“The tendency to subjugate the mission of gathering evidence to the demands of pictorial appeal becomes especially obvious in the pictures taken by the magazine’s staff and freelance photographers within the last several years. But it is also an inevitable consequence of the Geographic’s modern definition of itself as a magazine of mass appeal.” (Grundberg, 1988).
Grundberg begins his article “A Quintessentially American Point of View of the World” by outlining the role that National Geographic had in informing him at a time when exposure to the world and world events was greatly restricted: fewer publications were available and television was a new technology still in its formative stages.
According to Grundberg, the 1988 exhibition “Odyssey: The Art of Photography at National Geographic” – an exhibition of 200 photographs from the National Geographic archives, was interesting for two reasons: the wealth of images on display and what it said about the way editors and photographers choose to portray the world. This is the limit to Grundberg’s generosity.
He went on to write that the exhibition lacked anything which might give even the merest clue of how the magazine and its photography had developed since its inception.
Rather, it appeared to Grundberg that the purpose of the exhibition was a demonstration of “style” rather than a study of serious photography. I think it is fair to say, from the tone of Grundberg’s writing, that his view on the exhibition reflects his view on the journal itself – overly concerned with style and lacking in any substance.
What would appear to be quite clear is that this sea-change arose when the publication changed from being a “dry scholarly 19th century journal” into a popular magazine intended for consumption by the masses. What is perhaps not so clear is why it might be considered necessary to remove any informative academic content in order for the magazine to appeal to the wide audience targeted by the publishers.
Is it not possible to write articles which present academic material in a way which makes it appeal to a non-academic general public? Or is that the masses are not to be educated or informed? Who decides?
Surely it is feasible to provide a narrative which presents a balanced account of the “world and all that is in it”. However, Grundberg appears to suggest that National Geographic choose, at the time of writing at least, to offer a weak, stylistic portfolio of travel photography seen through the rose-tinted spectacles of a someone akin to a Victorian-era explorer.
“National Geographic photography”, focusing on a wide range of subjects including “wildlife, exploration, foreign cultures, scenic vistas and so on”, is observed as having a wide and lasting influence on the way that Americans perceive the world. Grundberg states that National Geographic “currently has a circulation of 10 million copies a month”, America alone had a population of 244 million in 1988 when the article was published, setting aside the fact of a worldwide circulation, how great an influence National Geographic has had on shaping the “American view of the world”, its people and places at any one time is arguable.
Notwithstanding the latter point, why would a publication, any publication, seek to influence perceptions as a result of the way it presents information? Why, for example, would National Geographic choose to “sanitise” what it shows to its readers?
Why would National Geographic choose to portray subjects in “ethnographic pastoral” mode which, as Grundberg informs us, results in “much of the writing found on the magazine’s pages” having a tendency “to verge on the rhapsodic, depicting foreign lands and cultures as exotic and alluring”?
Why not portray the reality of life for the people, and in the places, that are the journal’s subjects?
Foucaldian power discourse focuses on power relationships which exist in society, it is a form of discourse analysis which extends to include semiotic critical analysis.
Looking beyond Grundberg’s evaluation of the “Odyssey” exhibition specifically and National Geographic generally, it would certainly appear that the media works to a definite agenda in order to achieve its aims. It is in a position of immense power – and it makes use of that power.
People are not only told what to think but also, as is the case with much media coverage, what to think of in terms of the subjects that are presented by the media.
With power comes responsibility. It is inevitable that news stories will have a hierarchy, some events taking place in the world will always have a high level of importance whilst others, arguably, are not news at all. But what drives the decision-making process which determines what news stories become headlines, what imagery and copy is used in adverts? And again, who makes the decision?
As tentative as the link might be, is this a symptom of politically correct thinking?
Stereotypes can be insulting at best, and offensive at worst. The use of stereotypical images, even “gendered” images, by the media to force home a point would seem at odds with political correctness. But nevertheless, we should ask the question whether or not the media operates, to some extent, to an ideology of political correctness, even if only to dismiss that question.
Are we really being increasingly told what to think by the way in which the media chooses to present some images and not others? Is there a commonly held perception in the media that the “masses” cannot think for themselves and so should be spoon-fed news and adverts?
Karl Marx is frequently paraphrased as stating that “religion is the opiate of the masses”. Perhaps media, especially “social media”, is the new religion? And perhaps selective and manipulative use of imagery by the media is the “opiate” that induces us to sleepwalk through a subliminally suggestive landscape? The “hypodermic needle” effect cited in reception theory certainly suggests that audiences passively view adverts and unquestioningly accept the preferred message.
Without doubt, photography can help establish or perpetuate stereotypes depending on the agenda the photographer or user of the image is working to.
However, the relationship between the author and the audience is not one-sided as models of passive audience viewing might suggest.
Audience theory suggests that “dominant readings” arise when audiences readily accept the “preferred” message.
Audiences do, however, question what is presented to it by the media, and, again, audience theory informs us that this is an “oppositional reading”. In Barthes terminology, the “source of emission” is held to account by the “point of reception”, a notable example is the case of the “You Can Ride Me All Day for £3.00” adverts being removed from Cardiff buses within hours of the advertising campaign being launched. This is an example of not only how the media manipulates through the use of stereotypes but also how audiences can question and successfully challenge institutions. Seemingly, though, such stereotypes are commonplace.
“Ride Me All day for £3” (New Adventure Travel, 2015)
Advertisements make use of “gendered” images, and the use of the “male gaze” with its active, quite often “aggressive”, masculine, and its passive, nurturing feminine roles, is prevalent.
“I can’t cook. Who cares?” (Wonderbra, 1999)
By way of example, television adverts for cleaning products do feature male characters, but ask how often that is the case. Advertisements for cleaning products are predominantly aimed at female members of the household.
At a time when gender seems more mutable than ever before, in real terms, gender roles seem just as immutable in the advertising world as ever.
Whilst negative stereotypes might seem to be commonplace in advertising, positive stereotyping can be seen.
“The More Women at Work” Campaign Poster (U. S. Office of War Information, 1943)
So, how can I apply all this to my photographic practice?
For me, the value of this discourse is in appreciating how to engage with audiences, the judicious use of images to ensure appropriateness, and in maintaining integrity. I think there is much more mileage, much more credibility, in an approach which promotes how to think, rather than preaching what to think.
There is no such thing as a single, homogenous audience. Audiences will always demonstrate a spectrum of perceptions, viewing the same thing will elicit a range of different responses ranging from acceptance to opposition. Perhaps the most important message is that people are less prepared to accept if they feel patronised or manipulated, put another way, people are more willing to accept ideas, even opposing views, if they feel they are being spoken to and involved in resolving an outcome, rather than spoken down to as non-participant.
Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Rhetoric of the Image in Image Music Text. London: Fontana
Grundberg, A. (1988) Photography View: A Quintessentially American View of the World. The New York Times [Online]. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/18/arts/photography-view-a-quintessentially-american-view-of-the-world.html?pagewanted=2 (Accessed: 03 March 2017)