The Power of the Image: Rolling Stone’s Tsarnaev ‘Glam Cover’

Curators’ Corner

The Power of the Image: Rolling Stone’s Tsarnaev ‘Glam Cover’

What comes to mind when you hear the word terror? Fear. Chaos. Horror. Panic. Helplessness. Certainly specific acts and events.

Terror is extremely powerful, especially once it sinks in. When an act of terror is committed, the initial shock is devastating. Crippling. Demoralizing. And as we try to somehow recover, images become haunting, like that of 8-year-old Martin Richard standing against the railing with his family near the finish line of the Boston Marathon as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appears to plant a backpack bomb next to him.

The bomb killed Richard. His sister lost her leg, and both parents were seriously injured. In all, the Boston Marathon double bombing killed three people and injured at least 264. Then an intense, full-scale investigation triggered an all-out manhunt that shutdown the entire Boston area and gripped the nation.

We’ll never hear from Tamerlan Tsarnaev; he was killed during the brothers’ apparent “blaze of glory” in Watertown, Mass. But Dzhokhar survived and now faces 30 federal counts including use of a weapon of mass destruction to kill, a charge that could carry the death penalty.

Surely you’ve seen the new cover of Rolling Stone featuring Dzhokhar Tsarnaev:

That “glam photo,” as many have called it, runs parallel to the magazine’s imagery of rock stars and celebrities. The posed image of a scruffy, starry-eyed 19-year-old Tsarnaev drew a nationwide rage of criticism. Infuriated readers and celebrities ripped Rolling Stone to shreds on social media. Walgreens, CVS and numerous other grocery and convenience stores said they would not sell the issue. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino wrote a scathing letter to Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner calling the cover “ill-conceived, at best.”

A Massachusetts State Police photographer passionately responded by releasing pictures of a bloodied, surrendering Tsarnaev, saying they portrayed a villain who wasn’t “fluffed and buffed for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.” He’s been reprimanded for leaking internal photos, but remains loudly applauded by his colleagues and the general public.

The cover image is so consuming that the text accompanying it – equally provocative – is basically ignored, as is the lengthy story itself. “The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.” There’s a passive hint of some sort of innocence in that, isn’t there?

Rolling Stone defends the cover story, arguing that it falls under their tradition of “serious and thoughtful coverage” or important cultural issues.

“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,” Rolling Stone editors said in a statement.

Whether Rolling Stone is right or wrong in running the Tsarnaev cover is for you to decide. What we want to point out, though, is the shear power of the image. Within mere seconds of its release, a single photo set off a whirlwind of controversy and emotion fueled by vivid flashbacks of terror.

What images from the Boston bombings do you remember most? And what emotions do you feel when you look at a branded, “fluffed and buffed” Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine? We want to know – tell us in the comments below.