I have no objection to Rolling Stone putting a photo of alleged Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover. My objection is to the photo the editors chose.
I’m looking at this week’s cover (“The Bomber”) alongside a cover the magazine ran in 2011 featuring pop icon Justin Bieber (“Super Boy”). The similarities are striking. The Bomber and Super Boy look directly into the camera — and at you. Both of them have artfully tousled hair. Neither smiles; their faces are smokily expressionless.
To some extent, that’s just the format of Rolling Stone covers. Do a Google Image search of “Rolling Stone covers” and your screen will fill with faces. The cover of Rolling Stone cover has always been about portrait photography.
But not just portrait photography — high-quality portrait photography of pop stars, from John Lennon to Johnny Depp, in which each portrait chosen for the cover reveals something about the subject. That’s what good portrait photography does.
Rolling Stone chose a photo of Tsarnaev that makes him look like just another wide-eyed teenage boy. That is part of the story about Tsarnaev inside the magazine. The other part of the story, of course, is that Tsarnaev is a cold-blooded murderer and a monster. But do you see that in the cover photo?
Some people have argued, that it says “monster” and “bomber” right there on the cover of Rolling Stone, so there’s no need to get all worked up about the photo. Those people lack an understanding of the power of images.
Enter “Dzhokhar Tsarnaev” into Google Image Search and you’ll find, at most, seven or eight different photos of Tsarnaev. You’ve seen them all many times before.
These few photos are the ones the editors at Rolling Stone had to select from to illustrate its story with the cover line: “The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student was Failed by his Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.”
Editors could have selected the photo of Tsarnaev, white baseball cap turned backward, standing with his brother, coolly surveying the happy crowd at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The backward baseball cap, shaggy hair and casually opened jacket says “student,” and the dead look on his face says “monster.”
The photo Rolling Stone chose was an old self-shot that Tsarnaev used on his Twitter account; it is a photo that has been used in many publications, including on the front page of The New York Times. But Rolling Stone could have chosen the self-shot that Tsarnaev used on the Russian social media site VKontakte.
It’s a black-and-white photo in which Tsarnaev, with puffy and narrowed eyes, looks into the camera. He does not look friendly or cute. He looks — or is trying to look — menacing but doesn’t quite pull it off. To me, having read the Rolling Stone story, it looks like a photo of someone in the middle of a transition from “popular, promising student” to “monster.” And a black-and-white photo on the cover of the usually colorful Rolling Stone would have really made a visual statement.
The editors of Rolling Stone knew what they were doing when they placed the most innocuous image of Tsarnaev they could find into the slot that, for the past 45 years, has come to coronate pop idols.
They knew their choice would generate controversy, and, not incidentally, publicity. They got both.
The story, which has been lost in this brouhaha, is a solid recap of what has already been published in other places with some new quotes and anecdotes. But the cover is callous and crass.