In collaboration with Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras

In the world of National Geographic, white people overlooking a landscape are not uncommon. They can be seen looking down on an exotic scene from a mountaintop, ridge or balcony. A stance known as ‘the-monarch-of-all-I-survey’, in which dominance is asserted over the land. The colonial observer glorifies it, seeing a country that is beautiful, rich in resources, and therefore ‘worth taking’.

Over-posed, saturated and cliché ‘picture postcard’ photographs were the norm, with the directions “smile, and point at the mountain,” a popular motto. When Kodak’s color film rolls were introduced in 1936, Kodachrome became the film of choice for the magazine’s photographers. This film was famous for its capability of reproducing red with full richness and intensity, and it was used assiduously from 1938 to 2009, when the film was discontinued.

The exaggerated worship of color culminated in what became known as ‘The Red Shirt School of Photography’, a label used to describe the work of National Geographic photographers who allegedly brought red clothes and props with them on assignment to put on their subjects.

National Geographic magazine came into existence at the height of Western European colonialism and has played a significant role in the appropriation of the non-Western world and the power over it. It depicts the Western world as dynamic, rational and progressive, and everything else as primitive, backward and unchanging.

In a worldview with no mention of racial or political conflict, only beautiful lands overlooked by Westerners in red shirts, the color red takes on another meaning. Red is not only a method of attracting attention, but a symbol for not seeing. A symbol of the invisible historical and contemporary violence that continues to be veiled under the sinister guise of happy smiles over scenic landscapes.

This is a selection of photographs published in National Geographic between 1938 and 2009 in which people could, perhaps, have been directed to wear red.

Photographs by Luis Marden, Melville Bell Grosvenor, Richard H. Stewart, Alfred M. Bailey & Fred G. Bradenburg, Richard I Stewart & Guy W. Sterling, John E. Fletcher, Stewart Anderson, Jack Breed, Volkmar Wentzel, W. Robert Moore, Andrew H. Brown, Miriam MacMillan, Willard R. Culver, Justin Locke, Howel Walker, John E. Fletcher, David .S Boyer, Edwin .L Braun, Bates Littlehales, B. Anthony-Stewart, Howard N. Sloane, Heinz Sielmann, Alfred T. Palmer, Luther M .Chovan, Willard R. Culver, et al. © National Geographic Society