Books · Colonisation · Gender · Performance & Arts

Framing the World

Through the Lens: National Geographic's Greatest PhotographsThrough the Lens: National Geographic’s Greatest Photographs by National Geographic Society
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is divided into sections on Europe, Asia, Africa & The Middle East, The Americas, Oceans & Isles and The Universe. Most of the introductory text is written in a bizarre sweeping style of Earth-for-aliens from a colonial perspective. Some of the within-section introductions are ridiculous:

In France, young Gypsies still find time for the pleasures of childhood despite the nomadic ways of their families

I tweeted it and later storified the conversation. But really, how did this sedentarist nonsense get past the editors?

It’s telling that the Europe and Americas sections have subsections on ‘Recreation’ while Asia and Africa & Middle East have ‘Traditions’ The general whitewashing, victim-blaming and focus on negative stories is perhaps most depressing in that it just doesn’t match the pictures! The most obvious contrast was in the Africa & Middle East section on ‘Women’

Tethered to lives of limited scope, most women of Africa and the Middle East must find their fulfillment in domestic responsibilities. Bearing and looking after children can consume countless hours of a woman’s time and energy: In Africa, for example, women give birth to an average of six children each. While religious or ethnic dictates rule much of their existence, poverty is an overarching influence in their lives. Like the wives of cattle herders in Nigeria, many women own little more than the clothes on their backs.

I don’t think I could satirize this paragraph! Yet the photographs that follow do not show undifferentiated women in ‘Africa’ giving birth, bearing children, looking after children or finding fulfillment in domestic responsibilities. They show women praying, dancing together, chatting in a salon, waiting in airport departure lounges, standing above a view of the Gaza strip holding up a dove of peace and -well knock me down with a feather- VOTING IN AN ELECTION!!!?! In face-veils. Topless. In woolly cardigans. In the casual garb of the international teenager. The camera is telling one story, while the commentary reads an obsolete colonial script. I can hardly believe Douglas Bennett Lee saw the material he was writing about.

By the time I got to the Americas I was so annoyed that the desultory and entirely guilt-free mention of First Nation peoples could hardly raise me to a higher pitch of fury. Suffice it to say that I thought it was really nice of photographers to ‘dignify’ their First Nation ‘subjects… whose last days, we know, are drawing near.’

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