When National Geographic, the 130-year-old magazine dedicated to science, exploration and the natural world, acknowledged its racist past earlier this month, people noticed.
“For decades, our coverage was racist. To rise above our past, we must acknowledge it,” read the headline over the letter from editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg in the April issue of the magazine, focusing on race.
Goldberg noted that she is the first woman and the first Jewish person to edit the magazine since its founding in 1888.
“How we present race matters,” she declared.
“I hear from readers that National Geographic provided their first look at the world. Our explorers, scientists, photographers, and writers have taken people to places they’d never even imagined … it means we have a duty, in every story, to present accurate and authentic depictions — a duty heightened when we cover fraught issues such as race.”
Her letter was prompted by the findings of a research effort from historian John Edwin Mason, who was tasked with examining the archives.
Professor Mason has been blown away by the response to the magazine’s acknowledgement. (Sanjay Suchak, University of Virginia Communications)
“It’s blown up in social media, it’s blown up in traditional media, it’s blown up all over the world, and it’s because people really care about National Geographic,” Professor Mason said.
A specialist in the history of photography and African history at the University of Virginia, Professor Mason grew up in a household with a subscription to National Geographic, so he understands its significance to popular culture.
But even he was unprepared for the public reaction last week.
“I did not anticipate that Susan Goldberg’s letter would get all of the attention,” he said.
Omissions as revealing as inclusions
One of the more startling examples of the magazine’s racist coverage is from a 1916 story about Australia.
A caption underneath a photo of two Indigenous Australians reads: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”
Aboriginal Australians were called “savages” in a photo caption in 1916.
(Supplied: © National Geographic/CP Scott/HE Gregory )
As part of his research, Professor Mason went through the National Geographic archives in Washington DC.
He looked not just at what made it into the pages of the magazines, but what was left out, gaining insight into the world view of photographers filing to the magazine.
It was clear that “the writers and photographers that National Geographic sent out into the world were people who came from a society that was built on a racial hierarchy,” he said.
“Cards and clay pipes amuse guests in Fairfax House” read the caption on this 1956 photo. (Supplied: © National Geographic/ Robert F. Sisson and Donald McBain)
“Remember how segregated the United States was, remember that the US was built on the theft of land from Native Americans, and it was built on a foundation of black racial slavery; so this was a society that wholly embraced white supremacy and the sense that whites were on top.”
An invisible history
Prior to the late 1960s, the magazine’s photographs primarily captured African, Asian and Latin American people in natural settings, scantily clad.
“Very often you wouldn’t see even the simplest technology, like a bicycle,” Professor Mason said.
“There was the visual impression that people were living as their ancestors might have lived 200 or 500 or 1,000 years ago.
“What’s especially striking to me is that in the period after World War II, when anti-colonial, nationalist struggles are such an important part of what was going on in Asia and Africa, that’s almost completely invisible in the pages of National Geographic.”
Professor Mason said he observed a change in perspective in the magazine’s approach from the late 1960s, as African and Asian nations rejected colonialism, and the civil rights movement in the US gained traction.
“The kind of unselfconscious racism that permeated American society well into the ’50s, into the ’60s, that began to dissipate,” he said.
So how did the magazine respond to the research?
South African gold miners were “entranced by thundering drums”, a 1962 issue reported.
(Supplied: © National Geographic/Kip Ross)
Professor Mason says Ms Goldberg was receptive to his reading of National Geographic’s archive.
“I don’t think I was telling her anything that she didn’t know,” he said.
“But I think it’s also important that National Geographic wanted to hear it from an outsider, somebody who’s not connected to the magazine, and somebody who has some expertise both in the history of the non-Western world and the history of photography.”
While the April issue of National Geographic has drawn some criticism, Professor Mason sees the acknowledgement of its history as both a culmination and a starting point to building a more inclusive stable of contributors.
“It needs many more women, it needs many more people of colour, and it needs some geographical diversity,” he said.
“It can’t just be Americans and Europeans who are doing these stories.
“There’s a tremendous amount of literary and photographic talent out there and I really want to see magazine draw on them.”