Monday, September 25, 2006

The National Geographic Society Website: A Wealth of Worldly Knowledge

In 1888 The National Geographic Society was established, immediately assuming the daunting challenge of connecting the world approximately one hundred years before the advent of the internet. The society began humbly as a means to increase the spread of geographic knowledge in a world composed of cultures that were relatively ignorant of one another. Flourishing, it has become one of the world's forerunners in non-profit education and scientific exploration. The society has endlessly reincarnated itself since its original birth onto the world stage, cleverly expanding to fulfill its mission. That mission, according to the official National Geographic webpage is "to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge while promoting the conservation of the world's cultural, historical, and natural resources.” In this way, as exemplified in their Webby Award-Winning website in the magazine category, the society has managed to establish itself as the world’s foremost purveyor of anthropological education and media. It is by way of their renowned website that the society is able to remain the international authority on world culture. Despite arguably minor blemishes, the National Geographic Society, with a firm understanding of its loyal audience and the importance of internet communication, has created a content rich, visually stunning website that successfully expresses its mission of cultural promotion and conservation.

Loyalty has been the backbone of National Geographic from the beginning. Ownership of the society has remained familial since its inception. Similarly, the society enjoys a stubborn form of loyalty from its audience. In a discussion with the American Press Institute, Karen Rice Gardiner, the society's director of creative services notes that "the average age of a National Geographic Magazine subscriber is 56 years...The average number of years they have been a subscriber is 15 years." Because of this reputation, the society must go to creative lengths to attract new readers. It is difficult to identify a concrete audience demographic in terms of gender or race because it is truly the world’s organization. In fact, there is a search bar featured at the bottom of their homepage that allows the viewer to choose a variety of national versions of the website depending on their place in the world as seen in the corresponding graphic. In sociocultural terms, the society makes no discriminations. However, there is an audience for whose attention they must work. The society has been struggling to appeal to audiences 18-34 years old, according to a circulation study by the American Press Institute. Gardiner discusses in the seminar how the society attempted to appeal to this demographic by creating their Adventure magazine. Mary Donahoe, NGS vice president/director of marketing services, acknowledges the success of the magazine by stating "the magazine has more than 1.2 million readers and it has grown 75% since its 2001 launch." So, despite their indiscriminate approach to their work, the society must remain innovative to maintain their status as a heritage brand, one that has been trusted by readers spanning generations. The society's goal is achieved in the staggering breadth and depth of the website which takes on the daunting task of addressing such a substantial audience. With the goal of information diffusion, a focus on the communication of ideas and knowledge takes precedent over any other aspect.

It is in the content of the website that National Geographic is able to disseminate its intended vision. Because of the immeasurable amount of text within this site, ease of navigation is linked to this text in a kindred fashion. The site is successful in itemizing its contents with sidebar links on the homepage which spell out exactly what is contained in the site as a whole. The Web Style Guide describes this technique as "chunking," or "discrete units of information [that] are more functional and easier to handle than long, undifferentiated tracts." Each category contains a wealth of knowledge in and of itself but they are simple to follow. These links are extremely useful if the viewer has a specific goal when browsing the site. For instance, if that reader is interested in photography, they can simply click the link on the sidebar and they are immediately immersed in that aspect of the society’s many branches. The site then takes on an appropriate photographic aesthetic and provides further links to areas of interest including: photos in the news, photo contests, and professional photographic tips. If the viewer’s focus is less determined, he or she can simply view photo galleries or read photographer bios. In this way, the society effectively appeals to both the casual browser as well as the professional. The site is structured in a way which avoids confusion; it is a simple and consistent model which prevents its reader from straying on undesirable tangents. In order to do so, the site maintains its homepage sidebar even after one has delved into a link of particular interest. At any time the viewer is able to jump tracks and follow a different path seamlessly without necessarily having to return to the homepage. It may be argued that the site as a whole is far too broad to be navigable, but the way in which it is structured lends itself extremely well to easy searching. A visitor to the site may simply start from the homepage, continue to “people and places,” then choose to focus on Algeria, for instance, and finally Algerian music without confusion. The links are explicit because content is the focal point of the site.

The bulk of this content tends to take an ethos driven rhetorical tone in order to further cement the authority of the society. The tag line below the homepage search bar reads bluntly, "National Geographic owns one of the most comprehensive collections of photographs in the world." Although our world’s stories are saturated with emotion, it is the duty of the society to spread knowledge and promote conservation by way of their credibility. There is no dramatization. In fact, the site is rather uplifting and practical in its outlook. For instance, after following the link entitled “About the Society” one is bombarded with a variety of research and student grant opportunities for conservation and exploration. It is a society that looks to a potentially bright future for the world they have watched grow. Their reliability is evident not only in their history but also in their confidence of footing in the 21st century. Gardiner has an optimistic outlook on the state of the company explaining that "To help manage its brand, NGS established a brand/design steering committee with two rotating co-chairs and representatives from each of its divisions." The Society also created a brand management Web site for internal use. It is clear that they are not afraid of keeping up with new technologies despite old age. Impressively, the site is able to appeal to audiences in a very professional way without completely forgetting about their youth audience. However, in light of their approach to the future, there should be a more complete children’s section linked to the homepage and more promotion of the Kid's Magazine. But alas, the site has its intentions and they are far from childish so their inclusion of children’s material in any capacity is notable.

In keeping with the professional tone of the content, the site takes on a clean-cut but strikingly beautiful aesthetic. The society has taken great care to design a website which enraptures the viewer’s eye without distracting them from their ultimate search goals. The WebStyle Guide explains that "Graphic design creates visual logic and seeks an optimal balance between visual sensation and graphic information. Without the visual impact of shape, color, and contrast, pages are graphically uninteresting and will not motivate the viewer." National Geographic's aesthetic is discreet and tasteful with moments of visual profundity. This may come as a result of the society’s rich history of photography. The site manages to allow the audience to explore the society's extensive travels and see sights they otherwise would not. what they see on their extensive travels. People are able to live vicariously through the images. This visual design works to stimulate a reader’s interest in the subject matter. In this way the audience is led ultimately back to the content. For instance, upon entering the link to National Geographic Magazine, the audience finds a remarkably photographic layout; however, contained within each of the photographs are textual links to preservation efforts, national parks, information on pollutants and other important content. Furthermore there is an enormous stock of video footage as well as world music (which is a link on the main sidebar) that one can watch or listen to with great ease. The site’s links as well as its interactive media load quickly making the experience free of frustration. To qualify however, much of the interaction with the website is spectator based and struggles to directly engage the viewer in participation. It is arguable that this is a result of the society’s goal which is not to provide games for its audience but to catalyze the spread of knowledge.

The National Geographic Society’s mission is fulfilled in its award-winning website by virtue of a rare synergy of content and design made fluid by effortless navigation. It is the experience of traveling through this website that makes it truly effective. The site can be whatever one wants it to be. If one seeks quick, credible information it is there, and yet the experience can be fun and whimsical where the reader can simply explore and learn freely. Despite the freedom of the site, an ethos-driven focus is appropriate for a society so historically reputable. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the National Geographic Society and its award-winning website will be the primary source of anthropological information for the new century.

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Question of Authority: Who are the Experts and Who are the Sideshows?

In the world of nature documentary it is essential to be a discriminate observer, always questioning the expertise of whoever is presenting the material. I have commented on two blogs that, in different ways, address this issue of authority in the medium. The first is a piece about the Discovery Channel's irresponsible treatment of dangerous situations for shock value. With the recent death of Steve Irwin I found this post to be extremely poignant. The author fears that there may be no end to this adrenaline driven culture that obsesses over near death experiences. In this case, there is a question of expertise and responsibility on the part of the Discovery Channel. The second post that grabbed my attention addresses the film Grizzly Man and the misinformed actions of Timothy Treadwell. Good intentions are simply not sufficient when a person sets out to capture the nature of an animal as dangerous as a grizzly bear. Treadwell, much like Discovery, acted irresponsibly and without proper authority on the subject. Without an expert understanding of the wildlife he was amidst, he may have done more harm than good. The idea of authority is paramount in the discussion of ethics in nature documentary and photography.

*Due to some minor technical difficulties I was unable to post my comments directly to the blog posts that I am examining. Below are the comments and the URLs at which they can be located. Thank you.

I agree with the opinions presented in your post, but I question the scope of your argument; why is it that you attack only the Discovery Channel for this televisual recklessness? Certainly there are other venues for this kind of radical and dangerous behavior that is rooted in exploitation. However, I agree that Discovery may be the irresponsible leader in this game of ratings. It is a question of integrity and ethics. Or, perhaps it is a lack of appreciation for the material that they are presenting. This is what polarizes Discovery with a company such as National Geographic. It is the level of expertise that each brings to the table. The National Geographic Society was established in 1888, its second president was Alexander Graham Bell. The society has given over 9,000 scientific grants. On the contrary, the Discovery Channel is firstly a medium for entertainment whose ultimate goal is to gain viewers. The best way to do that is to put a misinformed adrenaline junky in a perilous situation. Yes, it is unethical to put an inexperienced scuba diver in the water with great white sharks or to allow Steve Irwin to hold his baby while he feeds a crocodile. However, as long as there is a willing guinea pig there will be no end to the manipulation and exploitation from a company with such a goal. Finally, it is important to place blame discriminately. Absolutely, some of these danger seekers do it for the fame and the money but it is typically these individuals, such as Irwin, that are the leaders in conservation. They are simply using the medium of television to maximize exposure. Ultimately it is the companies that are reaping the greatest wealth from their exploits.

It seemed to me that Timothy Treadwell could convince himself of just about anything. He was sure the bears were his friends, he was sure that his presence in their habitat was helpful, but most dangerously, Treadwell convinced himself that he was an expert. Perhaps it was his apparent failure in life, with his lack of a career and his troubles with women and alcohol that drove him to accept himself as an authority on the topic of grizzly bears. Perhaps he needed to believe that he was good at something. His bipolar nature that you mentioned presents two sides of one man, both of which have a one track mind. There is the Treadwell who is, in his mind, an accepted friend of the bears and foxes. Then, there is the vehemently anti-establisment Treadwell who screams at his camera out of contempt for the mainstream that did not accept him. Psychoanalysis aside, this is a dangerous concoction to mix into a wild, unscripted setting such as Katmai National Park. It is not my intention to discredit the work that Treadwell’s organization, Grizzly People, has done in the world of conservation. Rather, it is essential to address how irresponsibly he acted under the guise of expertise. Bears are not looking for a friend; they are looking for their next meal. If Treadwell were a professional he would have understood that concept and gone about his filmmaking much differently. He lost his life and very well could have inadvertently harmed a great deal of wildlife with his presence.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Digital Footprints: a look at the ongoing and current ethical issues in nature photography

Mother nature has a coy way of surprising its viewers with the most spectacular, breathtaking moments when she feels untrampled, when the human presence goes unnoticed. A photographer who finds a balance of respect and admiration with his or her subject indeed gets the best photographs. There is a great deal of debate surrounding the ethical treatment of wildlife by photographers. Likewise, as of late, photographers have begun discussions on the legitimacy of digital manipulation in a medium geared toward the rendering of reality. So where does a photographer draw his lines between himself and his subject as well as himself and other photographers?

The truth is, nature is far more beautiful when no one is around to see Her. So, if you want to get the best shots, She should not know that you are there. There are many different environmental organizations that propose a variety of codes by which they believe nature photographers should navigate their actions. Some examples would be the NANPA or Nature Photographer Magazine. Among photographers and environmental organizations, there is a wide range of opinions concerning the ethical behavior of nature photographers. Some say a photographer should "take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints," while others believe a photographer should have superior knowledge of their subject so as not to cause unknowing stress damage to the animal. The former is typically a weekend photographer while the latter tends to be a professional and an ecologist. However you intend on proceeding in terms of your ethical treatment of nature photography, respect must be at the root of your intentions. The wildlife should be more than a means for fiancial gain; it should be appreciated. Despite this common ground of respect for their subjects, photographers have been struggling in the last several years to respect one another.

The most recent debate in outdoor photography owes itself to the advent of the digital age. Many photographers who choose a more traditionalist approach to the medium find the use of digital enhancement and image manipulation to be completely unethical. Much of the resentment that comes from the traditionalists is in the difference in the process of digital photography. They argue that the choices are made for you; things like light meters and shutter speeds are relatively automatic with digital equipment. Then, there is the chemical process in the darkroom that is completely avoided by the aid of digital equipment. Despite the undeniable advantages to the new technology, in the end it comes down to the individual's personal motives for creating a piece of art. Perhaps that individual's talent lies in the manipulation process and the art is based on stylized enhancements. As artists and poets we cannot become slaves to old conventions, despite their romantic qualities. By all means, it is imperative to cherrish the medium of true film photography. However, by shying away from changing conventions, do you not create a smaller cage for your artistic potential? In truth, many photographers, both professional and amateur, are beginning to embrace the digital technology and its many advantages. Despite any common grounds that may have been reached, photographers are now beginning to ask "how much is too much," concerning digital enhancements. It is a choice that can be made by no one other than the individual photographer; the bottom line is that whether or not it seems ethical, digital media is the new way despite any lingering resentment.

It is then, in the discussion of ethics, where we find the complexities of the field of nature photography. The debates run the gamut from the photographer behind the lens to its subject in front creating a field ripe with artistry, tradition and innovation.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Grizzly Man: A Debate in Film Ethics

Adventure filmmaking is a field which studies the “out-of-bounds,” where raw instincts are more vital than rationality. To try to reason with nature is a futile pursuit once she has made a decision about your fate. However, it is not a field devoid of policy and convention despite how reckless it may at times seem. There is, in theory, an unwritten but often discussed code of ethics that must be followed by any filmmaker. Once you consider the unpredictable temperament of the wild, it is simple to understand that this code becomes more specific and rigid.

Lately, the debate about ethics in adventure film, moreover documentary film, has been heated; the current discussion is swirling around the 2005 Werner Herzog documentary, Grizzly Man. Herzog’s film centers itself around a young and troubled filmmaker and environmentalist named Timothy Treadwell who lived with and documented Alaskan grizzly bears for 13 summers. These same bears would eventually bring an end to Treadwell and his footage would be left unedited, the message lost forever. So, the ethical argument surrounding this film is by no means cut and dry. Rather, it is deeply entwined with issues involving both adventure film as well as documentary film.

Most often, ethical debates involving adventure filmmaking are in regards to the preservation of the subject, the wildlife. In the case of Grizzly Man, it is about the preservation of a man’s life and work versus the exploitation of a man and his demise. On one hand it is easy to make the case that Herzog arranged a snuff film in which the emotional crutch is the actual death of his subject. In light of this idea, it would seem glaringly immoral to make such a film that relies on the spectacle of death. However, it is essential to look at the end product as a whole and assess it's topical importance. Afterall, Herzog did not compose a piece of film with the intention of killing someone. Instead he picked up treadwell's fallen story and created somewhat of an homage to his life and his struggles with inner and outer deamons. It would seem that a person with as much passion as Treadwell would certainly not want his 13 summers of footage and his message of preservation to be lost, essentially, in the belly of the beasts he loved so well. Upon reading the last letter that Treadwell wrote before his death to a friend and financial supporter, Roland Dixon, it is clear that he desired for his story to be told. It is a filmmaker's primary duty to tell a story and it is impossible to deny how dynamic the story of Treadwell is.