In North America and Europe, National Geographic magazine has been a household name for over a century. Ubiquitous, it is recognized by people of all ages across generations, from all walks of life, as a trustworthy source of knowledge to learn about our world. Over the years, the glossy front cover has become iconic, encasing an eye-catching documentary shot further explored in the illustrated stories that fill the magazine’s pages. But it’s important to remember that neither photography, nor the golden-yellow border of Nat Geo’s front cover, is an objective window onto the world. Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a more troubling history of photography: one rooted in colonial power-relations, and the creation and circulation of stereotypes that do more to marginalize and oppress their subjects than foster a shared perspective and understanding.
The visual history of National Geographic has just as much to do with its text as it does its canonized images, and artist duo Michelle Dizon and Việt Lê are acutely aware of its troublesome legacy. After purchasing an expertly-preserved archive of the magazine from a yard sale, Dizon began sifting through each page of the back issues, confronting the tropes and stereotypes that define the periodical’s style. Through a process of text redaction, Dizon also reformulated the words that accompany each image, re-framing and uncovering an alternate history for each photo. She then invited Lê to contribute an additional foot-noted analysis for each image, where primary research into untold histories is mosaicked together with multiple languages to present poetic readings of each photograph.
The resulting project is White Gaze, a photobook that takes on the appearance of a traditional National Geographic issue, laying the colonial gaze bare for each viewer to further deconstruct. In this interview with LensCulture, the artists speak about how White Gaze fits into the greater context of their artistic practice, the influence of photography and text, and how they see their publication as a “toolkit” for criticizing imperialism and the ways we make meaning in history.
LensCulture: While it’s important to get into the finer details of the book, I want to begin by speaking to you both about your careers as artists and educators. When did you first become interested in images—photography or otherwise? And how does that impact your practice today?
Michelle Dizon: I was born and raised in Los Angeles but my parents immigrated here just before that, from the Philippines and from Guam. There were never artists in my family, but there was always a lot of creativity. Part and parcel of the immigrant experience is being creative—moving through the world and surviving in the midst of impossible circumstances. I went to an arts high school where I started as a dancer, but I felt like I was a body being moved rather than moving, so I transferred to the visual arts program. That’s when I sought out video and taught myself how to use it, since only still photography was part of the school’s curriculum. There’s also no doubt that I was raised by television, and I think being raised by television is critical to how I grew up. When I started working with video, it was bound up with how I had been formed by the media as a child.
Việt Lê: I was also raised by television, but I wasn’t born in Los Angeles. I was born in Sài Gòn, Việt Nam. We were boat refugees to the United States, so my parents were more or less struggling to survive when we first arrived. I remember watching after-school reruns of everything, like Superman and the Brady Bunch. We were also living with my uncle who immigrated with us, and he was the artsy one. He would make these styrofoam cut-outs and carve into them, and I would just follow him around and help him out. I came into the arts when I was four years old, and I remember trying to draw legs correctly, thinking, “Damn, I can’t draw these feet accurately! I can’t figure it out!” I actually pursued painting and drawing until I did grad school—and this is all before the digital divide. I remember learning how to edit analogue, so I was doing all of this analogue photo printing and editing, slicing up my fingers in the darkroom and video lab.
Splicing my life’s history as a refugee also connects to my larger artistic and academic practice, connecting the figure—and the fear—of the refugee then and now. For instance, when Southeast Asian refugees started ‘returning’ to the heart of empire in the ’70s, they experienced overt xenophobia. Today, as Syrian and other refugees come to other shores, there is similar fearful discourse and quarantines.
LC: Tell me a bit about how the idea for White Gaze came about. How did you two come together to create it?
MD: It began when I found an archive of National Geographic magazines at a white family’s estate sale in Altadena, California. The archive was comprised of National Geographic issues from the 1930s up until the mid-2000s. It was all very carefully categorized and taken care of, and I had the impulse to buy the collection because it was really cheap. I loaded it all in the back of my partner’s pick-up truck, and they stood in boxes outside of my studio door for over a year. I had no idea what to do with them. I felt like there was something I wanted to do, but I didn’t know what.
After about a year, I started looking at the images in the magazines. I found myself attracted to images where it was evident who was looking—where the perspective wasn’t erased or made transparent, but was instead at the surface. This opened up a whole other part of my memory, where I realized that just like I was raised by TV, I was also raised by National Geographic. Here we have this magazine that symbolizes something about the world—about what it means to be ‘global’.
So then I started choosing images from different volumes where I felt who was looking was at the surface. I found myself selecting pages that involved either explicitly racist discourse across image and text, or images where there’s literally a camera or a white photographer—or both—present.
The other very simple task that I set for myself was to work with how the page was already formatted. I only worked with the text that was present, and through a process of erasure and redaction, I emerged with a different meaning for each text. I was able to create a decolonial counterpoint by playing with the words and sometimes underscoring the ideology that was so present in the existing image and text relationship. When I completed these images, I reached out to Việt to collaborate with me, because I was inspired by his existing work, and how he fluidly moves across being an arts practitioner, a curator and a scholar.
LC: And Việt, how did you shape your contribution to Michelle’s image selection and redacted poetry?
VL: When I was engaging with the text, I took Michelle’s ‘rewriting’, and I used those remaining words to also think about what remains in terms of an afterlife. Not just spectral or dead bodies, but an afterlife of trauma. I was interested in the idea of both a ‘white gaze’ and ‘white gays’—queering the archive to articulate how these issues concerning visuality, imperial violence and gender and sexuality are so intimately connected.
LensCulture: National Geographic is such a pervasive force. It’s one of those publications where the cover is imprinted in your mind, and you recognize its physicality before you even understand what it’s doing. Do you think the colonial history of the publication has been reframed in a contemporary context?
MD: In 2018, National Geographic came out with a series of issues that acknowledged their racist past. It is a gesture that is long overdue. But it’s also interesting because it is a move that allows them to maintain any shred of legitimacy for their future. They can’t continue to be a viable entity without that admission.
LC: Do you think these kinds of public gestures are enough?
MD: It falls in line with so much of the way that this historical and contemporary violence continues to be swept under the rug, as if that kind of admission was them wiping their slate clean. In my own scholarship, I’ve done a lot of work about visuality and globalization—in particular, visualities of liberalism. I think that the images we see in National Geographic, with this kind of explicit racism, primitivism, nativism—all those ways of ‘othering’ are not over. Actually, I think that’s very much present in many different discourses and images in our present moment.
LC: It’s definitely still the case with a ton of documentary work. But can you give certain examples that stand out for you?
MD: I think this exists, for example, in most visualities of human rights. Whole Foods has produced an advertising campaign for microfinancing across the global south. The smiling third world women pictured in this campaign are part of the visual legacy we inherit from National Geographic—images of other people, elsewhere, whom we pity or give money to, but whom we don’t actually ever see as challenging the very positions of that superiority. When we were dealing with this project, both Việt and I worked on it with a very clear understanding that there’s nothing about this rhetoric that has ended—it’s just transformed into something that is perhaps more palatable for 2018. It is definitely still a part of that legacy.
LC: In the art world, racism has been recognized as a foundational pillar that people need to face head on and explicitly address, but it feels like the major attempts to do so are always off. It’s always about the façade rather than actual subversion.
VL: That’s the issue with National Geographic releasing an issue (no pun intended) about race. There have been these themes of exotic escape, like a portal into another world, and I think that’s part of its appeal despite these new issues. And yes, there is a ‘global turn’ within the international art market. There’s more diversity, just like there’s more diversity in these magazines, but we need to think about what that diversity is in service of. Right now, it’s just a shallow representation. As art institutions absorb this critique, they call upon people of color to represent diversity—we become the native informant even if we’re not ‘natives.’ I think this complex layering is more insidious than before, and that’s why I think of White Gaze as a possible toolkit. These are strategies for viewing text and images that go beyond the magazine.
LC: Talk to me about the process of sifting through these magazines, because there’s a lot to be said about an extended looking at things—getting lost in that subject matter and having that process shape the final work.
MD: For me, that process was very familiar. I’ve done research within colonial archives, and the act of sifting through those photographs is always complex. I would describe the process of going through the National Geographic issues as aligned with how I felt moving through those colonial archives. On the one hand, it’s numbing, and I’m always flabbergasted by some aspects of it—there’s that incessant repetition that comes with turning each page. Any time you’re sifting through archives, there are also these moments of wonder. Going through National Geographic, I would find myself taken by some article about an endangered species, which is exactly what the point of the magazine is: wonder, curiosity, all of the pleasure of looking at things and places that you normally don’t have access to. And yet at the same time, for me that pleasure is always moving alongside this numbness or feeling violated. The process is about working through all of those different emotions. And at the end of the day, the story of National Geographic is the story of photography. It’s not only about the imperialist gaze—it’s about the dissemination of that gaze, the ways in which ideology is made accessible for a larger public. The way imperialism is created.
LC: At what moment did you realize it was important to play with the text just as much as the images?
MD: The rewriting definitely came about with a sense of urgency to shift these long histories. A refusal to be erased. A need to speak back. There’s something really heartening about understanding that these different meanings already existed on the page, in a way, because I wasn’t adding anything. I was just working with what was there. Those counterpoints to that seemingly-solid ideology were always already present.
LC: And what are the different ways you saw the white gaze being represented through the images?
MD: For me, the white gaze isn’t just about white people. It’s about the legacy of colonialism, the power dynamics that exist there, and the position from which the narrative is being told. And all these things can be represented in different ways through the images. On the one hand, there are certainly a lot of images where the camera is present, or where a white photographer took a picture within a specific context. Where there is looking, it’s usually a very gendered looking, and those forms of gendered violence across the bodies of both colonized women and men run throughout these images.
LC: You’ve both already spoken about your textual contributions to the book, but I wonder if you could speak a bit more about the history of the relationship between image and text, and why it’s so important to address through this work.
VL: Definitely. Just as Michelle said that the story of National Geographic is the story of photography, I would say it’s also the story of neoliberal discourse. There are certain texts that get repeated in that realm. The discourses in that zone are key words around freedom, right to life, beauty—these words are used for immigrants as kinds of promises. For me, as a refugee and immigrant in the U.S., the discourse always goes something like, “Oh yes, they are missing these rights and we are here to help with that, and we’re extending freedom.” But that freedom always comes with a debt, and this debt is often intertwined with an eternal indebtedness from the ‘grateful refugee,’ a blood debt—the debt extracted by empire, as Mimi Thi Nguyen writes about in her book The Gift of Freedom.
So in working with the images and text, I was really interested in what kinds of texts and images are at the forefront, and which ones are not. During my process, I wasn’t always sure where these images were coming from—what was their foundation? For instance, there are images of Eisenhower in India, and I knew that he took a trip to India, but why was he there specifically? So I did rudimentary research, and I found out that there were over 50 U.S. territories, and I was shocked by this scope because I only knew about Micronesia, the Philippines, and other military bases, such as the former one in Seoul in Itaewon. We need that text to clarify these images.
ML: The relationship between text and image always reveals something about the power dynamics that are taking place. An image could mean a million different things, and yet when text is there, it anchors the meaning of that image in a very specific way. So those power dynamics go hand-in-hand with what this project is interrupting. And that’s why we wanted to incorporate this text: to open up the other sides of the images that the text allows for.
LC: So in your view, text is as poetic as it is dangerous in its relationship to images.
VL: Yes. On one hand, there’s feedback. Historical facts are just one way to think about how to enter the image and understand it. But I was interested in queering these histories, so I use different languages like Vietnamese, French, Cambodian, Khmer and also German, all to think about how language—sometimes in double and triple entendres across languages—is problematizing. It acknowledges how language fails us, but also shows how we can play with it.
LC: You mentioned that you see this text as a guide for analyzing these power structures. How do you envision this work being used, and how do you want people to interact with it?
VL: I’ll give a concrete example. I was in Viêt Nam giving a talk at a documentary space and had White Gaze with me, and I am always thinking about audiences. Of course, in Viêt Nam they don’t necessarily have that same relationship to National Geographic, but they have a long history of propaganda images (as we do in the U.S.), which I think also ties into the current history of advertising images. For me, these variations can always be made relevant in the global economic system. It makes you think about what is immediate and what is not visible, and the strategies for looking at or interrogating images.
The relationship between text and image always reveals something about the power dynamics that are taking place. An image could mean a million different things, and yet when text is there, it anchors the meaning of that image in a very specific way. Those power dynamics go hand-in-hand with what this project is interrupting.
MD: Depending on where you are coming from, you’re going to have a different view of the work. Certainly for anyone who has a history growing up with National Geographic, like all three of us do, there is a familiarity that comes with engagement. But on the other hand, I think you can see someone who has absolutely no familiarity with that magazine come in and get something quite different. For me, audience is open-ended and dependent on the movement of time and space. With White Gaze, we are certainly doing the work of critique, but then what? As subjects who have been formed in the belly of the beast, regardless of our skin or background, we have been created in that idea of whiteness.
VL: Definitely. Whiteness is a position of privilege that we are all implicated in. We see something like Crazy Rich Asians, which I call “Crazy White Asians,” because we need to think about this discourse of Asian ascendancy and fear. The kinds of images you see in The New York Times accompany super xenophobic articles about how China is stealing ideas from the Internet, when in actuality, China is originating some of them. Whiteness is a construct (for instance, the Irish were racialized as ‘black’ and Latinx as ‘white’ at different points in United States’ history), and we need to think about our own complicity in constructing empire and being a part of that privilege. Right now, we think about the binary poles of power and privilege—’whiteness’ and ‘blackness’—but how do we think about other relationships? The purpose of this project is to do just that.