Rolling Stone Cover Controversy
Rolling Stone Cover Controversy

The Rolling Stone cover controversy provoked the most fevered debate of 2013. Here’s a round-up and 6 key photography takeouts

The background: The August issue of Rolling Stone featured a cover portrait of the Boston bomber Dzokaher Tsarnaev. A backlash and boycott of the magazine ensued, which on the face of it, amounted to one central criticism – the photograph glamorised a killer.

But an overview shows that in this case, the devil really is in the detail. It’s easy for those not in the profession to take photography for granted – and for most people photography does what it says on the tin. It is what it is. But as we know the photograph has many layers, and how it’s used can change everything.

It was no surprise that Adweek have just reported that, “During the week ending July 21, the website attracted 1.5 million unique U.S. visitors, according to comScore—a 41 percent increase over the previous week’s traffic. For all of July, traffic was up 20 percent year over year, with 3.6 million uniques.”

This was a story that needed to be read and the controversy of imagery helped fuel that. Below are some fascinating responses to the single image of a young man.

1. Context

Rolling Stone contributing editor and Boston native Matt Taibbi, argued that the backlash (unfair he argues) was due to the cultural context in which it was shown. The New York Times ran the exact same image on its front page – admittedly surrounded by columns of text.

“But there was no backlash against the Times, because everyone knows the Times is a news organization. Not everyone knows that about Rolling Stone. So that’s your entire controversy right there – it’s OK for the Times, not OK for Rolling Stone, because many people out there understandably do not know that Rolling Stone is also a hard-news publication.”

Takeout: The meaning of the photo is defined by where it’s used.

2. Celebrity

Michael Joseph Stern wrote a thoughtful, rounded piece for Slate magazine, but pointed out that the cover of Rolling Stone was often “prime celebrity real estate.” Was the problem a confusion of photo styles or genres – the news image and the celebrity image?

“Few people complained, however, when the Columbine shooters graced the cover of Time, perhaps in part because that magazine is devoted primarily to news, whereas Rolling Stone devotes more space to music and culture. And it’s certainly true that Rolling Stone’s cover is prime celebrity real estate; many forget that the late Michael Hastings’ explosive piece on General Stanley McChrystal was tucked in an issue featuring Lady Gaga on the cover.”

Takeout: The meaning of the photo is eaten by Celebrity

3. Prize

On a similar but slightly different tack Freya Petersen reported in the Global Post that “Boston Mayor Thomas Menino wrote to Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner over its decision to offer Tsarnaev “celebrity treatment.” He called the cover “ill-conceived, at best,” and supportive of the “terrible message that destruction gains fame for killers and their “causes.’” In this instance using the photo is seen as wrong because it publicises the killer, rewards killers for the heinous crimes.

Takeout: The meaning of the photo is that it is a prize for infamy

4. Iconic

One of the most valuable insights was dug out by Joe Coscarelli in New York magazine’s Daily Intelligencer. Coscarelli sought out someone who would have something to say about magazine covers and issues of celebrity, adman and Art Director George Lois. The former king of cover art dismissed the idea that the cover had anything meaningful to contribute to understanding the motives of the killer.

“George Lois, the man responsible for Esquire’s classic covers, is having none of it. ‘I can’t believe anybody with half a brain doesn’t look at that thing and immediately go, ‘What!?’’ he told Daily Intelligencer over the phone this afternoon. ‘The cover of Rolling Stone says: This is an important person to our culture, in some way — a terrific person or an emerging talent or a cultural icon. There can’t be any debate about this.’”

Takeout: The meaning of the photo is in the iconography of the cover

5. Rock Star

The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch found in the magazine’s Facebook comments one source of outrage who complained that “the image gives Tsarnaev the ‘rock star’ treatment – that his scruffy facial hair; long, curly hair; T-shirt; and soft-eyed glance straight at the camera all make him look like just another Rolling Stone cover boy, whether Jim Morrison or any of the many longhairs who appeared in the magazine’s nineteen-seventies heyday.” Not just a celebrity but a rock star, the visual styling is subtly different.

Takeout: The meaning of the photo is the visual codes and styling

6. Re-Frame the Image

The most visually informed piece came from former Rolling Stone Art Director Andy Cowles who pointed out that the portrait was unique for a cover image for very different reasons that reflect something about generation of social media relations. “This is an extraordinary image for Rolling Stone to use, not because he looks like a Rock Star, but because it’s a selfie. Rolling Stone is legendary and rightly so for creating powerful identities on their cover. Here, they are doing nothing more than reflecting back to us the vanity of a young man’s narcissism, complete with his Armani Exchange T-shirt.”

Takeout: The meaning of the photo is the self-portrait


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