Monday, September 9, 2013

On the Cover of the Rolling Stone

     The ancient Israelites understood the power of the image. While we interpret the second commandment prohibiting the crafting of “graven images” as an ordinance against fashioning objects of worship, several scholars believe that it might have been more far reaching. In some eras and regions, the creation of any sort of likeness seems to have been discouraged.  Furthermore, according to Professor Carl S. Ehrlich, the Greek philosopher Plato opposed “certain artistic pursuits . . . since they distracted from the search for truth.” 

     Today digital photograph is our universal art form of choice; we live in a world awash in images of all sorts. Seeing is believing. We document and share on social media everything from our breakfast cereal to the exchange of wedding vows to appendectomy scars.  Before his most recent self-destruct, half of the city of New York was ready to vote into office a man who’d texted strangers photos of his private parts.

     Bombarded with pictures, we get a rush from the hypnotic onslaught and require more and more.  And having seen it all, we might dismiss the sway of any single one, even something truly gripping and unique. We’re above it.  We’re rational beings, after all.

     That’s what they’re counting on, the media manipulators who grab onto our hearts and minds and wallets through our eyes, that we refuse to acknowledge the influence a powerful image can have on our emotions and perceptions. Consider for a moment how some images become lodged in the mind: the logo for Arm and Hammer, for example, or the font used on a bottle of Febreze, to say nothing of a few unforgettable scenes from Pulp Fiction or The Exorcist.

Lord Byron as a teenager. 
Or perhaps not Lord Byron at all.

     In August, Rolling Stone Magazine published “Jahar’s World,” an in-depth profile by Janet Reitman of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of two brothers accused of carrying out the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three and injured scores, many grievously.  The article attempts to explain how “a charming kid with a bright future” became a “monster.” In soft-focus, Jahar, identified as “The Bomber” and staring guilelessly into the camera, appears on the magazine’s cover.

     It is an arresting photograph, an apparent self-portrait taken from Tsarnaev’s Twitter profile. Whatever toying with shadow and the play of light might have done, the result is affecting and effective.  Its appearance on newsstands brought about an uproar, in Boston and beyond.

     The editors of the Rolling Stone responded, yet failed to address the heart of the controversy. They focused on the content of the article itself, which they rightly declare as falling “within the traditions of journalism and the Rolling Stone’s long standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day.”

     They continue: “The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.” 

     However, that isn’t the issue. I read of no objections to the article itself, which seems to this reader very thorough in its coverage if ultimately incomplete in the portrait it provides. This is not the author’s fault; the story of the younger Tsarnaev brother is still unfolding. The anger arose from the art.  The decision to use Jahar’s image on the cover – an exalted, coveted position occupied by celebrities -- was roundly criticized.

     But even more, I think it was the sort of image the editors employed that so inflamed the outrage: indistinct and dreamy, a portrait of visual poetry that lends a tragic, romanticized air to the subject.  The Jahar on the Rolling Stone cover is beautiful and damned. He’s Lord Byron with a bomb – mad, bad, and dangerous to know.  

     What’s taken place with this cover is the crafting of the glamorization we claim to abhor: the potent mingling of taboos – the marriage of sex and violence.  Witness the fanatical young women who attended Jahar’s court appearance and who maintain a number of “Free Jahar” social media sites, one of which claims some 80,000 followers.

     It was disingenuous to suggest, as banter on the airways after the publication did, that the cover art was simply meant to illustrate the article inside.  If that were its primary purpose, it would have appeared along with the text. Its chief function of course was to sell magazines, which indeed it did. The August issue of Rolling Stone sold twice the typical number of copies. Editorially, then, adorning the cover with a dreamy photo of the tousle-haired, beautiful boy was brilliant.  Google “Boston bomber” and that likeness is among the very first to appear.

     The young man who killed my husband had also been a beautiful boy.  His high school yearbook photo accompanied one of the many articles in the Hartford Courant’s Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of the 1998 shootings at the Connecticut Lottery. Even in my anguish, I remember thinking what a handsome kid he had been, with his dark eyes and hair, his unclouded expression, a picture of American promise.  I am the mother of a son. I could imagine another woman’s pride in and love for the adored child still somewhere inside the troubled young adult.

     That yearbook photo was of course genuine; it caught the young man as he was, at one moment in time. At another point, he would have appeared otherwise, captured perhaps on a security camera some years later, with a shaved head, brandishing a bloodied knife or his altogether efficient Glock.

       Both representations could be called accurate. But both are incomplete, and neither is quite the truth.  The cover portrait of the Boston bomber with its softened features in high, flattering contrast is in effect the flipside of a gruesome shot of the carnage he’s accused of committing. The later we would immediately decry.  Stripped of context, the hazy photo is repugnant as well, a different sort of terror porn.

     How many will read the Rolling Stone article and discuss the argument it supports, that young Jahar was at heart a normal kid “failed by his family” and in part society? It’s an excellent piece, and one could contend that number, whatever it is, is too small though clearly far more than might have been, had not the provocative photo been so cleverly utilized. Perhaps his trial  -- and his growing fan base  -- will force us to examine the twists and turns of the path he walked toward the marathon finish line.

     In all likelihood, though, and all too soon, the lessons of “Jahar’s World” will be largely forgotten.  The controversy over the cover photo will, too, fade.  But the striking image of the beautiful boy carries with it all the heartbreak and eroticism it needs to live forever.  

This column appears in the September 2013 issue of The North Star Monthly, which has won awards for its features and photography. Check out their site:


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