The cover of Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone Tsarnaev coverYOU KNOW, IF IT hadn’t been for that dumb song by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, people might not see it as such a big deal. I’m fascinated by the amount of controversy surrounding the use of a picture of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of the latest issue of Rolling Stone.

Interestingly, most objections seem to center one issue: that he looks glamorous in the photo (a photo he took himself that has appeared everywhere, including on page 1 of the New York Times and in the Boston Globe). He looks too much like a rock star.

Look, I know this is tough for some people, especially for those closest to the horrible events in Boston. I get it. I’m from back there. I went to Jahar Tsarnaev’s school. (It’s not beige, by the way. It’s gray.) To those who think trying to understand the bombing suspect glorifies him and dishonors the victims, I would encourage you to question how that is true, and to consider changing your mind. Another question that may or may not apply: Is hatred and anger, however justified it might seem, serving you or anyone?

One of the stores supporting a boycott of the magazine said they “cannot support actions that serve to glorify the evil actions of anyone,” to which I would ask, “Who’s glorifying anyone’s evil actions?” Were Adam Lanza or James Holmes being glorified when they made the covers of national magazines? How about Columbine shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris?

That was different. Readers wanted to find out what went wrong with those white boys-next-door. Sure, Tsarnaev is “white”—literally Caucasian, even. But being foreign-born and Muslim makes him an outsider. “Oh, he’s one of them,” people seem to be saying. “Of course. No sense digging any deeper.”

Time magazine: Columbine shootersTo see this young man as a human being, much less try and figure out what went so horribly wrong, is just too much to ask, apparently. But it seems to me that is a necessary first step toward preventing similar future tragedies. The Rolling Stone article, which can be read here, attempts to do just that.

NPR spoke to David J. Leonard, a professor specializing in race studies at Washington State University, in an excellent article titled “Rolling Stone’s Tsarnaev Cover: What’s Stirring Such Passion?” He says,

The fact that the images of these [other] individuals did not prompt outrage reflects a willingness to see a level of innocence and how race, class, and religion all plays out here. This shows how many readers don’t see Tsarnaev as white; he is different in their imagination from Lanza, Holmes, Kleebold and others.

As we saw in the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer this week, a whole lot rides on who gets perceived as other in this world.

But to get back to that objectionable cover photo, can I just say out loud what half of the world is thinking? Jahar Tsarnaev is hot. He is a good-looking young man—rock star material; “glam” according to USA Today—and in all seriousness, that is a part of people’s strong reaction here. He’s not only human, he’s attractive.

Mark Joseph Stern, writing for Slate, puts it well:

“What did we expect to see in Tsarnaev? What did we hope to see?” The answer, most likely, is a monster, a brutish dolt with outward manifestations of evil. What we get instead, however, is the most alarming sight of all: a boy who looks like someone we might know.

Boston StrongAn editorial in the Boston Globe says “Tsarnaev looks less like a murderer than a shaggy troubadour in what appears to be an Armani Exchange T-shirt.” The editorial is supportive of the Rolling Stone article, if not the choice of cover photo; but I disagree that the photo is ill-chosen. The photo is one Tsarnaev took of himself shortly before the bombing; in it he looks innocent and sexy and stoned.

“This could be your daughter’s boyfriend at college,” the cover seems to say. Isn’t that kind of the point? The photo, like the article, challenges us to question how we view people. As the editors of Rolling Stone point out,

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.

It seems like a good way to honor the victims of the Boston tragedy might be to try and figure this out. What happened to this young guy? Isn’t that a question worth trying to answer?

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4 thoughts on “The cover of Rolling Stone

  1. Dear Dave,
    This was just a desperate gimmick by RS to get attention. That’s my takeaway from this debacle, period. Other than the Charles Manson cover, RS has reserved their covers for popular artists, movie stars, and politicians. George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and Congress were all featured on the cover as cartoons. To see this little monster’s photo in various news outlets since April 19 is bad enough, but to elevate him to rock star status with a full page photo on the cover of Rolling Stone is completely objectionable.
    I don’t have a problem with the story itself. RS often has brilliantly written stories, this one falls into that category. The decision to put this photo on the cover is separate from the article and totally unnecessary. Where was Muhammad Atta’s RS cover after 9/11? RS responded to 9/11 with a patriotic cover. But times were different then. Social media didn’t exist and the magazine business still had their heads above water. No need to crave attention by giving icon status to a terrorist back then.
    I actually viewed every RS cover the other day on line. A trip down memory lane of iconic photos by Annie Lebowitz and other great photographers ending with a selfie by a terrorist. How the mighty have fallen. I plan to write to all of their advertisers to file my objections, but it’s difficult to find a copy to even peruse here in Watertown, Massachusetts.

    • Hi Margie,
      I’m glad that you read and approve of the article, and I know that a lot of the objections to the cover image are just that. I think if RS had done an in-depth story about Muhammad Atta, they would have been justified in putting his portrait on the cover, but they didn’t. (And I’ve never seen a photo of Atta that makes him look like a regular guy, so it wouldn’t have caused the same reaction.) It’s true these folks are in the business of selling magazines, and maybe they hoped for this kind of controversy (I have no way of knowing); but I don’t believe that was their main, much less only, motivation in choosing the cover they did. The whole point of the story, in my view, is to ask how someone who looks like that could do what he did. The fact that the same picture has appeared in every major news outlet without much outcry speaks to the iconic status of Rolling Stone covers, which you rightly recognize. I agree. But blaming RS for glamorizing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, especially given both the headline and the article, seems like quite a stretch. There’s a big difference between posting a photo where he looks like a rock star and “elevating him to rock star status,” in my opinion. I know others disagree.
      Love, Dave

  2. Fascinating post, Dave. This uproar serves as a reminder of how utterly enthralled we are by images (celebrity images, Facebook images, not to mention old media images like the cover of Rolling Stone). It’s as though people are afraid they won’t be able to resist this boy, as though they’re afraid of the picture’s seductive power. As though using it is in itself an act of glorification, simply because the kid doesn’t look like a monster (or a proper “other”–I guess that’s saying the same thing). The kids on the Time cover are not just white, they’re awkward-looking dorks who aren’t going to seduce anyone with their swarthy good looks. (Presumably the RS cover featuring Charles Manson was OK because he was hideously ugly?)

    But actually, maybe putting a handsome kid on the cover of a magazine IS elevating him to rock star status. The music industry does it every day. And kids imitate it every day by taking pictures of themselves with their iPhones and posting them on social media. Because except for those few rare cases, the most important criterion for becoming a star is physical beauty (talent can be Autotuned in the studio). We’ve so completely bought into this idea that physical beauty equals celebrity, that beauty is the highest and most desirable state humans can aspire to, that we cannot understand how it can be associated with evil. We’re outraged at the very thought.

    I completely understand why people in the Boston area are freaking out about this, but I do think RS is onto something profound about our culture. And that putting this kid’s picture on their cover is a pretty good way to get people to talk about it. (OK, who am I kidding? This is probably not what they’re talking about.)

    Funny that we should both write about terrorism this week.
    xoxo
    -Liz

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