Dominant discourses of power relations and the Melanesian other: interpreting the eroticized, effeminizing gaze in National Geographic.

Author:Hyndman, David
Position:Critical essay

The effeminate and sensual idealization of the Melanesian Other stems from National Geographic's gaze, which in turn is broadly linked to themes in Western cultural history. Race and geopolitics become organizing backdrops for narratives told about the Melanesian Other, and exemplify the "noble savage" theme as fetish. To travel in space is to travel in time. The fantasmagoric presentation of nude Melanesian men and women is for the consumption of Western white reader's back home. Immoderate sexuality and the uncontained body of black savage's poses a tangible threat to Western male viability in Melanesia. Mourning the passing of traditional Melanesian society and imperialist nostalgia makes racial discrimination appear innocent and pure in National Geographic, which masks the West's involvement with processes of domination. It is an eroticized, effeminizing gaze that reestablishes existing power relations in the imperialist scheme.


Reading National Geographic by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins (1993) is an evocative portrayal of a "world brightly different" (Lutz and Collins 1993:87). According to Lutz and Collins, National Geographic has devoted 35% of its coverage to Asia, 22% to Latin America, 15% to the Middle East and North Africa, 12% each to Africa and the Pacific, and 6 % to Polar regions (120). As an anthropologist whose focus is Melanesia, I was intrigued to learn that photographic representation of Pacific Islanders is 50 times higher in National Geographic than would be anticipated given the region's small proportion of the global population. Hollywood movies and World War II photojournalism (Lindstrom and White 1990) have been important contributors to the West's postwar depiction of the Pacific region. However, in creating an audience for images of cultural difference in the Pacific, National Geographic has an unrivalled worldwide reach to over 37 million people per issue. The contribution by Lutz and Collins (1993) to postmodern discourse and representation is taken as the main theoretical point of departure to critically examine the postcolonial depiction of Melanesians in National Geographic. When I started anthropological fieldwork in the eastern half of New Guinea in 1973 it was still an Australian colony, and did not become the State of Papua New Guinea (PNG) until 1975. In the western half of New Guinea the changeover from Dutch colony to Indonesian recolonization occurred just over 30 years ago. Data analysis in this paper is based on the 146 photographs of postcolonial Melanesians from the island of New Guinea that have appeared in the pages of National Geographic over the last three decades (see Table 1).

Dumont (1988) relates fashions in the exotic Other to shifting emphases in Western political and economic foundations, with the kind and amount of coverage vacillating according to prevailing international relations between the West and the rest. For Melanesia, race acts as a more significant backdrop constraining camera access than geopolitical interests per se. Backdrops, according to Appadurai "can be interpreted as sites of epistemological uncertainty about exactly what photographs seek to represent" (1997:1). Rydell demonstrates that the scale of evolutionary progress that placed the black-skinned Other (e.g., Africans, Melanesians) at the bottom of the human scale, the brown-skinned Other (e.g., Asians) midway and Whites at the top not only informed nineteenth-century explorers and home consumers of their images but has continued to operate in the West (1984). Race becomes an organizing principle of narratives told about Melanesian peoples.

Racial attitudes control cultural ideas about the nobility of the Melanesian Other. Melanesians exemplify the Noble-Savage theme as fetish because they display "the kind of pathological displacement of libidinal interest that we normally associate with the forms of racism that depend on the idea of a 'wild humanity' for their justification" (White 1978:184). The nature of an opposition between a normal humanity (White) and an abnormal one (Black) is sufficient to transform Melanesians from being merely exotic into an ontological Other to be done with as desire requires (White 1978). The idea of black savages who are noble has the effect of demeaning the idea of nobility itself. National Geographic photography places Melanesian subjects under the imperial gaze of a realist ethnography that is civilizing at home and orientalizing in New Guinea (see Appadurai 1997). In seeking to cultivate the savage, imperialists were transforming their own society. Cultural colonialism is a reflexive process whereby the Melanesian Other is put to the purpose of reconstructing the Other back home, and the two sites went hand in hand in the triumphalism of the bourgeoisie in the West (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992).

Knowledge of the Melanesian Other is a temporal, historical and political act (Fabian 1983). Mourning the passing of traditional Melanesian society and imperialist nostalgia makes racial discrimination appear innocent and pure, and masks involvement with processes of domination (Rosaldo 1989). To travel in space is to travel in time. Travel as science secularizes time for observation and description and space reflects the sequence of time as evolutionism (Fabian 1983). This paper investigates the representations and discourses of 146 photographs of the Melanesian Other appearing in National Geographic (Table 1). Photographs for representational analysis are identified with single quotation marks, and quotations for textual analysis from accompanying captions are identified with double quotation marks. Photographs of Melanesians in National Geographic are explained by the standard evolutionary model, and assigned to the Stone Age. Primitive Melanesian savagery is conveyed in article titles shown in Table 1 like "Headhunters in today's world: The Asmat of New Guinea," and "Fertility rites and sorcery in a New Guinea village." The caption entitled "On the outside looking in" refers to "Papuan tribes ... with their forest-based culture and animist beliefs" (O'Neill and Steinmetz 1996:16-7). Difference as distance becomes a "Journey through time" (Leydet and Austen 1982), as Melanesians proceed from location past to location present.

This paper conveys a different story than the National Geographic photographs originally meant to tell, one that is about their makers and readers rather than their Melanesian subjects. The National Geographic images of difference are denaturalized to override the temptation to imagine the Melanesian Other as basically living in a happy, classless and noble world in conflict neither with themselves nor us. The disproportionate attention to Melanesians in National Geographic is underlain by racist epistemology that says a lot about anthropology's complicit role in this production of knowledge.


Lutz and Collins' reading of National Geographic established the intersection of seven gazes (1993:88). A deconstruction of the intersection of gazes in the 146 photographs of the Melanesian Other reveals the context of imperialism that envelops and reinforces the dominant discourses of power.

The Photographer's Gaze

The photographer's gaze marks the structure and content of the photo (Lutz and Collins 1993:193). The National Geographic photographer/writer teams are literally and symbolically the whitest and most masculine great hunter/adventurers (Bright 1989:137-8). Photographers are regularly featured in the "On Assignment" page of National Geographic, and "Not on the menu: George du jour"(On Assignment 1996) typifies the flamboyantly virile photographer identified by Lutz and Collins (1993:185) as bravely roaming, observing and evaluating locales inaccessible for most of his audience. Among the ten authors on assignment to New Guinea, seven are male and two, Robert Gordon and Gillian Gillison, are anthropologists (Table 1). All ten photographers are men and they must confront the Melanesian Other across the distance of gender. Okely (1975) notes that contemporary anthropology shares in the masculine part of this ethos and Said (1989) comments on the racially white part. National Geographic and Western anthropology share in the reproduction of white male privilege.

The Magazine's Gaze

The magazine's gaze represents the behind-the-scene institutional process by which a portion of the photographer's gaze is used and emphasized. The viewer cannot know if selection of photographs and the cropping and arrangement of photographs on the page are the results of editorial or photographic decisions. The editors' choices to commission an article and to fix captions are more clearly identified as the magazine's gaze (Lutz and Collins 1993:195). Marketing studies show that just over half the magazine's readers primarily view the photographs and only read the captions for additional thematic exposure to carry away with them. Barthes (1977:25-6) has commented on the anchorage function played by the caption writer's fixing of a vantage point on the photograph's meaning. The historical shift to caption functioning to illuminate the visual dips the picture in lyrical fixative and is crucial to the magazine's gaze (Lutz and Collins 1993:76).

The Readers' Gazes

The gazes of the magazine readers perceive, receive and read the photo (Barthes 1977:199). This is conducted independently and in addition to the gaze of the photographer and the magazine. Through agency, enculturation, and diversity of experience, readers' gazes have a history and a future. Therefore the photograph is more than a material object. It evokes an imagined world before the photographer and author team arrives, it provokes further imagining of the photograph itself and remembrances of the story told (Lutz and Collins 1993:196). Fantasy is permitted through learned cultural models, which help interpret gestures...

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