My Turn: ‘Rolling Stone’ was right to challenge us
In 2010, Lady Gaga appeared on a Rolling Stone cover. The scantily clad diva, with assault rifles appearing to thrust out of her breasts, teased an article titled “The Broken Heart and Violent Fantasies of Lady Gaga.”
Did you protest that depiction of sexualized violence and worry that America’s daughters would set aside their Barbie dolls and pick up AK-47s?
When Time magazine featured a cover of the two clean-cut Columbine killers headlined “The Monsters Next Door,” did you worry that America’s sons would set aside their GI Joes and pick up Glocks?
But when the Aug. 1 cover of Rolling Stone featured accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was released this month, it sparked protests and boycotts across the country.
I know something about magazine covers. I’ve been fortunate enough to have my photographs grace the covers of magazines such as National Geographic, New York Times Magazine, Time, Newsweek, Fortune and Epoca.
Magazine covers are highly competitive and controversial. Nothing tanks newsstand sales like a boring cover. For photographers and illustrators whose cover work is chosen, it is an affirmation of talent; for editors and publishers, covers reflect an important balance between newsstand appeal and content.
I came close to having a Life magazine cover once, but was bumped at the very last minute by Lady Di, whom I admit was much more winsome – and probably more saleable e_SEnD than the Arab portrait the editors had been considering.
Putting someone on a cover doesn’t mean one admires them – it means the story they illustrate is important.
Good magazine covers aren’t tools to make the public feel good about themselves. Timothy McVeigh, Osama Bin Laden and Charles Manson made numerous covers – and no one admires them.
I read the full Rolling Stone story – something its detractors have mainly failed to do, and I commend its decision to put Tsarnaev on its cover.
It couldn’t have been an easy decision.
Tsarnaev himself took the Rolling Stone photo. It’s a self-portrait! It’s something that young people do, exchanging photographs preserving themselves in time and space. His self-portrait had previously run in many other publications, including on Page One, above the fold, in the New York Times.
It’s another window into his mind. Where was he – what was he thinking when he took it? Is there hope or despair or hate in his eyes?
Who is this interloper who takes up space that we’re used to seeing Justin Bieber, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen occupy. Where did he come from?
I understand that it’s hard to look at. There is so much pain, loss and betrayal wrapped up in the terror the Tsarnaev brothers visited upon us – do we have to look at him, too?
To shield our eyes, to succumb to the feelings of anger or loss without trying to understand what brought such mindless terror down upon us, perhaps jeopardizes our future by permitting ignorance to triumph over knowledge.
“THE BOMBER / How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by his Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster,” is the headline that accompanies the photo.
The story doesn’t excuse him, it doesn’t justify his actions, and it certainly doesn’t treat him as a celebrity. It asks questions. It tries to understand why – and, in that understanding, perhaps we can find strategies to protect ourselves and our children.
Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
In the article, Tsarnaev’s wrestling coach is quoted, “To think that a kid we mentored and loved like a son could have been responsible for all this death. It was beyond shocking. It was like an alternative reality.”
I believe Boston Mayor Thomas Menino was wrong to call it “a total disgrace.” I agree that survivors and first responders should be honored, but to suggest that Rolling Stone should not, as journalists, investigate “The Bomber” is irresponsible.
Rolling Stone, despite its name, isn’t the music fan magazine it used to be. It’s a magazine with a young audience that over the years has been exposed to voices as disparate as P.J. O’Rourke and Hunter S. Thompson, and reporting by Matt Taibbi and Michael Hastings. It occasionally publishes important, hard-hitting investigative stories that are not seen elsewhere and is one of the few places where young people are exposed to provocative issues of substance and concern.
I want young people to read this piece. I want them to know from within our midst can emerge threats to our happiness and security. I want them to be concerned for their friends, and to be vigilant.
What has scared so many about this cover?
Is it that a photo of someone who looks like “us,” who challenges our preconceptions, insecurities and prejudices, who challenges the meme that says all non-American terror perps should be envisioned as “The Other” (like the hairy, disheveled Khaled Sheikh Mohammad or Ayman al Zawahiri)?
Is it that Tsarnaev looks like he belongs in Columbine or Aurora rather than in Kabul or Bora Bora? Are we most terrified because he looks like one of our children – and that defies all our prejudices and stereotypes?
Today, young people migrate from Barbie and GI Joe into cultures of cliques and bullying, and they struggle with issues of identity and belonging. They are surrounded by images of guns, drugs, sexualized violence and violent video games and movies.
Have the courage to welcome them to read Rolling Stone, and help them recognize, in the alternate reality identified by Tsarnaev’s wrestling coach, in the alternate realities inhabited by so many of our young, that they must be concerned, vigilant and responsible.
Witnessing Tsarnaev’s boyish face where celebrities often appear is challenging and uncomfortable to many readers, but I believe Rolling Stone was right to challenge us to confront the question of how someone, one of our children, one with rock star looks, becomes the “Monster” in our midst.
(Robert Azzi is a writer and photographer living in Exeter. He may be reached at