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The August 2013 Rolling Stone cover photograph of accused Boston Bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev looks like any of the multitude of selfies that appear on instagram every minute. A young man leans back against a wall as he looks into the camera with almost-raised eyebrows. This studied insouciance, along with his curly hair and light beard lend the image an air of glamour. The subsequent controversy around the use of the image came from the iconicity imbued by being on the cover. This cover, though, the Rolling Stone cover. The photograph wasn’t new — it had been published in May in the New York Times.

Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi’s defence of the the cover responds to two objections: that the iconic placement on the cover confers Tsarnaev a glamour he does not deserve, and that it makes him look too handsome. I agree with Taibbi’s response: that many people don’t understand the amount of quality journalism that comes from Rolling Stone, that it’s important to understand that “nice, polite, sweet-looking young kids” can perpetrate horrible crimes and that it is “Tsarnaev’s very normalcy and niceness that is the most monstrous and terrifying thing about him.”

tsarnaev comparison photos

[left: The August 2013 Rolling Stone cover, right: Tsarnaev arrest by Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Sean Murphy, from Boston Magazine]

What Taibbi doesn’t address is the source of some of the objection: the iconic status of the Rolling Stone cover itself.  It was the conferral of iconicity and glamour that Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Sean Murphy was reacting to when he leaked on-the-scene photographs of a bloody and defeated Tsarnaev as a riposte to the Rolling Stone cover. He states clearly that “an image like this on the cover of Rolling Stone, we see it instantly as being wrong”. Ian Crouch of The New Yorker addresses the idea of the cover and reminds us that Charles Manson was on it in 1970—but this was over forty years ago. The overwhelming proportion of covers since then have been of music and screen celebrities. What I find interesting here is how specific this context is. Most of the images we consume come to us in a feed, a stream, a flood. We see pictures for fleeting moments before they sweep past. Not only that—anyone with a tumblr feed knows that it can be nearly impossible to dig up accurate attributions for individual images as they flow by if the people posting them don’t take pains to do so. Arguably the most common state of images on the web is their statelessness, their lack of context. So to have this picture generate such a reaction because it’s seen to be situated in the wrong context says something about the implicit ways we understand images.

John Berger makes the point in his documentary Ways of Seeing that the reproducibility of images has uprooted them from their contexts as, for example, religious icons (that being the original meaning of and icon) and placed them unanchored into our living rooms and TV screens. Rolling Stone shows that contexts still matter, even as images float ever more freely before us.

Update, 15 August 2013, along with other revisions:
A tweet from media scholar David Campbell alerted me to an analysis of the Rolling Stone cover from former Rolling Stone art director Andy Cowles on his coverthink blog. He makes a visual comparison between the Rolling Stone covers of Tsarnaev and Manson and points out that while Rolling Stone “are quite within their brand and remit to write this story, and perfectly entitled to put this picture on the cover”, nevertheless the glossy logo and the stylish selfie serve to reinforce the narcissistic self-styled glamour of its subject.