Friday, August 6, 2010

How does an editor take the decision to publish pictures that can upset readers?

Time magazine, in its issue of August 9, put an Afghan teenager on the cover with the caption: "Aisha, 18, had her nose and ears cut off last year on orders from the Taliban because she had abusive in-laws".

How does a magazine editor decide that a picture that has the potential to upset readers can be published at all, let alone on the cover? The managing editor of Time, Richard Stengel, says he thought long and hard about putting Aisha on the cover. "First, I wanted to make sure of Aisha's safety and that she understood what it would mean to be on the cover," he writes in the "To Our Readers" column in the magazine. "She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban. We also confirmed that she is in a secret location protected by armed guards and sponsored by the NGO Women for Afghan Women."

He continues: "I apologize to readers who find the image too strong, and I invite you to comment on the image's impact."

And then he explains why it was important to feature Aisha on the cover: "But bad things do happen to people, and it is part of our job to confront and explain them. 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."

Predictably, the publication of this picture has stoked a fiery debate, according to the New York Times Kabul correspondent Rod Nordland, with "critics of the American presence in Afghanistan calling it 'emotional blackmail' and even 'war porn', while those who fear the consequences of abandoning Afghanistan see it as a powerful appeal to conscience".
  • In Bangalore, both DNA and The Times of India reproduced the NYT article (with permission), though DNA, which had a better layout, inexplicably and unforgivably deleted the last two paragraphs.
In the light of the Time cover story and the ensuing debate, here's a question: Would an Indian magazine have featured Aisha on the cover?
UPDATE (October 14, 2010): Aisha now has a prosthetic nose, which, according to a report in The Hindu, she revealed proudly in Los Angeles this week. Read the report here.

On July 24, 2014, "Lens", the photography blog of The New York Times, reflected on the impact of the photo published around the world, which showed the bodies of two teenage cousins raped and then hanged from a tree in Badaun, Uttar Pradesh. Read the blog post here.

And on July 23, 2014, the head of photography of the highly respected Guardian newspaper weighed in with his comments on the merits or otherwise of publishing graphic pictures in the wake of the MH17 crash and the strife in Gaza:

Two headline-grabbing and violent events — the downing of Malaysian Airlines MH17 in Ukraine and Israel's assault on Gaza — have generated some horrific photographs on a seemingly unprecedented scale. Of this flood of images, there are hundreds that we would not choose for publication because they are either deeply shocking, insensitive to human dignity, would be painful if seen by relatives or friends, or ultimately run the risk of forcing readers to turn away from the story, which would negate the purpose of photojournalism.

Read the post in its entirety here: "Graphic content: when photographs of carnage are too upsetting to publish".

    1 comment:

    1. Where do Editors draw the line? Would I have done it? Yes. What's so different between showing the Afghan girl, off-putting as it is, and the living dead of the Bhopal gas tragedy? In the context of the bigger picture, none.
      But let's not forget TIME had a reason and it wasn't just "shock and awe". They also wanted to show that the US was not winning the Taleban battle and compel the Congressmen to push for bringing the boys back home. The bloody nose analogy was deliberate. Remember Vietnam? Remember the Cambodian execution, the napalm girl Kim Phuc.... all of it was designed to arm twist the White House, and they succeeded.

      Of course one eye was also on sales. Four or six months down the road, when the Afghan girl recovers from her surgery, TIME will track her down and bingo another cover.

      No we did not run it in this neck of the woods because at times we can get a bit prissy about things and let's not forget what holds good in one part of the world does not necessarily hold good elsewhere. Patrick


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