National Geographic Has Always Depended on Exoticism

With its race issue, the magazine is trying a different direction. Can it escape its past?

The cover of National Geographic’s current special issue about race, featuring biracial twins.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by National Geographic.

When National Geographic announced the publication of a special issue about race this week, editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg’s editor’s note reported that the magazine had asked historian John Edwin Mason, of the University of Virginia, to look at the magazine’s past and help assess its coverage of race over the years. Goldberg relays some of Mason’s findings to her readers, but I wondered how Mason had gone about his research, and what else he had found that hadn’t made it into that relatively brief editor’s note.

A historian of Africa, black American life, and photography, Mason told me over Skype that he had to be disciplined in approaching this project, lest he lose weeks and months to reading back issues. (That would certainly be easy.) To create a framework for himself, he chose a dozen years of important milestones in African history, then read all the magazines that had been published in those years. He took special note of the ads, remarking on the stark contrast between images of watches and luxury cars and photographs of supposedly “primitive” Africans, Indians, and Pacific Islanders—a contrast that set up an implicit division between reader and observed.

In our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we spoke about how National Geographic’s approach to race compared with other magazines of the time, niceness as editorial policy, and the controversy over that cover.

Rebecca Onion: You’ve worked with the history of Life magazine as well, in writing about Gordon Parks’ photo essays

John Edwin Mason: These were his Life photo essays on things like black Muslims, segregation in the South, poverty in Brazil, poverty in Harlem, Stokely Carmichael, or the Black Panthers. But in order to understand Parks, you have to understand Life magazine, which means that I have looked at a lot of Life. I’m also writing an article right now about Life magazine’s representations of Africans.

Can you compare Life and National Geographic’s approach to race in that midcentury period?

The short version is that Life was willing to challenge its readers. Not in big ways, but in small. Life gave, for instance, Gordon Parks, enough space to be a step, maybe a step and a half ahead of where most white Americans were on issues of race and racism. And I think there are reasons for that. Some of them were personal. For most of the period I’m interested in, the editor in chief was Henry Luce, the creator of Life magazine, who was its editor in chief for as long as he lived. He was a fierce cold warrior and economically a conservative Republican, but on social issues, a liberal, in a kind of a Nelson Rockefeller–ish kind of a way. … And while he was hesitant on full integration, and he always saw African Americans as sort of different, he was better than most. That shows up in the magazine.

And the magazine was also based in New York. And New York is not Washington, D.C. National Geographic has always been in Washington, D.C., and Washington, D.C., has always been a Southern town. It was a very segregated town. A town that had much more in common with Birmingham, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia, than it did with New York City or Chicago.

And I think that’s part of what makes the difference between these two magazines. New York and New Yorkers thought of themselves as somehow on the cultural cutting edge and culturally progressive, in a way that wasn’t part of the thinking of the D.C.

Can you say more about the way that National Geographic covered race in the United States before recent decades?

The change happens in the 1970s, and I think the change can clearly be linked to changes in the broader American culture, and the place of African Americans in American society.

I think National Geographic was slow. If you look at other major magazines or newspapers, not just Life but Look and the [New York] Times and the Washington Post. … They were all further along than National Geographic was on issues of race, prior to the 1970s. You very infrequently saw African Americans in the pages of National Geographic. There was never a story about African Americans. There were in Life.

National Geographic showed you images of black people usually outside the center of the frame. And when they were outside the center of the frame, they were literally “toting that cotton, lifting that bale,” or they were working as domestic servants. … They were being naturalized in positions of economic and social inferiority. And when they were in the center of the frame, they were often cradling a white child or dusting off the mantelpiece of an elegant white home, or something like that.

That is how African Americans appeared, and that was reinforced by the ads. So you’d see an ad for the Pullman Company, and it’s an ad for the Pullman car, what are you going to have?

The porter!

Yes, the porter is helping the white family onto the train, making their bed. I mean, look, it’s not just National Geographic, we’re talking about the country. It was a segregated society where most white Americans were just very comfortable with white supremacy.

I’m curious as to what other kinds of American coverage National Geographic was printing. Were they covering other ethnic enclaves? If their goal was to show the reader “worlds that you never would visit otherwise,” then what was their approach to covering the United States?

There was an explicit editorial policy in National Geographic that they only published the happy stuff. … There was a rule that was essentially “Never say anything unpleasant about anyone.” That was one of the editorial rules. It was explicit, it was codified. And so they would do stories on ethnic enclaves, or they would more often do stories on Providence, Rhode Island, or Des Moines, Iowa, … cities, states, the Shenandoah Valley, or something like that. And yeah, if you would read them, you would see a kind of quaintness there.

This isn’t the United States, but in the 1950s National Geographic did a story on Scotland. Where they did to the Scots a little bit of what they did to Africans, which was to trap them in a traditional timelessness. “These are the Scots, and they have their traditions, and their traditions are always unchanged, and they’re different from the English and the rest of us, they wear kilts and they eat haggis.” It was this way of essentializing Scottishness which was remarkably similar to the essentializing of Africanness that goes on, or the essentializing of Indianness or Chineseness.

I want to ask you about the cover story for this current issue, which has gotten some criticism on Twitter. The use of the twins on the cover [biracial sisters, one with lighter skin and one with darker] has drawn a little bit of heat. People have been digging up the fact that coverage of these kinds of twins has become a media trope, and some people are arguing that a photo like this is conversation-ending rather than conversation-beginning. The argument is that the photo provokes a reaction of: “Look, race doesn’t matter, because look at this!”

Look, I had nothing to do with the editing of the issue, which was not my job. The content of this issue was not something I had anything to do with.

I saw two kinds of criticisms. One is that many photographers noted that the photographer who made the cover image was not a person of color. So if you’re going to do a story on race and you’re trying to change the very nature of the magazine, then it’s important, symbolically, to put forward a photographer of color on the cover.

Then I think it was Gene Demby who said, “Oh look! They discovered the social construction of race!” [Demby worried that the logical endpoint of the argument would be] “And since race is socially constructed, it doesn’t really mean anything and we should all get along.”

Cards on the table: I only watched the video, I haven’t read the story. But the video certainly didn’t end with “And despite the fact that [race] is socially constructed, it’s very real and has powerful consequences.” Imagine how it will affect the relationship between these two girls as they become young women. It will really shape their lives in different ways, and it’s something that, as they get older, they’re going to have to cope with, and I think they’ll find moments of difficulty.

I started my career as a historian of South Africa, and one of the things that happened in South Africa in the 1950s was racial classification. Race in South Africa had been “common sense” until the 1950s, when it was enshrined in law. But there were a lot of cases where it’s not all that easy to tell. … There were a lot, in the colored community, of very ambiguous cases like these two little girls. And the government had officials who would go around and visit families and make determinations. And sometimes the government official would determine that husband and wife were of different races, which meant they could no longer be legally married and could no longer live together.

But it got even worse than that. The government official would look at two siblings, like those two little girls, and say, “One of them is white and the other one is colored.” And that literally split families apart. I mean, in the most literal sense, they could no longer share a house, a neighborhood, a school, occupations. And there’s a literature in South Africa, especially from the colored community, of what this meant. And of course it meant heartbreak. Incredible pain. Families would always say, “Blood is thicker than water, this apartheid state is not going to destroy this family.” And yet it often did.

And so, this won’t happen to these girls. We wouldn’t want to think that anything remotely similar could happen! But it does, it is about the power of an idea. … So I wish they had gone beyond.

I feel like the twins are being used as a curiosity. I looked at Demby’s thread of examples of previous twins being used this way in media, and it’s hard not to believe that they are being exoticized, to some degree.

And this gets to my biggest question about National Geographic. This is a time when it’s trying to come to terms with its past, but its past necessarily has traded on exoticization, and the kind of reductive representation of people in other parts of the world. Is it possible to shed all of that appeal, when that was their stock in trade?

It’s hard. You know, one of the things photography does is it gives us permission to stare. And we all want to stare. We want to be able to stare at a movie star, we want to stare at a beautiful person, we want to be able to stare at an unusual sight, and in real life, if you’re a polite person you can’t just stare, but at a photograph, you can. And that’s one of the reasons we like it. We’re also interested in things that are different, that we find strange and unfamiliar. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

And one of the appeals of National Geographic has always been satisfying that natural desire to see things that are not the same as your people and where you live. But I do think there’s a danger. The danger is, when you look at National Geographic and its long history, is that those images [that] would suck us in are also conveying messages about racial hierarchies and the natural states of certain kinds of people. … So you’ve got the allure, but you can’t separate that allure from the message it’s containing.

I do have to say that I really like other essays in the issue. I read Michele Norris’ and liked it quite a bit, and the one on HBCUs, I loved the photography there [by Nina Robinson] … so the issue as a whole, for a magazine that is a popular magazine and is aimed at a mass audience, is quite good.

One last question. You’re quoted in the editorial note as saying, “It’s possible to say that a magazine can open people’s eyes at the same time as it closes them.” This was a very interesting quote to me, and I think that’s a hard point to talk about. I feel like a lot of times our internet conversation about cultural objects and race devolves to “It’s good” or
“It’s bad.” 

I may have been thinking back to some conversations I’ve had with African photographers. I’ve had any number of African photographers of a certain age tell me that they fell in love with photography through Life magazine or National Geographic. They just loved the power of those images, they loved the way those images sucked them into another world that they didn’t even know existed. There was something that was really powerful and charming and delicious about those images.

And now, as grown women and men, they’re able to look at those images that sucked them in as children and say, “Yeah, well, they’re also depicting an Africa that is not my Africa, that is an Africa I don’t see. An Africa that was seen through somebody else’s eyes and not mine.” They’re aware of that.

But they’re aware of both simultaneously. They can’t not be that child who fell in love with photography because of what they saw in Life or National Geographic. They cannot not be the adult who has her own vision of the world, and understands how that particular vision—you might even call it colonial vision—was about diminishing her.

So both of these things are true at the same time.

Rebecca Onion is a Slate staff writer and the author of Innocent Experiments.