On 9 April 2014, whilst on a research trip in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, I was invited by Professor Rita Andrade to give a paper at the Universidade Federal de Goiás, Brazil. This is a short extract from my paper, which examined National Geographic’s representation of Brazil through dress since the magazine celebrated its centennial in September 1988.
Reproduced within the centennial edition of National Geographic in September 1988 were all of the magazine covers published to date, on a 2-metre wide double-sided pull-out section. The thick glossy pages unfolded as far as the arms could stretch and played with the affective capacities of the beholder. To view the covers in their entirety, the beholder was required to hold the magazine in their hands and realign their body in relation to it: to press their chest forwards, to move their face closer to inspect the small printed details, to achieve a sensory relation with the textured surface and smell of the recently printed pages. This article will argue that the centennial edition of National Geographic was designed not merely to be read, but to be felt too. It initiated a shift, in which the magazine has sought to communicate with its readership not only in terms of linguistic signification or effect, but through the sensations, memories, emotions or affect that images of Brazilian dress have evoked in the National Geographic viewer.
Within the article the then editor of National Geographic, Wilber E. Garrett (1980-1990) commented (my italics): ‘Though I can’t relate to all of them, these covers mark a century of holding up to the world our uniquely objective publishing mirror’. He then asserted a point of departure from the magazine’s previous editorial objectives, by declaring the need for ‘a once-in-a-century bit of introspection – holding up the mirror to ourselves for a change… we’re looking ahead to the next 100 years.’ Representation does not simply mirror but actively constructs, manufacturing the objects of its gaze as much as registering them: it is in this sense that each photograph reproduced in National Geographic has necessarily extended, altered and distorted the metaphorical ‘mirror’ originally held up by the National Geographic photographer or National Geographic author to his or her subject.
An example can be seen in a photograph that appeared in a National Geographic article in December 1988 entitled ‘Last Days of Eden: Rondonia’s Urueu-Wau-Wau Indians’. It captured a young girl as she stared at her reflection in a shiny silver and green balloon which she held in her right hand, whilst she traced the contours of her face with her left hand. A caption underneath the photograph read: ‘Captivated by her own image, an Urueu-Wau-Wau girl studies a plaything from another world at an outpost of Funai, Brazil’s National Foundation for the Indian’. Materiality is central to a viewer’s visual interpretation of this image. Viewers have a heightened awareness of their own bodies as they sit in quiet contemplation of the magazine, which is held in their hands or perhaps rested on their lap, and flip through the smooth, silky pages – possibly even handing them to another family member or friend for consideration. This bodily engaged way of viewing images in National Geographic focuses the act of looking, and draws attention to the act of looking being performed by the subject of the photograph, who stares at her own reflection in the shiny surface of the balloon whilst stroking her cheek. This engenders a feeling of identification between viewer and subject, despite the disparities in geographical location and generational experience, through the viewer’s own heightened awareness of being-in-the-world. As Eugenie Shinkle has pointed out, ‘So-called “mirror neurons” in the brain fire not only when we perform a particular action ourselves, but when we witness someone else performing it.’ Shinkle has examined the process by which, when we look at the postures and gestures made by a body (in this case, the girl tracing her reflection on the skin of her face) we do not simply read it in terms of a represented body, but we map these postures and gestures onto our own body. National Geographic self-reflexively plays with the performative nature of image-making through the use of gesture, which produces a heightened awareness of the process of looking in the National Geographic viewer. The use of gesture invites empathy between subject and viewer on a bodily level, as the subject movements are synchronized with the viewer’s own physical, emotional and intellectual being.
Garrett, W. E. (1988) ‘Within the Yellow Border…’, National Geographic, 174:3, September,
McIntyre, L. (with photographs by W. Jesco von Puttkamer) (1988) ‘Last Days of Eden: Rondonia’s Urueu-Wau-Wau Indians’, National Geographic, 174:6, December, p. 804.
Shinkle, E. (2010) ‘The Line Between the Wall and the Floor: Reality and Affect in Contemporary Fashion Photography’, in Shinkle, ed., Fashion as Photograph: Viewing and Reviewing Images of Fashion, London and New York: I. B. Tauris, p. 220.