Aisha and TIME

Aisha, Photograph by Jodi Bieber / INSTITUTE for TIME

There is no doubt that this is a powerful picture. An obviously beautiful young woman whose physical disfigurement as a result of a brutal and violent act mirrors perfectly the psychological abuse the woman - Aisha - must have suffered. It is a portrait that alludes to so many issues about the oppression of women in Afghanistan, the horrific nature of an abuse of male power both personal and societal and the ability of someone to go through such an ordeal and still be able to present themselves to the world with strength and dignity. Fantastic to see this on the cover of such a prominent magazine. Then you read the copy pasted next to Aisha's face. And suddenly this is about something else entirely. Suddenly this is a thinly veiled - no, actually rather blatant - call to arms in support of a sustained military engagement in Afghanistan.

As a photographer, when you put your work into the hands of editors you have to trust that they have the same intentions as you. I have seen my interpretation of my own photographs change before my eyes when juxtaposed with words I did not write. It is remarkable how often an article or a caption can completely alter the context and reading of a photograph and underscores the importance of a working relationship where respect and trust and paramount.

It is a shame that there is not more collaboration in the industry between all the people who put an article together. I always thought that the writer, photographer, editor and designer should all be working together while the truth is that often the pieces are assembled without the input of the producers. A good editor is so important. I think this is the reason why many people are embracing the ideas of self publishing and distribution today, so they can have editorial control. Once your work is out there then it can be appropriated and used to further a multitude of agendas and it is near impossible to stop that, but it is also important that in the initial presentation it is put forward in the correct context. That way, you are not backtracking and having to say “No, what I meant was …” You will have the context and be able to point to it directly as an anchor.

My initial reaction to the caption on the cover was that it turned the photograph into a propaganda tool to support the war, rather than what I think was Jodi Bieber's original intention with this image, which was to show that this woman is still beautiful despite having her face mutilated, and to draw attention to the barbaric acts of violence perpetrated against Aisha and other women in Afghanistan. I believe that that is most likely what Aisha also thought as she posed for the photograph. She may also support the U.S. led invasion of Afghanistan. I do not know.

What I do know is that the idea that the war is justified and it’s continuation will prevent this from happening is a matter for debate, and is not a fact, as TIME’s cover copy would imply. It turns the personal story of this woman into an archetypal illustration. That they focused on Aisha and not any of the other women photographed in the essay, which shows women in many different situations in Afghan society, many of whom are – for want of a better word – empowered, shows how far from the original intention of the photographic essay the editorial spin on the cover goes.

Robina Mukimyar Jalalai
In 2004, Jalalai was Afghanistan's first female representative at the Olympics. She is now running for Parliament.
Photograph by Jodi Bieber / INSTITUTE for TIME

It is very obvious that this essay is about women in Afghanistan and not about why the war should be sustained. It is fine – and important – to state your opinion, but it should be clearly stated that this is an editorial opinion and not fact. In this instance, you might as well replace the TIME logo with one for the U.S. Military. With that one phrase on the cover, TIME have shown themselves to be propagandists and not reporters.


Lili said...

Aisha was put on the cover of Time - not to show a disfigured beautiful women - but in the larger context of our engagement there. Otherwise, frankly, no one would care. I understand your photographer's point of view, but you have to understand the news editor's point of view. Aisha herself isn't "news" but the fact that she stands for the abuse that would be perpetrated upon millions of women if we did leave Afghanistan is the point. I am SO GLAD that they put this photo on the cover because maybe now people in the US will understand what is at stake. As I write this I am in Afghanistan and I fear for these brave, resilient, good-hearted people - most of whom detest the Taliban and share none of their ignorant, extremist and warped views of reality. I personally feel that we cannot once again leave this country to the dogs as we did in the 1990s.

Stan B. said...

TIME done right ('nuff said):

Tom White said...

Lilli, thanks for your comment, and you are spot on. Aisha herself isn't news. She should be though. My point is that TIME claim objectivity - explicitly saying they are neither for or against the war, but clearly this cover infers support for continued engagement. I for one think that removing the Taliban from power is a good thing. I think having a society in Afghanistan (or anywhere for that matter) where such atrocities do not occur is a good thing. My problem is with the contradiction in TIME's claim to journalistic and editorial objectivity and what they present on the news stands. My problem is when they take the story of someone like Aisha and use it to put forward a point that is quite frankly a matter for debate. The U.S. has been in Afghanistan for almost a decade and this still happens. Staying there will not necessarily stop it from happening again. Leaving might also be the wrong decision, but let's have that debate. Let's work out a strategy that will leave Afghanistan as a strong independent, fair, just, peaceful society. Something I believe will be very difficult seeing as the U.S. can't even achieve that at home.

In any case I too am glad they put this picture on the cover. Aisha's ordeal is and should be an important story. But it should be about her. It's such a shame that they turned it into propaganda with an ill thought out caption.

It could have been an astonishing piece of journalism on the struggle of women in Afghanistan, what has been achieved there and what still needs to be done. If TIME's editors support the war that is fine, but why then did they not present this story, and Jodi's pictures in the proper context. It is clear to me that the pictures themselves cover a broad spectrum of women in various roles. To take this one woman and use her in such a way does a disservice to everyone involved. I would remind you again that TIME claims neutrality. Look again at the cover and tell me that is a neutral statement.

The problem I have here is not whether or not the war should continue, not whether or not Aisha is brave, or a symbol, or that such things should cease, it is that TIME is contradicting itself and as such is serving us a piece of propaganda. Again, propaganda is fine, but let's call it what it is, and not pretend it is anything other.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post. I think that it makes clear how difficult is for photographers to convey their messages. I am an anthropologist, and although my work can be manipulated for political reasons, I have words to fight back and ask for corrections and changes.
Pictures are powerful but also linked to the context and the context is often not decided by the photographer indeed. For this reason I find the photographers' blog so interesting, they put together the image with their own text.

I have explained my position about the Time's cover here:

Best wishes

Tom White said...

A couple of follow up articles on Aisha here.

My favourite quote: “I don’t know if it will help other women or not,” she said, her hand going instinctively to cover the hole in the middle of her face, as it does whenever strangers look directly at her. “I just want to get my nose back.”

Tom White said...

Interview with Jodi Bieber here:

I have to say, I agreed with her right up to the final crucial question - when asked how she felt about TIME effectively turning her photo into a propaganda statement. She claims that she has no political agenda. That I cannot believe. I think perhaps she means that she would prefer to keep her political agenda private. She also says that however you read the photo is dependent on your own point of view. That is true up to a point, but when a photo is married with such a statement as it is here, one which effectively negates alternative readings then I would say that it's use is not as ambiguous as all that.