On Thursday afternoon, Boston Magazine published several new photos of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The photographs were taken the night of Tsarnaev's capture by Sgt. Sean Murphy, a tactical photographer with the Massachusetts State Police. They were published several days after Rolling Stone's cover image of the suspect set off a firestorm online, with critics accusing the magazine of glamorizing the accused terrorist. (Related: "Why a Picture on Rolling Stone's Cover Sparks Outrage.")
The new photos show Tsarnaev bloodied and disoriented, with a sniper's laser beam aimed directly at his forehead. They were taken on April 19, the night he was captured in a dry-docked boat in a Watertown, Massachusetts, backyard.
Murphy, who had not received permission to publish the photographs, told Boston Magazine that the photos showed "the real Boston bomber. Not someone fluffed and buffed for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine."
After the photographs were published, the Massachusetts State Police issued a statement, saying that the agency did not authorize the release of the photos to Boston Magazine and would not release them to other publications. A State Police spokesperson said Thursday night that Murphy had been relieved of duty for one day and will now face an internal hearing.
The new set of images certainly raises questions about how the media represents those accused of crimes. What does it mean to have two images of the same person, when the intentions behind those images may be so radically different? What does it mean for a police photographer to release images that were never supposed to be released to the public—and how could that then change a public conversation?
To parse out these questions, we turned to Alice Gabriner, a photo editor at National Geographic who previously worked at Time and the White House, and Kenny Irby, who founded the Poynter Institute's photojournalism program and now serves as a senior faculty member in Poynter's visual journalism department.
The image on Rolling Stone's cover has received a lot of backlash, particularly toward the editors who chose it.
Alice Gabriner: The Rolling Stone cover wasn't assigned. The editors were choosing from existing images. In a sea of competing imagery, editors look for what will stand out and therefore be different from what other media is showing. They want to provoke, reveal, provide a fresh take, or evoke an emotional response. Since this image was how the suspected terrorist represented himself, and was not widely seen, I imagine the editors felt it was a good visual representation for the text profile.
What about the images released by Boston Magazine? They were radically different and seemed like they were also meant to provoke in a different way.
AG: In some ways, the images released by Sean Murphy have the same intent—to reveal. "Behind the scenes" images like these, at their best, offer a peephole glimpse into a reality we could not otherwise see or know. These images can correct misperceptions of what we imagine.
What makes a photo iconic? Do you think the Rolling Stone image or the Boston Magazine images will be considered iconic?
AG: I believe it takes time for images to become iconic. Editors at publications republish the image to represent an event (perhaps reflecting reader response to the image), and then that reinforcement conditions readers to associate the event with that image. An image needs to be seen pervasively before it becomes iconic.
How do you go about choosing one portrait that represents the entirety of a person?
Kenny Irby: That's impossible. That's the challenge because one single image cannot represent the full range of an individual. And photo editing is a subjective process. So what picture editors are charged with doing is best capturing the master narrative of a story across all platforms. In this case, we're talking about a magazine cover.
Are there particular challenges to choosing portraits for magazine covers?
KI: The photo chosen has a double challenge—it has to represent both the story and the character of the publication. In this case, that was part of the challenge here—to represent the history and the dynamic of a publication like Rolling Stone, which is very different than National Geographic or Time or People. The challenge that a picture editor and other editors in this process have—and I should add that the picture editor doesn't have the final say in this—is thinking about how to illustrate the particular component of a person or personality at a given time. Picture editors are charged with both best representing the story and drawing in readers.
How do these new photographs released by Boston Magazine add to the discussion taking place?
KI: They contribute a great deal. It's unfortunate that they were withheld, but that is a part of the control of the image or spin of a story. Any publication wants to produce the most accurate storytelling available at a given time.
In the case of the Boston Magazine photos—this was an instance where journalists and photographers weren't allowed on the scene in Watertown, meaning the only people with access were police photographers, who weren't supposed to make these images public. But one did—what does that mean, in terms of access and journalism?
KI: There are all kinds of reporters, which brings us into a quandary. Almost everyone—anyone with a camera phone—has the capacity to be a visual reporter and everybody can act with photojournalist tendencies, meaning they can document something that potentially contributes to the master narrative. We know that from the bombing at the marathon, and we know that from the aftermath of the marathon. But the motives and the intent that a journalist is operating under are not the same as what a police photographer is operating under.
In this case, it seems as if the police officer was documenting what was going on for evidence purposes and not for the mainstream public.
How are the photos that police photographers take generally used?
KI: Those photographs are usually used for evidence and are only released to mainstream media outlets as evidence and through sunshine laws or through FOIA [Freedom of Information Act]. It is not a general practice to release images taken by police except in those two instances or when law enforcement has a specific purpose—mainly, to solve a crime by releasing a suspect's photos.
How should these police photos be used in a situation like this?
KI: That is the challenge. In most cases, photos could come from a citizen, but in this case, the image could not have come from a citizen [because citizens and journalists weren't allowed in Watertown due to the lockdown]. So you have to step back and say, in this case, what constitutes the viability or the value of law enforcement now sharing images that it has with news media and by extension the community? Someone should be held accountable, because you could argue that there's a dangerous precedent in doing this.
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