Time’s brutal, brutally effective new cover image

The shocking picture of a mutilated Afghan woman may be a struggling magazine's plea for attention -- but it works

Topics: Afghanistan, Media Criticism,

Time's brutal, brutally effective new cover image

iShe looks in many ways eerily similar to the girl who graced one of National Geographic’s most famous covers back in 1985. Like her, she is young, beautiful and Afghan. She looks at us slightly sideways, her bold gaze a contrast to her modestly covered hair. But 18-year-old Aisha, the arresting figure on the cover of the new issue of Time, is very different. After attempting to flee her abusive in-laws, Aisha was sentenced by the Taliban to become a cautionary tale to other girls in her village. While her brother-in-law held her down, her husband cut off her nose and ears. The provocative coverline? “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.”

The use of incendiary imagery is a popular and reliably attention-getting journalistic gambit. It’s also one fraught with conflict. Which takes precedence: the right for the public to know or its desire to not be offended? Is the dissemination of photos from Abu Ghraib or a video of Neda Agha-Soltan taking her last breath responsible journalism or exploitation? And, for the rest of us, is seeing them a duty or an uninvited intrusion?

In his online editorial on the cover story, Time managing editor Richard Stengel says, “I thought long and hard about whether to put this image on the cover of TIME … I would rather confront readers with the Taliban’s treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.”

Jodie Bieber’s stunning images of wives, mothers, prisoners, widows and one ravaged burn victim — along with Aryn Baker’s accompanying story on the plight of women living under the Taliban — are unforgettable.  But as traditional newsstand magazines face declining sales,  and just one day after All Things Digital reported on Time Inc’s frustration in getting iPad subscriptions off the ground, it’s reasonable to wonder if Aisha represents not just the brutality of the Taliban but the desperation of old media.

That cover image is an unforgettable depiction of a horrible crime. It’s also a reminder. When was the last time your newsstand had anything on it that could stop you in your tracks, could make you feel something — horror, outrage, disgust? When was the last time you gave a damn about any magazine cover that didn’t feature Brooklyn Decker?  Time is the publication that, earlier this month, put Thomas Edison on the cover, for Pete’s sake. In a news media dominated by nip slips and shocking death (“Caught on tape!”) those magazines your parents still get in their mailboxes have remained decorously safe.

So has Time swung too far in the other direction now, with a cover that prompted Stengel to butt-coveringly write, “I apologize to readers who find the image too strong, and invite you to comment on the image’s impact”? Given the overwhelming support for it in the comments so far, with readers calling it “compelling,” “what photojournalism is all about” and “the best cover out of Afghanistan war,” the answer would seem to be an passionate no.

But this isn’t quite photojournalism. Aisha, who is currently living in hiding and heading soon to the States for reconstructive surgery, posed for a portrait. She wasn’t captured in a Robert Capa moment. She chose to be part of a story, one that is based on the headline, that certainly has a clear-cut perspective.

That journalism is without bias is a myth. And whether it’s an artfully posed portrait or a Viet Cong prisoner with a gun to his temple, the act of documenting and selectively presenting an image imbues it chock-full of agenda.

Does the picture of a young girl, savagely mutilated by her own husband, tell us something real and important? I believe it does, more than a score of stories on the subject. But whether we can bear to look at a pelican flailing in oil or Beijing man standing in front of tank doesn’t necessarily change what happens to them. And I wonder if the mere act of looking instills in some of us the comforting sense that we’ve done our part, simply by experiencing the cathartic moment. To look or look away isn’t itself a moral choice. It’s what happens next that matters. And we can applaud Time for getting out of its comfort zone and doing something bold and still feel uneasy at the amount of business calculation that might have gone into the decision to do so. Aisha is a survivor of atrocity. She’s a tool of persuasion. And she’s a hell of a photograph. 

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>