<< Back to blog

National Geographic Day – The Publication’s Most Striking Photos

(We wrote this piece to celebrate National Geographic’s ability to share incredible stories of humanity with the world. If you’d like to support Ruff’s Kitchen’s own humanitarian efforts, please consider donating to help feed starving children at school in Zimbabwe by clicking here.)

Few publications are as well-known as National Geographic. Launching as a scholarly journal in 1888, the now-iconic magazine has come a long way in its 133 years: where its distribution was once limited to an exclusive club of around 165 or so members, it is now estimated that some 6.7 million people across the globe receive a copy of National Geographic Magazine each month.

Instantly recognisable for its bright yellow borders and the arresting images adorning each cover, the magazine remains a popular off-the-shelf purchase in newsagents and bookstores around the world. The modern age has only strengthened the Nat Geo brand, too: at present, its Instagram following is greater than that of any other account, with the exception of globally-famous individuals such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Ariana Grande. The allure of the brand seems irresistible to photography lovers, wordsmiths and the curious of mind; in fact, there are few demographics who today would be unaware of Nat Geo’s legacy.

The 27th of January marks the anniversary of the National Geographic Day, which falls on the anniversary of the Nat Geo Society’s launch. It is during this time that the Society’s original goal – to ‘increase and diffuse geographic knowledge’ – has undoubtedly been reached, and it is with the changing of times that today’s writers, editors and photographers have aspired to new heights: these days, the brand’s mission is ‘to inspire people to care about the planet’, and they are certainly succeeding in their mission to do so.

Throughout its history, National Geographic Magazine has shared a wealth of vital information and compelling stories with its readership. From 2018’s visceral ‘Planet or Plastic’ front cover to the 1984’s haunting portrait of the ‘Afghan Girl’, the publication has succeeded in bringing awareness to all manner of global issues. In today’s post, we’re taking a look at a handful of the magazine’s classic covers and articles, including those which shed a light on humanity’s greatest challenges, differences, and successes.

‘Afghan Girl’, 1984

Afghan Girl, Steve McCurry. National Geographic Day. The most famous Nat Geo photo

It is without doubt that photojournalist Steve McCurry’s portrait of 12-year-old refugee Sharbat Gula is one of history’s most captivating images. The adolescent Gula’s green eyes pierce the heart via McCurry’s lens, although for all its recognition, neither subject nor photographer had anticipated the enduring acclaim the picture would attract: for almost 20 years, Gula herself was unaware of the fact that her face had become so familiar across the globe (it is said that she remembered her photo being taken, but did not understand for what purpose); similarly, McCurry himself stated that he ‘did not think (the photograph) would be different to anything else (he) shot that day’.

The image became a symbol of Afghanistan – or, at least, synonymous with west’s perception of the country – and its publication helped to raise awareness of the plight of refugees not just in Afghanistan, but around the world. A fund was set up by National Geographic in the wake of the photo’s popularity, with an aim to provide education for Afghanistan’s underprivileged youth. Indeed, the unexpected prominence and legacy of the ‘Afghan Girl’ provides just one example of the magazine’s significance, and how their influence offers an opportunity for the betterment of society as a whole.

‘Too Young to Wed’, 2011

Too Young To Wed, Stephanie Sinclair. National Geographic Day. The horrific tale of child brides

Between 2003 and today, photographer Stephanie Sinclair has reported on the heartbreaking lives of child brides. In corners of the globe often overlooked, thousands of girls are having their human rights violated by being sold into marriage with much older men. Nujood Ali, an 10-year-old Yemini girl, made headlines in 2008 when she was granted a divorce from her husband, a man more than three times her age. Sinclair herself captured the image of a jubilant Ali, which went on to be widely shared: the photo shows a young girl looking carefree, and it’s hard to imagine that such a broad smile could possibly belong to a child who had suffered through the things she had.

While Ali was hailed a heroine for all she’d endured, countless other girls’ stories went unheard. It’s for this reason that Sinclair decided to commit much of her career to elevating their voices, and succeeded in doing so in 2011’s article, ‘Too Young To Wed’. It’s in this piece that Sinclair met a number of girls – some as young as five years old – who had been sold into marriage.

It is this photo of two ‘brides’ and their respective husbands which encapsulates the misery they are subjected to. Their posture is stiff; their faces are sullen. Their dark eyes suggest that any joy had been robbed from them long ago. The image offers no sense of warmth or security; rather, it is chilling to look at. It becomes even more so within the detailed context of this article.

‘The Last Goodbye’, 2018

The Last Goodbye, Ami Vitale. National Geographic Day. The death of the last male Northern white rhino

This heartbreaking photo, taken by celebrated photographer Ami Vitale, was declared to be National Geographic’s Image of the Decade, as voted for by the publication’s followers on Instagram. In it, keeper Joseph Wachira bids an emotional farewell to Sudan, the world’s last male Northern white rhino. While Wachira’s intimate bond with Sudan brings a lump to the throat, it is the realisation that this moment captures a most significant goodbye which hits the hardest: after all, Vitale may have just captured the death of a species.

Sudan’s passing isn’t only representative of the animal kingdom: it’s an indictment of the times we’re living in, where insatiable human greed meets the desperation to save our planet from destruction. While species are being pushed to extinction – their ivory, fur and scales in high demand – there are countless rangers, scientists and activists who have committed their lives, sometimes in a literal sense, to protect the magnificent species which have roamed the earth alongside us. Wildlife conservation is no less a tale of humanity than the other stories featured on this list: one would be hard pressed to think otherwise when looking upon these images of Sudan’s final moments.

Warning – graphic content beyond this point

‘The Story of a Face’, 2018

The final photo in our list is difficult to look at, but it tells a remarkable story – but then again, aren’t all faces capable of doing so?

The Story of a Face, Lynn Johnson. National Geographic Day. Katie Stubblefield face transplant

This article, written by Joanna Connors and with accompanying photos taken by Lynne Johnson, follows a young woman called Katie Stubblefield who, at the age of just 18, lost her face in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. By the time she reached 21, she had become the world’s youngest recipient of a face transplant.

National Geographic’s coverage of the story is exceptional. In addition to introducing the world to Stubblefield, it invites us to learn a little more about ourselves: what it is that makes us, us; what it means to have an identity of our own, and the ability to express our emotions. It also challenges us, in a gentle way, to ponder on what life might be like if that sense of ‘self’ were ever stripped away from us.

Stubblefield’s story is one of sorrow and hope; heartbreak and humour; the profound strength of the human spirit, and the magnificence of science. What makes National Geographic so exceptional is the unfettered access it grants to worlds unimagined by the average reader: whether we’re offered a glimpse into the life of a child bride or a survivor of inconceivable injury, the publication serves as a perfect compendium of human biographies, grounded yet accentuated by the extraordinary images printed from front cover to final page.

(All images in this article belong to the photographers credited/National Geographic.)