I’m fascinated by the cover of yesterday’s Sunday New York Times. Fixated on the image of Boston Marathon suspected bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I was momentarily unable to notice the words surrounding it. I was a little stunned, then angry, then captivated. The image, not just the Instagrammed selfie of Dzhokhar, but this photo within the culturally significant New York Times front page, is endlessly sociologically fascinating.
For some, this cover provokes anger:
Wonder what Boston marathon victims think of the huge, swoony photo of Dzhokhar on the front of today's NYT.
— Matt Pearce (@mattdpearce) May 5, 2013
This cover and the anger around it should be understood alongside the noteworthy #FreeJahar movement (Dzhokhar’s friends called him Jahar). Many people have expressed very positive feelings over Dzhokhar—including through the #freejahar tag on Twitter as well as fan-Tumblrs and so on—and what is brought up quite often is his disarming good looks. It might appear that the New York Times is playing to the #FreeJahar crowd here with such an enchanting shot. Further, within photojournalism, it is quite controversial to use photos that go out of their way to obscure reality with dramatic editing such as a faux-vintage filter, something I discussed when the paper ran award-winning faux-vintage war photos from Afghanistan. While the New York Times had previously used more “objective” photos of Dzhokhar, for yesterday’s cover, the paper opted for a glamour shot. Why?
What the New York Times was very likely trying to do is play on the juxtaposition between Dzhokhar-the-bomber and Dzhokhar-the-kid, the inherent tension of a swoon-worthy-murderer will sell lots of papers. In all of this, one must wonder, like the tweet above, if those affected by the Boston Marathon bombing find this treatment disrespectful?
Beyond just right or wrong, the fact that the paper chose an Instagrammed selfie is novel and interesting in and of itself. The image does capture well the story it accompanies. The article is, in my opinion, a well-told and intriguing story about Dzhokhar’s efforts to cover a disturbing set of motivations with a likeable exterior. The faux-vintage Instagram glow on an attractive selfie might very-well be a paradigmatic modern example of the sort of identity “face work” we all engage in. The selfie is, of course, face work in the literal sense that it is a photo of one’s face, but also in the way Erving Goffman famously discusses “face work”: as the demonstration and maintenance of positive social value and attributes in an effort for acceptance and approval. Goffman notes that this is a “’working’ acceptance, not a ‘real’ one”, which is precisely what the New York Times story describes Dzhokhar attempting to pull off in this front-page selfie.
Granting, of course, that Dzhokhar’s face work was certainly of a radically larger scale, selfie face work is a sort of fiction that is a common fact. The filtered selfie isn’t the most objectively accurate photo, but it might have been the most honest. It’s how he presented himself, down to the name-brand shirt, and it’s how many people his age understand and perform for increasingly ubiquitous photographic documentation. It’s a sort-of unreality that’s carries a sort-of truth. The selfie isn’t just any photo of you, it is, of course, one taken of yourself, by yourself, and there is something simultaneously fitting and upsetting in the young bomber taking his own mugshot.
The Page One bomber selfie also challenges what many of us thought the bomber would look like on the day the tragedy occurred. This image doesn’t conform to what “we”, as a culture, wanted, perhaps even needed, the bomber to look like. Instead of the stereotypical guy-in-a-cave or guy-in-a-shack, Dzhokhar here looks like someone we might know. More than that, given that this is an Instagrammed selfie, he even acts like someone we know, someone we recognize as “normal”. It breaks from the script: The bomber was never supposed to be so familiar.
The bomber selfie forces us to confront that violence doesn’t always come from an other. It is even cropped square; I can almost picture the now-customary “like” or “<3″ Facebook and Instagram buttons with this photo. As such, this front page acts a bit like a mirror: the Instagram filter forces us not to just see Dzhokhar, but ourselves, our own, modern, culture, too.
What other angles here have I not yet considered? Or perhaps it is still too soon to engage in this sort of meta-conversation around this tragedy, apologies if so, but this cover struck me as culturally significant for the reasons I’ve tried to articulate this morning, saying something important about what it means to be alive in 2013, .