duplication of the world fragments continuities and feeds the pieces into an interminable dossier, thereby providing possibilities of control that could not even be dreamed of under the earlier system of recording information: writing.” (Sontag, 1977, p156).

Together writing and photographs in National Geographic and other illustrated media about the world create significant power and influence over readers and viewers understanding and consequent opinions.

By coincidence with this course activity National Geographic has published its April 2018 edition focussed specifically on racism to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Susan Goldberg, Editor, said ”…It ignored non-white Americans and showed different groups as exotic or savage, propagating “every type of cliché”…”. (BBC News, 2018). She commissioned Associate Professor at the University of Virginia John Edwin Mason to examine past issues and concluded “National Geographic had served only to reinforce racist attitudes in a magazine with “tremendous authority”. He showed that until the 1970s the magazine ignored non-white Americans, only showing them as labourers or domestic staff.” (Mason, 2018, p….). Greenberg (2018) also commented on this work noting Mason’s finding that non-white people were exotic and savage. Thus Grundberg’s 1988 analysis 30 years ago of the racism and the image of white supremacy conveyed in the photographs has been vindicated. It will be interesting to see what changes are made to the specifications given to commissioned writers and photographers and what is published following the April 2018 edition.

BBC News. 13 March 20128. National Geographic: ‘Our coverage was racist’. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-43384747. [accessed 14-03-2018].

Cain, Abigail. February 17 2017. The Story Behind the Photograph That Made Ansel Adams Famous. Available at: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-photograph-made-ansel-adams-famous. [accessed 16-03-2018].

Greenfield, Patrick. 13 March 2018. National Geographic: for decades, our coverage was racist: Historian says past editions reinforced notion that non-white people were exotic and savage. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/13/national-geographic-magazine-coverage-racist . [accessed 15-03-2018].

Grundberg, Andy. 1988. Photography view: A Quintessentially American View of the World. The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/18/arts/photography-view-a-quintessentially-american-view-of-the-world.html. [accessed 14-03-2018].

National Geographic. April 2018. The Race Issue. Special Issue: Black and White. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/. [accessed 15-03-2018].

National Geographic. April 2018. How National Geographic acknowledged its racist past. The famous periodical has been delving into its own back issues – and found it was guilty of presenting race hierarchically, as well as reinforcing colonialist attitudes. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/shortcuts/2018/mar/13/how-national-geographic-acknowledged-its-racist-past. [accessed 14-03-2018]

Greenfield, Patrick. 13 March 2018. National Geographic: for decades, our coverage was racist: Historian says past editions reinforced notion that non-white people were exotic and savage. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/13/national-geographic-magazine-coverage-racist . [accessed 15-03-2018].

Schama, Simon. 15 March 2018. Ansel Adams. Civilisations: Series 1, Picturing Paradise. BBC 2 Clip. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0612xf6. [accessed 16-03-2018].

Sontag, Susan. 1977. On Photography. London: Penguin Books.

Turnage, William. 2016. Ansel Adams, Photographer.This biography was published by Oxford University Press for its American National Biography. Available at: http://anseladams.com/ansel-adams-bio/. [accessed 16-03-2018].

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