Censored in America
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, December 1996

Aspiring photographers constantly ask for the inside story of how to get published, as if a blueprint of my footsteps should lead them there. Some think I can shoot what I want and get it published in National Geographic or Life on the power of my name. The cold reality is that I had more stories published in America as a little-known photographer in the seventies, when the use of photography in major magazines was more spontaneous, less competitive, and less contrived than it is today.

Today's outlets for stock photography have dramatically increased, while serious photo essays in major magazines have declined. Competing media and declining advertising dollars are the most often cited causes, but they fail to explain why I'm far from the only outdoor photographer who has been selling an increasing percentage of magazine stories abroad. At first I believed that my agents were simply doing a great job. Then I began to notice a strong difference between work chosen for American versus foreign publication. Investigative story packages of text and photos that were rejected by major magazines at home were soon gobbled up in Europe.

The difference goes deeper than what is euphemistically described as a European penchant for gritty stories. Despite the first amendment, America has anything but a free press. Despite the ever greater power of the media in America, truth and freedom seem less apparent. Special interest groups, including, but not limited to, the big corporations that own most mainstream publications exert direct and indirect pressure over the images and words that appear. Simply put, the flip side of political correctness is censorship.

To be able to regularly photograph or write from the heart for an American magazine is a rare privilege these days. I am grateful that Outdoor Photographer generally allows me to freely express my opinions, which explains why I can write on this subject as well as why readers often tell me that what they read between these covers has an especially genuine feel. After writing something for every major photography magazine in the past, I've been here to stay for the past decade because I feel directly in line with the primary special interest group: outdoor photographers who influence what is written not only for them, but by them.

Seasoned pros learn to anticipate publication problems that may arise when the agenda of a special interest conflicts with that of photographers, writers, or readers, but we all have our share of failures. Perhaps I should have realized that my photograph of alpenglow in Antarctica, which later appeared in the November 1993 OP, didn't fit a travel magazine's request for an exotic image with a thousand words about how it was made and what I learned in the process. I wove cold-weather photo tips and differences in polar light into a narrative about photographing in Antarctica under a National Science Foundation Artist and Writers grant. Months after I had been paid, a proof was faxed for my immediate approval. It had been radically rewritten to cast me as a tourist and delete NSF for use in a magazine funded by tourism advertising. Catch 22: NSF does not encourage tourism to their research stations and specifically requests mention in articles by grantees. Rather than compromise, I withdrew the story and returned payment.

In 1995 I wrote and photographed a long feature for a major American environmental magazine on the status of peregrine falcons in California. I had proposed it as a follow-up to a 1991 peregrine article for National Geographic and timed it to coincide with a five-year national survey of the endangered birds. I hoped for an upbeat story, but funding cuts stopped field monitoring in its tracks after opponents of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) gained power in the 1994 elections. The Department of the Interior soon announced "a notice of intent to propose delisting" the American peregrine falcon as federally endangered across the nation. My text documented ongoing reproductive failure in California birds caused by DDT and the complexity of assessing the population stability of the state's estimated 125 nesting pairs. More than 800 captive-bred birds had been introduced over 16 years and annual levels of nest productivity set by the federal recovery plan had yet to be achieved and monitored.

My text was edited to greatly minimize the problems and phrases that I never wrote were added, such as: "This bodes well for the Endangered Species Act at a critical time in its history." I was willing to compromise some, but not to negate carefully researched facts. The story was summarily canceled with a revealing explanation. The organization that publishes the magazine was lobbying hard in Washington for reauthorization of the ESA. They had a vested interest in using the peregrine as a success story to convince Congress that the ESA works.

Why not just compromise, stay quiet, and further my career? Because I tried it for years and it felt very wrong. My life's goal is not to publish as much as possible, but to make a difference. My greatest reader response has come, not from a National Geographic or Sports Illustrated article that reached tens of millions, but from a cover story for Greenpeace that expressed regret for having compromised the hard truths of Tibet's environmental destruction for nine long years so as to be able to get my work in print and go back to Tibet. Greenpeace could publish the essence of what I had documented over five trips to Tibet because the Chinese government had no hold over them.

When I first returned from the Tibetan Plateau in 1981, the group of scientists with whom I had traveled outlined a litany of unethical Chinese practices causing extreme environmental degradation. The Associated Press asked to publish our story as an exclusive. It never appeared. An AP staffer later told me a decision was made not to jeopardize the Beijing bureau by running "unnecessarily negative China material."

Covert censorship also set the stage for the famous incident of National Geographic digitally moving the pyramids. Shortly after I had been congratulated for having my photograph of a Tibetan boy wearing a soldier's hat chosen for that February 1982 cover, I was informed that the Chinese Embassy had been shown the layout, objected to the image as suggestive of Tibetan demands for independence, and threatened to restrict future journalism. An image from the story on Egypt was manipulated to fit the cover. The positive result of word leaking out was that the editors resolved not to alter content again without disclosure.

This brief revelation that our American media--the most powerful on Earth--is anything but a free press would not be complete without mention of its effect on the freedom of a human being, rather than mere images and text. Ngawang Choephel, a Fulbright Scholar and legal resident of the United States, disappeared in his native Tibet more than a year ago while photographing the cultural and oral traditions of Tibetan music. Though he was seen in a Tibetan prison in October 1995, the Chinese government will not acknowledge his detainment. His plight has been conspicuously absent to date in photography and travel magazines.

The extensive video record Choephel left behind shows that he was solely engaged in cultural documentation for his studies in ethnomusicology at Middlebury College in Vermont. Although Congress has declared Tibet an occupied nation with a right to independence, Choephel's case has not been splashed across our major media, as it would have been if he were a native of Arkansas going to Harvard. I fielded a request to publish a plea for people to write their representatives in Washington and ask them to look into the situation. His plight should tug on the heart strings and outrage the souls of all OP readers, especially those who photograph in exotic places.

Freedoms erode unless we defend them and speak out for them. If my collection of material censored in America grows much larger, I'm thinking of assembling it into a revealing book. Getting published, like other life goals, begins with a positive and personal visualization of how to get there from here.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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