Whether we realise it or not, we all read National Geographic. The magazine is one of those image-making institutions that imperceptibly shape our consciousness. Its trademark is the lavish photo-shoot in some remote region of the world, a format that blends science and spectacle in a way that is purposely reassuring rather than challenging. Hence its tasteful presence in waiting rooms and on coffee tables all over North America and western Europe. Distracted by toothache, or with our host out of the room, we reach for those distinctive yellow- margined covers and absorb absent-mindedly the contents. So it has been for most of this century - in her poem "In The Waiting Room", the American poet Elizabeth Bishop recalls reading Geographic in this setting back in 1918 - and in the new millennium, its subtle presence in our lives can only increase. Vigorously expanding into film, television, Internet and other media, National Geographic will surely build on a readership that already stands at around 40 million people worldwide.
An audience of this size confers immense cultural power. Dubbed "the lens through which America views the world", National Geographic is well aware of its role in American public life. Based in Washington DC, it maintains close links with the American political establishment. The US president presents the medals for geographical discovery awarded annually by the magazine's parent institution, the National Geographic Society, and six US presidents have written articles for Geographic. The society and magazine constitute a formidable establishment. Only recently, they pronounced - without releasing their data for inspection - that Mount Everest is higher than anyone realised. Nepal and China are currently disputing the claim.
Like any lens, Geographic, in refracting the world, necessarily distorts it. In certain regards, the magazine is unabashed about this. Its editorial rhetoric is couched in the large abstractions of the American constitution: truth, equality and the pursuit of happiness. To these ends, Geographic seeks to be both educational and uplifting. It diffuses knowledge while offering a generous, ennobling portrayal of both nature and humanity. Geographic's photographers seek out what is seemingly timeless in a culture and, more generally, in the human condition. Contentious storylines have conventionally been avoided, as have situations involving political unrest or violence. Instead, we get healthy, happy individuals, bathed in glorious light and, wherever possible, dressed in authentic costume.
Set against the more typical portrayal of the developing world as a place of squalid victimhood, such images have their worthy aspect. Yet they also have more dubious consequences. The travel writer Robyn Davidson had Geographic sponsorship for her 1977 trek by camel across the Australian outback. To her dismay, the magazine's style worked to over-idealise both her own experience and that of the Aborigines. As she recalls in Tracks (1980), the cameraman photographed the local community without their consent, and in a manner that ensured that "they would remain quaint primitives to be gawked at by readers who couldn't really give a damn about what was happening to them".
Two American academics, Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins, have similarly accused the magazine of trading in the picturesque. In Reading National Geographic (1993), Lutz and Collins argue that the cosy depiction of other cultures divorces those cultures from all political context. The real history of each region - often a history that might prompt awkward questions about western responsibilities - is discreetly obscured. They also claim that Geographic often eroticises its "natives". Ethnography occasionally masks a more pornographic impulse: Geographic's lens has tended to linger longingly on the bodies of dark-skinned young girls. The racial, as much as the sexual, implications of these shots are awkward. In a family publication, bare breasts were acceptable so long as they were suitably non-white: once, notoriously, a print of a naked Polynesian woman was adjusted to make her skin darker.
In its defence, National Geographic would claim that many of these complaints have been heard and are being dealt with. There are fewer bare breasts than there were, and more attempts to acknowledge regions of the world that are problematic for Americans, such as Iran and Iraq. A recent Kosovo feature did not shy away from showing casualties of the conflict there. Cynics would argue that these pieces usually only reinforce American prejudices. Articles on Albania and Kosovo in February 2000, for example, overwhelmingly paint a picture of Serbian savagery, implicitly endorsing Nato's intervention. Another feature remembers the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. This might suggest that Geographic's lens is being turned back on America itself. It might equally confirm that Geographic can only handle politics when the dust has settled. The issues involved here have receded safely into the past, and the article is directly occasioned by the fact that the route has just been designated a Historic Trail. Civil rights have become another stopping point on the tourist's itinerary.
Whatever the politics, however, National Geographic's photography is always visually stunning. Sometimes this is the problem. In the recent article on Kosovo, there is a beautiful shot to which Whistler might have given the title, Variations in Blue and Red. Only with closer scrutiny do we realise that it depicts the bodies of dead Kosovan soldiers. In less obviously troubling shots, one's response to Geographic's style will probably depend upon the valuation, and the interpretation, one puts on the aesthetic experience. Again and again, Geographic's photography turns man and nature into something close to art. In so doing, it can seem to be pandering to the eye of the greedy consumer: the world becomes a shimmering, bejewelled place that we yearn to possess. Yet the transformation effected by Geographic can also be more complex and more liberating. Its lens often reinvents the world in strange and wondrous ways. Revelling in colour, line and pattern, it defamiliarises the familiar to create a sense of curious possibilities and sly secrets. As it does so, it stirs the reader in ways that transcend both the official editorial line and the usual critique of that line.
Consider again Bishop reading Geographic in 1918, aged six. As recounted in "In The Waiting Room", the young girl quickly loses herself in the pages of the magazine. Yet this is not merely escapism. Bishop is turned inside out by the strangeness of the photographs. Her own surroundings, even her own body, become alien to her, until she seems exiled from her very self. A pivotal moment, one may assume, in a life subsequently marked by a powerful sense of uprootedness. It was also a life distinguished by a desire to probe scrupulously what Bishop called "Questions of Travel": questions of identity, difference, cultural exchange.
National Geographic was an early stimulus to Bishop's curiosity about these matters: let's hope that the magazine and its offshoots can continue to spark such responses, and to inspire such travellers, over the next century.
Carl Thompson is researching travel writing and its influence on British literature. He is based at Pembroke College, Oxford
From "In The Waiting Room" by Elizabeth Bishop (1976)
" . . . and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photography:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
- "Long Pig," the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop . . . "