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  • Portraying the Other:Puerto Rican Images in Two American Photographic Collections
  • Jorge Duany (bio)

Until recently, few anthropologists approached photographs as primary sources of historical and ethnographic documentation on the peoples they studied. Apart from Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and other pioneers in the discipline, most ethnographers used visual images merely as aides to memory, similar to written notes, or as supplementary illustrations of their fieldwork, especially during the early stages (Collier and Collier, Hockings, Ruby). However, visual anthropology has recently experienced substantial growth, particularly as a result of increased access to video and film technologies. Moreover, a growing number of critical works has examined the visual representation of non-Western cultures from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries (Banks and Morphy, Devereaux and Hillman, Edwards, Scherer). Much of this scholarship has focused on photographic portrayals of other peoples through world's fairs (Breitbart; Brown; Rydell), museum exhibits (Banta and Hinsley), tourist postcards (Alloula; Geary and Webb), and popular magazines (Lutz and Collins).

Researchers have increasingly turned to the systematic study of photographic collections to unravel European and American colonial discourses. In their analysis of The National Geographic Magazine, Catherine Lutz and Jane L. Collins (Reading) show that this publication has tended to depict the cultures of Africa, Asia, and Latin [End Page 119] America as exotic, idealized, naturalized, ritualized, and sexualized others. Since 1888, the magazine has represented non-Western peoples predominantly as male, middle-class, young or middle-aged, rural, and dark-skinned noble savages. The magazine's images have usually followed a realistic code, prescribing the literal transcription of the physical and social world. Accordingly, photographers were supposed to be invisible, although their presence was evident in what they decided to include and exclude in the picture. Like other popular forms of photojournalism, National Geographic has frequently promoted the expansion of American economic and political interests abroad (see Spurr).

National Geographic's coverage of Puerto Rico during the first three decades of American rule illustrates its imperialistic rhetoric. In 1902, the magazine published an essay by the American Treasurer of Puerto Rico on the problems of administering the new colony. According to William F. Willoughby, the U.S. government proposed "to endow the newly acquired possession with political institutions and systems of law at once conforming to American ideals of individual liberty and political justice and yet adapted to the peculiar local conditions existing and the character of the inhabitants" (466).2 Soon thereafter, the magazine's editor, Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor claimed that "the past several years have brought much happiness and prosperity to our little island in the West Indies"(712). Then-Secretary of War, William H. Taft, added triumphantly, "without our fostering benevolence, this island would be as unhappy and prostrate as are some of the neighboring British, French, Dutch, and Danish islands" (433). In a lavishly illustrated piece on Puerto Rico, a frequent contributor and future editor of The National Geographic Magazine concluded, "no other nation in history has ever created a finer record in colonial administration than our own United States has written for itself in our beautiful El Dorado of the Antilles" (651). One of the photographs accompanying that article, showing three half-naked children, attempted to disguise their poverty by attributing their nudity to "Porto Rico's delightful climate."

The visual representation of the new American possessions after the Spanish-Cuban-American War has recently received scholarly attention (see Bretos, Díaz Quiñones, González, McCoy, Ojeda Reyes, Thompson, Nuestra isla, "Estudiarlos"; Zwick). In his analysis of Our Islands and their People, a best-selling illustrated book published in 1899, Lanny Thompson (Nuestra) argues that photographic realism was an integral part of U.S. colonial discourse. The book's images stress the negative effects of Spanish colonization in Puerto Rico, while virtually ignoring the existence of a Creole male [End Page 120] elite. Furthermore, the photographs highlight the Island's white and indigenous stocks, children, women, and natural landscapes. Thompson's thesis is that such visual representations bolstered U.S. expansion in Puerto Rico as well as elsewhere. As Joanna C. Scherer puts it, "photography was used extensively in the colonial effort to categorize, define, dominate and sometimes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-1810
Print ISSN
1522-5321
Pages
pp. 119-153
Launched on MUSE
2001-01-01
Open Access
No
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