Informing Contexts, Coursework - A Sea of Images

In this week’s presentation, National Geographic: Representing, Re-Presenting, Reproducing, we were invited to analyze the imagery of National Geographic and consider the ways in which the magazine has reproduced or recycled myths and stereotypes about non-western cultures. National Geographic has been widely criticized for this, and coincidentally, this point has recently been addressed by the magazine’s editor Susan Goldberg. In a special issue of the magazine released this month, (The Race Issue) Goldman states ‘For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It’. 

The focus of both the lecture, and Goldman’s article, was National Geographic’s representation of non-western countries, so I was interested to see how the U.S. had been portrayed by the magazine over the years. Had America also been subject to bias representation? I suspected that America would be portrayed in an exceptionally positive light, particularly in the early years of the publication. Looking at Taschen’s book, The United States of America with National Geographic, my initial assumptions seem to be correct. Even the way that the book is advertised seems overly patriotic - A glossy image of a fruit stand abundant with peaches, another of girls in cotton dresses climbing a white picket fence, are displayed proudly upon the star spangled banner. 

However, this positive patriotism seems to have waned over the years. According to a BBC Culture review of the book -

‘By the end of the 1960s, the magazine’s unabashedly positive approach was beginning to show cracks. “By the early 1970s, American culture had shifted under the influence of nearly three decades of postwar economic prosperity, the rise of mass media, social unrest surrounding the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the rise of counter-culture,” writes Walker in the new book’s essay. “Domestic travel was less of a novelty, and Americans were better informed than they had once been.’  (Macdonald, 2016)

Looking at National Geographic today, It seems that they are making a conscious effort to provide a broader, more authentic image of America. The release of The Race Issue is perhaps a response to the pressure that has been placed upon the publication to more accurately portray the diversity of the country. 

I was interested to see the work of photographer Peter van Agtmael showcased on The National Geographic website, as his work is quite unlike the imagery I associate with the magazine. I find Agtmael’s series Buzzing at the Sill to be incredibly impactful in it’s raw, complex representation of America. The project is incredibly diverse in its subject matter, and therefore does not seem to make generalizations about any one group of people. 

The images themselves are also quite ambiguous, which disallows us from making hard and fast judgements - All very unlike the National Geographic images of the past. Applying these ideas to my own practice, I think I would benefit from diversifying my subject matter, and attempting to paint a fuller picture about the communities that I am documenting. In doing this, perhaps I can avoid making generalizations about Americans living in rural areas, and perpetuating the stereotypes that people have regarding them. 


Goldberg, S. 2018. National Geographic: For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It. [Online]. [Accessed 10 March 2018]. Available from:

Keefe, A. 2017. The Fractured States of America. [Online]. [Accessed 10 March 2018]. Available from:

Macdonald, F. 2016. The Images that helped define America [Online]. [Accessed 10 March 2018]. Available from:

Van Agtmael, P. 2017. Buzzing at the Sill. [Online]. [Accessed 10 March 2018]. Available from:

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