The Lessons Of a Brave Cover Photo

Time magazine did a cover story on the status of women in Afghanistan. The cover features an 18-year-old woman named Aisha, whose nose and ears were cut off by the Taliban, a cruel Taliban punishment after she was caught running away from abusive in-laws.

In an unusual step, the magazine's managing editor, Richard Stengel explained the story behind the image and how the decision to put Aisha's jarring portrait on the cover. Stengel's six-paragraph essay succinctly weighs Aisha's personal safety and how children seeing the cover will react, before concluding:

In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. 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.


Interestingly, Stengel doesn't consider the safety of Time magazine's staff in Afghanistan. Contrast that with former CNN executive Eason Jordan, who admitted the network covered up Saddam Hussein's atrocities for the sake of access.

Although my expertise isn't photography, I've seen enough problems with Big Media's images of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to realize that:

  • Aisha is an incredibly brave woman.
  • Photographer Jodi Bieber and Stengel understand the significance of this cover image.
  • It would have been very easy (and profitable) to irresponsibly sensationalize Aisha's story.

Meanwhile, in the past decade, Israel has been victimized by the unscrupulous use of images. I'm thinking of examples like:

  • Mohammed al-Dura (a staged video that hasn't withstood the scrutiny of any French legal proceedings)
  • The Gaza beach incident (PA TV spliced footage of Huda Ghaliya mourning on the beach with file footage of Israeli ships firing)
  • The Second Lebanon War (Reuters fired Adnan Hajj for manipulating images, BBC photographed a child pushed into standing next to an Israeli shell, the "Green Helmet Guy" and his grotesque dead baby trophy photos, and more.)
  • Palestinian photojournalists employed by both the PA and the Western news services (a heckuva conflict of interest).
  • "Spontaneous" West Bank demonstrations (sometimes delayed until the arrival of film crews)
  • Gaza's candle-light vigils (where sunlight strangely streams in through incompletely closed curtains)

What Time has done is a very important example (and much-needed reminder) of how there are still some people left in journalism who have the courage to address real human rights abuses, who leave no stone unturned in making sure that the people involved in the story are safe, and who weigh the impact of an image on others.

I don't know if any of those kinds of photojournalists can be found working in Israel these days. But it's comforting to be reminded that there's a standard of responsibility we can hold Big Media to.