National Geographic’s Edited Covers

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The year was 1982.

That February, National Geographic’s cover showed the camel train in front of the Great Pyramids at Giza. Keen-eyed readers noticed something off about the photo: the editors have moved the pyramids to fit the original photo, which was taken in landscape onto the magazine’s vertical front cover.

The outcry was swift. The photographer, Gordon Gahan, complained that his work had been digitally altered without his knowledge. The magazine initially defended their decision, saying, “it was not a falsification, but merely the establishment of a new point of view”.

Then it turned out that Gahan paid the men on camels to ride back and forth in front of the pyramids until he achieved the perfect shot. Debates over authenticity and credibility ensued.  

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It took decades but National Geographic eventually conceded that they were wrong to alter the photo.  In July 2016 editorial, Susan Goldberg, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, writes: “At National Geographic it’s never OK to alter a photo. We’ve made it part of our mission to ensure our photos are real.”

“We ask ourselves, ‘Is this photo a good representation of what the photographer saw?’”… For us as journalists, that answer always must be yes.

That stentorian pledge lasted all of five years. In January 2021, the magazine put the aftermath of Black Lives Matter protests on its cover. The cover photo was by Kris Graves, who one month after George Floyd protests, photographed the Confederate monuments around Richmond, Virginia. One night on Monument Avenue, Graves came across an art project by Dustin Klein – a series of projections of faces of black people who died due to police violence – took the photo above of Floyd looming large under the equestrian feet of Robert E. Lee.

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When the magazine used the photo, it airbrushed out or obscured ten instances of swear words visible in the photo, scrawled on the Lee’s plinth. Susan Goldberg again, now, backtracking her earlier views:  “It’s an extremely rare step for us to take. We believe that prominently sharing the photo is more important than de-emphasizing a certain swear word; the toning does not diminish its message or impact.” Even on its website, the magazine keeps an altered picture.

This time, the response was more muted – I find very little outcry over the changes. Perhaps, the general public’s apathy over what is authentic and what is fake news had grown since 1982. Yet, all the more ironic: despite Goldberg’s view that the edits didn’t diminish the message, the words “Fuck12”, “Fuck the Police”, “Fuck Pigs”, “Fuck Trump” were the message in that fissile summer of 2020.

Unaltered photo, which is hard to find these days, is below. Can you spot all the ten expletives taken out by Nat Geo editors?

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