White Gaze is a multi-layered exercise of resistance against a white construction of global visual identities. In its attempt to untangle decades of racist representations published by National Geographic, the book invites us to engage with the photographs by altering the original parameters that were put in place to determine an ideological reading of its images; a form of popular knowledge based on Western supremacy, namely the ideology of whiteness.
White Gaze is a multi-layered exercise of resistance against a white construction of global visual identities.
Since the magazine’s release in 1888, the mission of National Geographic has been to ‘explain’ the world to its readers. Through its thousands of photographs, the publication has covered almost the entire territory of the globe, its natural habitats and its people. In doing so, the magazine has positioned itself as one of the most reliable publications for those willing to enjoy – from the comfort of their sofa – the beauty of distant territories, their exotic populations and most imposing landscapes. But as it happens with every form of representation, these images are constantly charged with the subjectivity (and thus with the ideologies) of their creators. Throughout the history of the publication, white photographers established their point of view and carefully selected the content captured within each frame. Meanwhile, the editors – back in their Western home – added text aimed at preventing any ‘deviated’ reading of the image. These narrowly imaged realities went hand in hand with the history of the West’s agenda towards its colonial subjects, reinforcing and disseminating the imperial hierarchy through visual means. To the present day, issue by issue, National Geographic has been spreading a unidirectional visual narrative of our planet and the cultures within it, while failing to acknowledge any original accounts provided by the subjects in the images.
Following a life-long search for an understanding of their cultural identities, Michelle Dizon and Việt Lê worked collaboratively on the production of White Gaze. The book combines a selection of images from National Geographic magazine curated by Dizon, with juxtaposed poems written by Lê. According to the authors, the project was born out of their frustration to find local testimonies of their homeland. Dizon is the child of immigrants from the Philippines, and Lê migrated to the USA from Vietnam at an early age. Both artists struggled to locate visual representations of their countries that could truly speak about their cultural background. Instead, their memories were filled with the imagery offered by National Geographic, to which they were often exposed while growing up in the USA. The magazine was not only aimed at a white audience, but also at immigrants living in Western countries – a strategy that aided cultural imperialism by spreading the ideology of whiteness amongst formerly colonised citizens.
Rather than adding new images to our collective visual memory, the authors perform their resistance by opening up an inherited knowledge of global cultures, while pointing directly at racial power dynamics perpetuated by the magazine.
The complexity of the book lays in the possibility it offers to connect that which is shown with that which was deliberately hidden. Every photographic depiction implies an exclusion, just like every choice of words discards the use of alternative terms. In both cases, however, we often find that the excluded elements would have offered a much richer explanation of the event, compared to what the original photograph, or the text, achieved with their respective descriptions.
White Gaze allows us to discover these hidden elements in order to expand possible readings of the image. Alongside the altered layout of photographs selected by Dizon, Lê’s poems become essential to open up those meanings. Inspired by the original image caption, he points at historical realities that transpired at the time the pictures were taken. By laying bare the weight of the language used by National Geographic, we start seeing the photographs in terms of what they disguise. Rather than adding new images to our collective visual memory, the authors perform their resistance by opening up an inherited knowledge of global cultures, while foregrounding the racial power dynamics perpetuated by the magazine.