How the Known World
Looks at the Unknown

Catherine Lutz and Jane
Collins’ Reading National Geographic
provides an analysis of the National
Geographic magazine, a publication read
and enjoyed by millions of people around the world. National Geographic Society
has published the magazine since 1888, and their work has given Westerners a
glimpse of the farthest regions of the Earth, making the world accessible
without traveling. Until global television coverage began,
National Geographic was one of the
only mediums that covered such exotic and unknown territory. The authors examine how
the magazine has presented this unknown world to Western society and, in doing
so, argue that the magazine has contributed greatly to how many Western
citizens perceive those whose lives are so different from their own, granting
the publication immense power. The magazine combines text and photographs, but
its high-quality, glossy, beautiful photographs sweep over their accompanying
stories. Even if this stylized presentation is unintentional, Lutz and Collins
argue that the magazine portrays other cultures and people as so exotic that it
is easier for Westerners to dominate and marginalize them. A “middlebrow” cultural
production, National Geographic has
been standardized as an educational and reflective magazine, one which many
Americans and other Westerners look to for an objective and enjoyable understanding
of non-Western cultures. Lutz and Collins challenge the publication’s
objectivity, however, and claim that the magazine teaches us less about faraway
cultures and more about our own, arguing further that it contributes toward the
schism between Western society and the distant parts of the world National Geographic into our living

many Americans, I grew up reading National
Geographic, especially National
Geographic Kids. I most definitely viewed the world I didn’t know through
this magazine. I was especially drawn to the photographs because of their
colors and how genuine and happy the people in them appeared. In sixth grade,
when we studied Africa and Asia, I wrote reports based on what I learned from
my magazines. National Geographic
presents images of the natural world, of plants, animals, and the environment. More
often than not, however, the subject of the magazine is people—the more exotic
the better. Reflecting upon the impressions I received from National Geographic Kids, I realize that
what I felt most was a confusing empathy between myself and those I read about.
I felt that I could connect to the peoples’ happiness in their daily lives.
They slept in a different place, but they still slept. They celebrated in bizarre
ways, but they still had holidays. In this intrinsically human sense, I related
to the people I saw in the magazine, but I still felt like they were portrayed
to me to be as foreign as possible. Lutz and Collins contend that my perception
of what I viewed was shaped not only by bias I brought to the photographs, but
also by what I was intended to see, shaped subtly by choices made by the
editors. Lutz and Collins focus on the process involved in selecting the photos
that accompany the articles on non-Western people. What is deemed worthy to
include? How do photographs communicate or evoke emotion? What is the social context
in which they are produced, “the historical and cultural context that
gives the photograph and its elements their meaning and significance?”1
What role do these images have in our society? In what social framework have
the magazine’s editors and photographers worked, and how has this changed over
the hundred-year plus history of the magazine? These are some of the questions Lutz and Collins explore. In
discussing these issues, the authors present a history of social thinking over
the late 19th and 20th centuries. In the early years of National Geographic, anthropologists and other social theorists
used non-Western peoples as models for the evolutionary stages that Western
people had progressed through on their way to political and social supremacy.
The world was orderly and knowable, each society had its place in the global
picture, and could be studied by professional social scientists.

The book is an analysis
of the National Geographic Society, particularly of how the institution selects photographs
to print in the magazine. Just as the choices of what to cover are deliberate, the
photographs of selected subjects are even more calculated. While these pictures
show what is real, they can be shaped by nuance, lighting, contour, color and
background. Lutz and Collins claim that the editors’ choices reflect their
effort for connectivity, to show Westerners how the non-Western world is at
once different yet also similar to our own – to find familiarity in what is
foreign. National Geographic is known
for its ability to communicate with the reader before the reader even reads a
line of text.

and Collins found from their analysis that the photographs reveal a common
perspective: third world people are idealized or rendered exotic. They are
shown living their everyday lives, untouched by outside events. Many photographs
focus on ritual behavior, a part of foreign culture understood to be rooted in
the past. If people are not portrayed ritualistically, they are shown making
the slow transition towards more modern, Westernized behavior, using imported
goods, tools, machinery and new modes of dress. Lutz and Collins discerned that these portrayals reflect a regulated system
of norms and rules held up by the editors, photographers and publisher, rules
that came to be expected by the public, or National
Geographic readers. These unwritten rules, especially during the 1950s and
1960s, painted a portrait of a non-Western world free of violence, strife and
hunger, and one full of color, intrigue and promise. These qualities are meant
to hold up the claim that Lutz and Collins call “conservative humanism” (Lutz
and Collins, 277), a view of the world that is normalized by the “other” by proposing
that “we are all alike under the skin” (Lutz and Collins, 166). Although this
point of view is nominally positive and affirming, it sets clear boundaries:

The photographs rarely
cried out for change, raised painful, unresolvable questions, embarrassed, or
caused discomfort…in general, they have existed as beautiful, somewhat
compelling body of evidence that the third world is a safe place, that it is
made up of people basically like us, that the people who are hungry and
oppressed have meaningful lives, and that the conflicts and flare-ups we hear
of in the news occur in broader context of enduring values and everyday
activities. These images obscure the American relationships with the third
world that have structured life there in profound ways; they deny social
connections even as they evoke empathy (Lutz and Collins, 280).

Such an approach to presenting the exotic is not unfamiliar. Roland
Barthes, for example, has written critically about the film The Lost
Continent, which he accuses of sloppy and sunny biased “seeing,”
predetermined to portray exotic, non-Western life as a celebration of
syncretism. He views
the film as an attempt to pull the variations in the way people live around the
world into a continuous river of human experience. Lutz and Collins’ work
recognizes a similar goal behind choices made for National Geographic about how to present the people of the third world.
Now replaced by the term “developing
nations,” the term “third world” arose during the Cold War to broadly
categorize the nations on Earth into three groups based on economic, political
and social divisions. Lutz and Collins see in National Geographic a theme of presenting the people of the third world
“as exotic; they are idealized; they are naturalized and taken out of all but a
single historical narrative; and they are sexualized” (Lutz and Collins, 89).

Both authors tell personal and political
stories about why they are interested in the National Geographic. Both have rich childhood memories
from the 1960s of pouring over the magazine’s “seductive representations of the
third world” (Lutz and Collins, xi). At
first, I wondered why National Geographic is one of the primary means
through which people in the U.S. receive information and images of the
“foreign” world. As I read through Lutz and Collins’ book,
however, I discovered their fascination in the display of far-off lands is very
similar to my own and one that is shared by many. American society identifies
with National Geographic. The
magazine is designed in such a way that it draws attention to exotic elements
of the third world. National Geographic
wants readers to empathize with the people captured in the magazine, and that’s
what American society does. People are drawn to the unknown, and possibly because
they are influenced by many people’s inherent desire to travel the world and
experience other cultures. The magazine provides an easy, safe, warm way to intellectually
travel, primarily through photographs. Coming of age during the Vietnam War, however, Lutz and
Collins realized that the power of photography was not just to please, but to
shock, educate and motivate change. The Vietnam War highlighted the importance
of the photograph in Western society, specifically America, an artistic element
that today is considered “a central feature of contemporary life” (Lutz and
Collins, 4).

National Geographic invites people to look out at the rest of the world through the
eyes of the world’s most powerful nation. In Lutz and Collins’ analysis of
other cultures through photography, the authors also look into social,
historical and artistic theories, and they closely examine ethnic and gender
issues. Lutz and Collins structured their study “so as to gain insight
into the process by which images are formed, selected and controlled, purveyed
and read” (Lutz and Collins, 11). They claim that the photos are
scientific in that they objectively present evidence: “the objects
presented actually occurred in nature in the ways they were photographed”
(Lutz and Collins, 28). Closer examination, however, reveals that for the photo
to appear real and scientific the image must be consistent with cultural
expectations, and it is the magazine’s editors who consider under what
conditions images will appear to be realistic.

While writing the book, the authors were
amazed by how the looks and looking relationships are captured in the photos,
concluding that “all photographs tell stories about looking” (Lutz
and Collins, 187). In “The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes,” (Chapter
7) the authors address the phenomenon of “the gaze.” There are gazes in
every photograph found in National
Geographic—one or more persons looking at the camera, people looking in a
variety of directions, the photographer’s gaze (represented by the camera’s
perspective), the magazine’s gaze, and the magazine reader’s
gaze. These gazes can establish a sense of intimacy and communication, but this
connection “contradicts to some extent National Geographic’s
official goal of presenting a manipulated, truthful slice of life from another
country” (Lutz and Collins, 198). The gaze is represented by the
camera’s eye as a conduit for the reader’s look.

The National Geographic Society has “always
been private, but has powerful ties to government; it is a ‘scientific’
institution, yet dependent on the sales and popularity of its magazine…” (Lutz
and Collins, 15). Not only does it have ties with the government, but it also is
largely driven by corporate interest. At the same time, the magazine claims to
articulate a national vision, addressing the concerns and curiosity of all U.S.
citizens. This makes me wonder about the influences brought to bear on the
magazine’s direction. The National Geographic Society constitutes itself as an
important and reliable interpreter of third world realities. How, then, can it
view itself in an encyclopedia category, as is mentioned in Reading National Geographic, if the
magazine is not completely factual but rather an interpretation put together by
the editors and the photographers, influenced by external factors? 

Lutz and Collins argue that
the unsuspected rise of images over text found in the magazine was one of two vital
cultural shifts that affected National Geographic in
the postwar era, and one that transformed the medium of recorded history. This
new power of the visual, combined with the publication’s massive circulation
figures, gave the magazine extraordinary power and influence over American
perceptions of the world. Lutz and Collins carefully examine
the relationship between the magazine and historical change in the second
half of the twentieth century because, as they point out, any form of cultural
production is itself a result of historical circumstances. After World War II,
readers wanted to learn about other countries, how they operated and what they
stood for, and National Geographic took
this into consideration and fed the readers what they wanted to see. After the
war, National Geographic changed the
way they presented the world. Westerners began to gradually disappear in
photographs of third world subjects and the connection that previously supported
the magazine to photograph the world had been extremely strained, and consequently
visual references to this contested relationship became “studiously avoided” (Lutz
and Collins, 40).

Geographic became
the maker of scientific knowledge. The magazine would tell Americans what they
wanted to hear and manipulated stories and images to feed the egos of the Westerners.
Americans could read about the savage Dahomeyan culture and then turn the page
to read about the weak and peaceful Maasai people, thus assuring the reader
that the world had balance. Despite providing natural, ambiguous photos, the
magazine has been able to shape and manipulate America’s ideas of the non-white

For Lutz and Collins, the magazine’s ability to
disprove history is their most provocative argument. The authors focus
exclusively on the presentation of third world human beings because they are
concerned with the different power relations in the world, particularly those
involving class, gender and race. Although the magazine’s longstanding principle
has been “to show the world and its inhabitants,” Lutz and Collins counter that
the magazine has in fact marketed a very narrow and optimistic view of the
world. National Geographic encourages
its readers to identify with the exotic subjects on a basic, human level, which
distracts from differences of race, class, gender and language. Lutz and Collins
argue that the editors of the magazine have emphasized the universal over the historical
in order to make the subjects and their respective cultures comprehensible to mainstream
Americans. Accordingly, by emphasizing unity within a range of diversity, and
invoking universal human qualities, the authors suggest that the editors
suppressed the reality of history, which is riddled with disturbing conflicts,
power inequalities and social change. More specifically, the magazine’s
trademark became “a world of happy, classless people outside of history but
evolving into it, edged with exoticism and sexuality, but knowable to some
degree as individuals” (Lutz and Collins, 116). In National Geographic, we,
the readers, are able to glimpse at a highly diverse world, but one in which we
are confident that all cultures share the same fundamental values. To the
authors, this implicit assertion of unity has turned what might have been
politically charged material into a visual and acceptable truth. 
          Rather than stressing important
cultural differences, the magazine relies on positive universal human
qualities: love, kinship, and community. Like the famous Disney song “It’s a
Small World After All” that accompanied the exhibit about children around the
world, such a presentation celebrates but also colors the world and denies
critical, valid differences. Through a veneer of false recognition, this kind
of presentation denies the many different ways there are to be human, and harms
our ability to recognize the need to do so. Lutz and Collins’ Reading National Geographic provides an eye-opening
account, highlighting the distorted way Americans have come to view race and
gender in the lives of people so different from their own. 


1Catherine A. Lutz and
Jane L. Collins. Reading National Geographic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, page