Mar 16 2012: Twenty-Three Colour Photographs Of India And Saudi Arabia From National Geographic Magazine (1948)

Perhaps this gallery is the most intriguing of the five currently being culled from a series of 1948 issues of National Geographic magazine, partly because one of its subjects, the early years of oil production in Saudi Arabia, prefigures much that happened later in the post-war period. As the poisonous gases in the image above are captioned as if burning them away magically neutralises their pollution, while simultaneously visually resembling an Arabian Nights genie rising from the confines of its lamp, the balance of conscious exotica and pragmatic oil-politics come together in a very striking way. Elsewhere, camel caravans are patronisingly compared to the technical superiority of an American truck, while military diplomas are handed out by Americans to their Saudi students. In these images is captured some of the naive faith in progress as a function solely of wealth and technology that defined the early post-war era – a naivety not, perhaps, to be sneered at too much, since its replacement (a way of thinking that is still with us) was nothing more than the same idea perpetuated cynically, as a gloss on extracting wealth from resources, with progress deemed something that had been tried briefly and found wanting. As for the Indian images, mainly from the region around Jaipur, similar tendencies are seen in the British military presence on an airfield, even a few years after independence had been won, and in the gloss of local colour used to conceal the social injustice of the caste system even as the segregated accomodation imposed on one low-caste group – the street-sweepers – is portrayed. From rug-makers who are said to ‘give their eyesight’ to their craftsmanship to the elaborate ceremonies whose sole purpose is to reinforce the power of the elites, these are images that conceal the problems that faced post-Independence India even as they reproduce the evidence that the problems remained to be addressed.

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