Don’t say cheese, Mr. Assange.

0 commentsPhotography

Click for the orig­i­nal cov­er.

The ide­al style of por­trai­ture for news mag­a­zines is some­thing I like to call the mug por­trait, or the sub­jec­tive mugshot.

Here’s why.

A key dif­fer­ence between a dai­ly news­pa­per and a week­ly news mag­a­zine is that while the for­mer sets a stan­dard of time­li­ness and objec­tiv­i­ty, the latter’s goals are top­i­cal­i­ty and ambiva­lence. This is a sub­tle dis­tinc­tion, no doubt, but a cru­cial one nonethe­less.

The news­pa­per aims to present events as they occur, where­as the news mag­a­zine presents the out­come and con­se­quences of those events after they have occurred, aim­ing to study their mid- to long-term effects. As a result, the news mag­a­zine allows crit­i­cal analy­sis in its cov­er­age, with­out the need to make a clear-cut dis­tinc­tion between this edi­to­r­i­al mate­r­i­al and the hard facts. This jour­nal­is­ti­cal­ly sub­jec­tive stance is as true of the words as it is of the pho­tog­ra­phy that accom­pa­nies them. And this is where the mug por­trait comes in.

Some years ago, a cer­tain OJ Simpson was in the United States media’s cross-hairs. At the time, much was made of the wild­ly con­trast­ing depic­tions of Simpson on the cov­ers of Newsweek and Time, the two lead­ing news mag­a­zines back then. That hap­pens often, of course, but what was inter­est­ing in this case was that both mag­a­zines used the same shot, specif­i­cal­ly Simpson’s offi­cial mugshot, on their respec­tive cov­ers. The result of print­ing it in an orig­i­nal unal­tered form on one cov­er and of dig­i­tal­ly manip­u­lat­ing it on the oth­er, was that one mag­a­zine por­trayed him as inno­cent (at least until proven guilty) while the oth­er por­trayed him as guilty beyond doubt.

OJ Simpson vs. OJ Simpson.

Today, a very dif­fer­ent per­son is in the media’s cross-hairs, this time at an inter­na­tion­al and much larg­er scale. The cur­rent issue of Time has him on its cov­er in a qua­si-mugshot, even though at the time of its pub­li­ca­tion he was not yet in police cus­tody. This per­son, of course, is Julian Assange, founder of the infa­mous WikiLeaks. (Note: By the time you read this, the link might no longer be valid, as the site is being chased off the inter­net.)

However, this time the cre­ative license tak­en with the pho­to­graph is much more overt. The shot presents Assange in taste­ful black and white (some­what char­ac­ter­is­tic of his elu­sive­ly ele­gant style), his mouth bound with a full-col­or American flag. The image leaves very lit­tle doubt about its mes­sage, under­scored by the accom­pa­ny­ing title “Do You Want to Know a Secret?”. However, the oth­er shoe drops in the small­er title, which reads “Why WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange has so many of them… And why it hasn’t hurt America”).

Is this image ground­break­ing? Perhaps not. Is it worth a thou­sand words? Perhaps not. But the sto­ries leaked by Julian Assange appar­ent­ly are.

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