Mark Leccese: The sub-headline says "monster," but the photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of the Aug. 1, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone says "teen idol." (Wenner Media/AP)

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.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Justin Bieber. (Rolling Stone)

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Justin Bieber. (Rolling Stone)

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?

[Rolling Stone editors] knew their choice would generate controversy, and, not incidentally, publicity. They got both.

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.”

Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev pictured moments before the blasts that struck the Boston Marathon, April 15, 2013. (Bob Leonard/AP)

Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev pictured moments before the blasts that struck the Boston Marathon, April 15, 2013. (Bob Leonard/AP)

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.

This undated photo provided by the vkontakte website shows Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (

This undated photo provided by the vkontakte website shows Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. (

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.


Tags: Boston, Boston Marathon Bombings, Celebrity

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • J__o__h__n

    I think it was an appropriate image as one of the most alarming things about him is that he appeared to be a normal popular kid who became a monster (as you stipulate the cover notes). Not all criminals look like evil villains. Perhaps you should be less influenced by images. At least the cover mentioned Tsarnaev’s crime. Bieber’s cover didn’t accuse him of crimes against music.

  • Laura Wilson

    I find all this talk about what the Rolling Stone journalists and editors “could have” or “should have” chosen for a photo to be more than a little alarming. It smacks, essentially, of censorship. This article seems to suggest that it is the role of news organizations and journalists to mind-read and navigate what its readers believe to be “appropriate” or “sensitive.” That betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of journalism and photojournalism in a democratic society. RS has a long history of doing crack, in-depth journalism which we can all learn from. They wrote a thoughtful, serious piece about an incredibly important subject–and they made a choice as to the best photo to accompany that story. In fact, it works. The theme of the story is that all-too-normal looking and behaving teenagers can be monsters. The photo helps tell that story. They were right to use it. Grow up, Americans. You should be able to handle serious journalism and the uncomfortable photos that go with it. It’s not your place to be telling journalists what to show or say. RS’ task here was to seek truth and insight. If you find that truth and insight uncomfortable, well, so be it.

    • Michael Fisher

      Nailed it.

    • Sue

      Serious journalism? RS is synonymous with rock journalism & their cover has reflected that for decades. Any photo of a murderer is uncalled on RS. Yes, they have the right to publish whatever they want, but we have the same right to protest against it.

      • Laura Wilson

        You are mistaken. RS has a highly respectable track record of hard investigative journalism, recall Matt Taibbi’s story on the financial collapse (brilliant) and the story about General Stanley McChrystal. They have produced the best piece of journalism yet about the bombings, and the photo they chose for it is appropriate. You have the right to avert your gaze and refuse to buy. But to criticize RS and suggest that they should censor themselves–well that betrays a basic misunderstanding of the role of journalism in a pluralistic, democratic society.

  • scallywag

    Then perhaps we ought to ask if a magazine chooses to use a terrorist’s image and running a feature on them, are they necessarily choosing to adulate and congratulate the terrorist? Isn’t that just a knee jerk reaction of what some of us wish for the press to do and choose to be?

  • Brenda

    On the contrary, there are much more sympathetic images. His high school graduation picture being the one that comes to mind. I don’t have a problem with this image, and this sounds like a very important article, because we know that this young man’s friends did not believe he could be the bomber. Just last year, he attended a the party where Robin Young took the famous graduation photo. The normal kids, the ones you don’t expect, are the ones we should be trying to understand. Could someone, somehow, have seen this inclination in him?
    This is not a new photo, as you said it ran on the front page of other publications. Rollong Stone has written an article in which they call him a “monster.” they are not making him a rock star. Perhaps people should take a look at Rolling Stone and realize it is sometimes about more than Justin Bieber.
    You are advocating for a different photo that fits Your taste. It likely would have been met with the same disdain. Tsarneav is a 19 year old kid, who looks like all the other 19 year olds out there. That is just reality. The story should be told, and he is who he is. Put his picture on the cover. I wish everyone would stop this hate talk masked as outrage. Try to learn something, and maybe we can change the world a little bit.

  • J__o__h__n

    This piece featured the photo recommended in the article:

    I’m far more offended by the content of this than the Rolling Stone photo, but I didn’t organize a boycott to prevent people from seeing it.

  • Harriet

    You say, “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?” So the purpose of journalism is to perpetuate stereotypes? Good guys look like good guys and bad guys look like bad guys. Real life isn’t that simple.

  • PeterAJ

    I’m surprised at the overwhelming reaction to this photo. There have been hundreds of excessive, out-of-context, tasteless magazine cover photos of terrorists, murderers and others. Why is this one photo drawing such attention? I understand, as the author of this article concluded, that some view it as “glamorizing” Tsarnaev unnecessarily, but, isn’t there much more going on here? I think many people are having trouble facing that this kid evolved into “the monster” that he did. I think people don’t want to discuss why terrorism exists, why so many terrorists hate America and why the Tsarnaev brothers hated America. It’s much, much harder to confront the bigger problem of what causes
    terrorism than directing anger at what this kid’s face looks like on the cover of Rolling Stone.

  • Jan Dumas

    I thought the cover was in poor taste. Then I read the article and realized the cover was the least offensive part of the issue.

  • SueD

    I disagree with Mr. Leccese and believe that the photo was a very appropriate way to highlight the article. (Though, like him, I too think that the RS probably chose this photo to generate controversy and publicity. It seems to have worked well.) I’m gratified to read many of the comments here. It reminds me that WBUR fans are a very special group, thinking hard about a controversy and generating their own opinions instead of joining the social media frenzy of outrage (I’m not referring to Mr. Leccese there; while I disagree with him, his view is also well thought-out and, no doubt, informed by his journalism experience. But many of the comments I’ve read about this on other sites were written by people who, clearly, had not even read the article and were just angry that Tsarnaev should get this attention. The rush to “boycott” by CVS, Walgreens, etc, seemed motivated by the need to placate those consumers.). Immediately after the bombings, one of the most compelling early reports, to me, was Robin Young’s discovery (mentioned here by others) that Tsarnaev had been one of the kids at her nephew’s high school graduation party, and her accompanying photo. So, for the RS to show him as this relatively innocent-looking, shaggy, sleepy-eyed (probably stoned, based on the article) kid worked perfectly. I did not see it as a glamorization, certainly not a glorification, but, instead, as a chilling reminder that he was once considered a normal, popular and nice kid by his friends, most of whom are probably still reeling to think that the person they knew could have done such evil deeds. A more sinister cover photo, as suggested by Mr. Leccesse, would never have had this impact. One friend was quoted [speaking of the hours immediately after his capture}: “I hope he’s crying. I’d definitely hope . . .I hope he’d wake up and go, ‘What the (expletive) did I do the last 48 hours?’ ”

  • Jean Cummings

    Jean Cummings I think it is a brilliant cover. It’s really the whole point, isn’t it? This was not a creepy kid who tortured cats and was ostracized at school. He was, as his high school classmates said, “one of us.” The uncomfortable truth of this event is that it seems so unpredictable and incomprehensible, which makes it ever more frightening. We always, relentlessly, publish and dwell on the names and faces of top criminals, whether it is an Oklahoma bomber, Newtowne shooter, 9/11 plane flyer–the only difference was, this time, he came from our community and he has a face and a history that causes us more pain because it seems to promise something else.

  • sjw81

    agreed, callous and crass, hoping to sell magazines while the victims suffer more and the monster laughs in prison.

  • bgoverman

    Spot on Mark. I was never a big RS reader, but i am part of a generation that believed, as Dr Hook proclaimed, that the ultimate measure of popular success was to “get your picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone”. I fear this kind of publicity could become, for the terrorist nutjobs of the world, the publishing equivalent of 72 virgins.

  • Imran Nasrullah

    It strikes me as hypocritical on the part of the media and the public reaction to the Dhzokar Tsarnaev on the one hand, and “Whitey” Bulger (and Steven “the Rifleman” Flemmi), on the other hand. With the latter two, we are treating these mass killers as near celebrities – to the point of calling them by their street names, like they are terms of endearment. Even the movie the Departed based the Jack Nicolson character on the persona of Bulger. Now the media treats the criminal trial like it is a movie sequel.

    It makes me ill that these two murdered over 20 people, often times torturing and dismembering them, and the media holds them out like they are Bonnie & Clyde. And yet the public is fascinated. I wonder when Tsarnaev is tried whether it will be such a circus.