Chapter 1: The Poetics | Representation and National Geographic / by ellie berry

This is the second part in a series of mini essays - here's the introduction

I: The National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is chartered in Washington D.C. as a non-profit scientific and educational organization “for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.” Since 1888 the Society has supported more than 9,000 explorations and research projects, adding to the knowledge of the earth, sea and sky.[1]

For many people issues of The National Geographic Society magazine were shown to them as a child, the bright vibrant colours alluring. It was, and still is, marketed as a scientific journal – words which in English carry the ideas of “truth” and “fact”. The articles and the images of far-flung places contained within its pages are continually absorbed by millions of people every year, and have helped form views of the world today.[2]

The quote above can be found as a standard introduction paragraph in a vast majority of National Geographic’s physical publications since the turn of the century. Founded in 1888 as a scientific journal, The National Geographic Society was not an illustrated publication until 1905. Set up as a scientific institution, the Society is a private body that relies on sales to continue running as a company. There are plenty of theories as to why National Geographic became successful, with most claiming it to be a combination of the following ideas. Firstly, the end of the nineteenth century saw the start of mass journalism in the form of monthly magazines (which would not have been possible before the completion of America’s intercontinental railway system in the 1860s) and the start of advertising within said magazines. Secondly, the Spanish-American War in 1898 caused American citizens to become more interested in foreign lands and America’s colonial expansion.[3] Skip forward to 1905 and a ‘revolutionary’ editor goes against the managing board and publishes eleven full-page images of Tibet, increasing membership to the magazine by over 7,500 in that year alone.[4]

Whether such claims are true or not make little difference because it reads as an exciting success story. The company’s mission statement proclaims to be an “organisation driven by a passionate belief in the power of science, exploration and storytelling to change the world.” National Geographic presents itself to the world as a storyteller. The articles and photographic content the magazine began to produce at the beginning of the twentieth century were designed to be consumed as small samples of the places and ideas they represented.[5] It was the idea that these small representations have considerable power to create a specific worldview when viewed as a whole that intrigued me to begin researching this thesis topic.

II: Ideas of Representation


Stuart Hall is a writer who has worked extensively with the idea of representation. The quote below is taken from his book Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices,[6] outlining the power that representation has on the everyday.

In part, we give things meanings by how we represent them – the words we use about them, the stories we tell about them, the images of them we produce, the emotions we associate with them, the ways we classify and conceptualize them, the values we place upon them.[7]

Human communication through language reaches far further than the words we speak. Our language encompasses music and objects, images and emotions, body language and written word - all of which allow us to share our opinions, ideas and feelings.

There are two prominent forms of representational analysis for photographic work: the poetic (semiotics), and the political (the discursive – the effects and consequences of representation). Semiotics is a form of communication; it is a study of sign processes and cultural codes. As Stuart Hall writes “It is we who fix the meaning so firmly that, after a while, it comes to seem natural and inevitable. The meaning is constructed by the system of representation”.[9]

This quote is an example of how through the repetition of a specific notion of representation, the representation becomes an accepted truth or assumed reality without further proof. And these meanings we affix are produced in a set way. To develop this train of thought, we must discuss representation on a fundamental level. To do this, we turn to Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist who is known as a father to modern day linguistics. His ideas about representation and language also helped construct semiotics.

In interpretations of Saussure’s work, it is said he believed that the production of meaning depends on language; if things such as words and photographs are used to communicate ideas, they are part of a protocol. His theory centered on a sign (the protocol) being two parts. There is the signifier (word, photograph, etc.) and the signified (the thought of the object, person, etc. that then pops into your head). These parts of the sign are not separate, but create one idea. According to Saussure, this sign or idea doesn’t exist if it doesn’t have an opposite (or binary). As with traffic lights, the red you see does not hold the idea of stop; it is applied to it through its inclusion in the sequence. It would also hold no meaning without it’s opposite colour, green to ‘tell’ you to go. Of course this categorizing of things into simple opposites and binaries completely ignores the fact that there can be finer details than black and white. But it was this work that lead to Saussure’s “proposition that a language consists of signifiers, but in order to produce meaning, the signifiers have to be organized into ‘a system of differences’”.[10]

Looking again to Hall’s Representation, it discusses a specific example of the power of language in the 1960’s. [11] Discussing how an advertising phrase changed representations of black people during that time period, Hall argues that simply because of a popular slogan, ‘Black is Beautiful’, the signification of the word ‘black’ changed. While the word (signifier) black remained the same, social connotations changed around the word. This clearly presents how signifier and signified are not independently affixed meanings, but come from a hierarchy of social conventions specific to places, cultures, and historical moments. Meaning is not freestanding, but comes from the society.

Roland Barthes took Saussure’s theories a step further. As each sign develops in a culture, with its signifier and signified, this sign becomes the signifier for the next iteration or a deeper cultural reference. In the constant building of signs and meaning, each sign is returned to the beginning and the meanings continue to deepen and evolve. See (fig. 1) below.   

( fig.  1.1)  Roland Barthes, ‘Introduction to Semiology.’

(fig. 1.1)  Roland Barthes, ‘Introduction to Semiology.’

This meta-data that structures culture, and forms what societies are built on, is the structure through which people witness themselves, and recreate themselves for consumption. In Orientalism by Edward W. Said, he foregrounds his work by discussing how this constant evolution of signified becoming signifiers of further representation have lead to todays representation of the Orient.[12] 

The idea of recreating for further consumption and representations developing naturally within culture is reiterated in Peter Osborne’s Travelling Light[13], where he discusses Dean McCannell in reference to tourism in the modern age. The creation of tourism imagery allows us to constantly review our existence. Osborne discusses the roles that tourism fills: its offer of ‘escape’ from the disassociation and pressures of modernity. The same can be said of the role of the National Geographic photographer. As specified earlier, National Geographic include in their ethos: “We believe in the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to change the world.”[14] It is such sentences where similarities between National Geographic and Osborne’s writings of photography’s flirtation with representation are drawn. Both pieces reiterate this blurred line of fact and fiction. On one side, touristic imagery is an enabler for fantastical daydreams, while holding onto visual realism.[15] Be it their own imagery or photos taken for brochures, tourists see these images as both proof of events and circumstances, while accepting that the situations depicted in this imagery are constructed ideals, fabrications. Taking a quote from Jonathan Culler:

The tourists are fanning out in search of
Frenchness, typical Italian behavior,
exemplary Oriental scenes, typical American
thruways, traditional English pubs.[16]

There is this concept of searching for the perfect touristic image, and an act of detachment with this process. Between you and what you are witnessing there is the camera, a machine built to put order on what one sees.[17] What Culler is observing is the tourist or traveller’s search for ‘authenticity’. If they can capture the assumed culture of the area, on their return they will be hailed as having experienced the ‘real’ place.

In an earlier section of the book, Osborne referred to Zygmunt Bauman describing the tourist as a modern day pilgrim. The word pilgrim invokes the idea of people travelling to a place in search of a special power, and that by reaching this place the pilgrim is given a new identity. As a tourist, it can be read that travelling for the touristic image, the pilgrimage to key sites, are all towards the formation of identity. However, while constructing this identity relies on the tourists immersing themselves in a new element or experiencing something different, the tourist is still disconnected from the activity. Whatever is being partaken in must be ‘wash-off-able’ – something that they can leave at the end of their time off and return to life as they left it. The imagery in National Geographic is styled to offer such escapes, with the text also following a storyline that arches through a beginning, middle, and end, so that the reader may leave with a whole and resolved experience while never leaving the comforts of their own home. To give these theories a context, I am looking at the print edition of National Geographic Magazine from February 2009, specifically at the piece made around the cover image, “What Darwin Didn’t Know”. Split into two articles, the first broadly looks at Darwin and how he came about his theory of natural selection.

The piece starts with four double page spreads, each spread depicting four contrasting landscapes; a green rainforest, a frozen bay with snowy mountains, sheer sea cliffs with birds, and tortoises bathing in misty murky brown hot springs.  Each image is accompanied by a quote from Darwin’s journal, which became the travel book The Voyage of the Beagle.

The article accompanying the imagery is written in a familiar manner, with a clear progression. It opens informing us that the story we know of Darwin and his discovery is more myth than fact. Written in a tone that suggests personal insight and connection to him, the piece goes on to describe Darwin as somewhat an underdog in his field, someone with “intense curiosity … talent for close observation, and … instinctive sense that everything in the natural world is somehow connected with everything else.”[18] This portrayal of Darwin sells him as someone anyone could imagine himself or herself being. The story highlights escaping the boring life of a small town, living for fun and adventure, while skimming over any serious details of his work. When interpreted as such, the text works as a reiteration of The Society’s ethos.

After the opening large landscape shots to the article, the subsequent five pieces of imagery are illustrations of maps and bones. They are all tinted yellow, giving the impression of being aged and ‘otherworldly’. The final imagery is contained in a timeline of how evolution as a theory developed in science. Throughout the article, there is always at least one image per double page spread.

( fig.  1.2) Sourced without text overlay. Text located bottom right corner. Text overlay:  The Atlantic Forest, Carlos Botelho State Park, Brazil “The day has passed delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest.”               - The Voyage of the Beagle , February 29, 1832

(fig. 1.2) Sourced without text overlay.
Text located bottom right corner. Text overlay:

The Atlantic Forest, Carlos Botelho State Park, Brazil
“The day has passed delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest.”

            - The Voyage of the Beagle, February 29, 1832

( fig.  1.3) Above. Sourced without text overlay. Text located on the black mountain on the right hand side of the image. Text overlay:  Pia Bay, Tierra Del Fuego, Chile “It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.  - January 29, 1833

(fig. 1.3) Above. Sourced without text overlay.
Text located on the black mountain on the right hand side of the image. Text overlay:

Pia Bay, Tierra Del Fuego, Chile
“It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.

- January 29, 1833

The landscapes at the beginning of the article are all bright in their respective colours. Each image is framed to lead the viewer into the image, with the clear connotation to further exploration, be it the overgrown path in the forest image (see fig. 1.2), or the mountains funneling the reader’s view towards a beach hidden from sight (fig. 1.3). Each picture is also paired with a suitable quote from Darwin’s journal. Through a combination of the vernacular writing, picturesque imagery, and deteriorating illustrations, the piece gives the impression that little to no time has passed since his exploration of the area (or that there has at least been no further development of the landscape).

Here is where concepts of space and place develop. Yi-Fu Tuan introduces this idea clearly in his piece Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective[19], beginning by observing that place has more substance than is commonly recognised. Place embodies meaning and history; it ‘incarnates the experiences and aspirations of a people’[20]. Once acknowledging the substance that ‘place’ holds, its relation to time also shifts. When Western society contemplates distance, tied to the thoughts ‘near’ and ‘far’ are also the words ‘here’ or ‘there’. A distant place (such as a non-Western country) ‘can suggest the idea of a distant past: when explorers seek the source of the Nile … they appear to be moving back in time.’[21] These images of South America give the impression that with the distance between the viewer and the location there is also a transition backwards in time.

The imagery of this article combined with its relaxed text sells the notion that such a journey is possible for almost anyone, and that these places of the distant past are waiting to be viewed. As considered by Osborne, the sight becomes two things for the viewer: a broadcaster of certain meanings and views, and then becoming a magnet for people who wish to immerse themselves in these ideas in physical form.[22]

This theory connects with Said’s discussion of it being our ‘job’ as westerners to go and observe these places – the reason of the place existing is for it to be seen, or alternatively, these places only exist because of our knowledge of them. Said in Orientalism opens his examination of the topic by studying a speech made by Arthur James Balfour in the House of Commons June 13, 1910, titled “the problems with which we have to deal in Egypt.”
To have such knowledge of a thing is to dominate it, to have authority over it. And authority here means for “us” to deny autonomy to “it” – the Oriental country – since we know it and it exists, in a sense, as we know it. British knowledge of Egypt is Egypt for Balfour, and the burdens of knowledge make such questions of inferiority and superiority seem petty ones.[23]

The ‘non-West’ only exists because of the West’s observation of it, and there is no deeper knowledge than what ‘we’ the westerners possess. The ‘West’ and ‘non-West’ are not inherent facts of nature. They are not simply there. They have been constructed. Said refers to the thought that men make their own history, and applies it to geography, and says that ‘both geographical and cultural entities  … such locales, regions, geographical sectors as “Orient” and “Occident” are man-made.’[24] He furthers the debate by saying that both representations of ‘West’ and ‘non-West’ are ideas that have developed a history, and therefore their own specific stylized imagery and set of assumed ideals, ending with the ‘two geographical entities thus support and to an extent reflect each other.’[25] This reflection can be seen as a direct link to Saussure’s work, where one side cannot have a meaning without there being an opposite to compare it to.


In the following Chapter our discussion moves to two major topics; the digital medium as a way of disseminating photographic content, and content analysis.


[1] The National Geographic Society Magazine.

[2] Currently, National Geographic states that, “National Geographic reaches more than 700 million people a month through its media platforms, products, events and experiences” on their About page.

Geographic, National. About the national geographic society. National Geographic Society Press Room.[www document]


(Date Visited: 27 Jan. 2016) (Date Last Updated: 4 May 2012).

[3] Lutz, Catherine A., and Jane L. Collins. Reading National Geographic. 1st ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Print. p. 16.

[4] Ibid. p. 27.

[5] During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, George Stocking writes that the Society sold the classical evolutionary idea, where rationality was at battle with instincts, and ‘primitive’ cultures were merely developing to the standards of western nations. It reinforced the mantra of looking at “how far we’ve come”, and reinforced the inequalities towards the ‘others’, be it gender, class or race.

Ibid. p. 19.

[6] Cit. Op. Hall.

[7] Ibid. p. 3.

[9] Op. Cit. Hall

[10] Ibid. p. 32.

[11] Ibid. p. 32

[12] Said, Edward W. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin Classics, 28 Aug. 2003. Print.

[13] Osborne, Peter D. Travelling Light: Photography, Travel and Visual Culture (The Critical Image). 1st ed. New York: Manchester University Press, 10 June 2000, p. 75

[14] National Geographic,, 29.10.15

[15] Op. Cit. Osborne, p. 77

[16] Culler, Jonathan. Framing the Sign: Criticism and its Institutions. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma University Press, 1989.

[17]Again looking to Osborne’s text (cit. op. Osborne p. 82), this time with him referencing Davydd J. Greenwood in Culture by the Pound: An Anthropological Perspective on Tourism and Cultural Commodification:

“We look on or look in through the distancing arrangements of the camera or through eyes educated to see with the same ontological remoteness. The world of the tourist is ‘over there’, in the past-present, in the exotic-ordinary.”

[18] Quammen, David. “Darwin’s First Clues.” National Geographic Feb. 2009: 36 – 55. Print

[19] Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective.” Philosophy in Geography (n.d.): 387 – 427. Print.

[20] Ibid. p. 38.

[21] Ibid. p. 390

[22] Cit. op. Osborne, p. 84

[23] Cit. Op. Said. p. 32.

[24] Ibid. p. 5.

[25] Ibid. p. 5.