Photojournalism or war-porn?

On August 8th, Time magazine ran a controversial cover photo of a disfigured Afghan woman accompanied by the headline “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan.” (Cover and abridged article can be found here.)  The editor of Time, Rick Stengel, explains that the image, headline and story are intended to lend emotional truth and insight into the lives of women in Afghanistan.  He claims the piece is a neutral attempt to further the debate and is not intended to express a position on the US involvement in Afghanistan.  For the critical reader interested in furthering the rights of women, these portrayals are misleading and need to be questioned.

Time suggests that the US needs to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan to protect the women there from the Taliban.  By deliberately omitting a question mark at the end of the headline, the message beckons a fear-based response, declaring that if we leave, such atrocities will result.  The truth is that this violence happened in 2009, on our watch, begging the more provocative headline, “What happens when the US stays in Afghanistan?”  Gender-based violence, which is not unique to Afghanistan and affects women all over the world, occurs more frequently in areas prone to militarization and violence and in cultures that promote strong patriarchy and patriotism.  It is a misstep to link military presence with the protection of women against gender-based violence.

Beyond questioning the headline, the reader interested in furthering the rights of women must be critical of the image. Does this shocking, metonymic image of a disfigured woman further an empowered, informed understanding of women or present an irresponsible depiction?

According to Stengel’s editorial explanation, Aisha “posed for the picture and says she wants the world to see the effect a Taliban resurgence would have on the women of Afghanistan, many of whom have flourished in the past few years.”  While we can accept this explanation blindly, the greater invitation is to read this image critically and see that in many ways it contradicts her stated intention.

To answer this question, we have to consider many viewpoints: Is she a courageous victim emerging from hiding to show us the evidence of violence against women?  Is she propaganda caged in a portrait, depicted as a living casualty?  Is her image a form of war-porn, eliciting a prurient response both grotesque and glamorous at the same time?  Is her posing for American media really a way to enhance her freedom?  Or is she the face of patriarchy—as Kavita Ramdas, CEO of The Global Fund for Women, suggests in her piece “Violence Against Women is Not Rationale for Military Violence”—such that her face is an instructive, symbolic canvas expressing how patriarchal attitudes towards women deny their humanity?

By running this cover, headline and story, Time magazine has stirred up an important debate about war and gender-based violence.  Stengel and his team fall short of their intention to lend emotional truth and insight into the lives of women in Afghanistan.  Their depiction of Aisha is also irresponsible.  While it points to the need for changing people’s minds about securing the rights of women, there has to be a better way to inform people about gender-based violence without promoting violence and denigrating women.

For further discussion see:

Afghan Women And The Return Of The Taliban [Time]
Women Of Afghanistan: Living Under The Taliban Threat [Time]
What’s Hard To Look At [Time]
One Soldier Or 20 Schools In Afghanistan? [NYT]
Response To Controversial Time Cover: What Also Happens If We Leave Afghanistan [The Nation]
Women For Afghan Women [Official Site] A Visual Introduction to an Afghan Woman’s Mutilation [Jezebel]

Related: Clinton Warns On Women’s Rights In Afghanistan [WP]

Read more: http://jezebel.com/5599482/a-visual-introduction-to-an-afghan-womans-mutilation#ixzz0vkAHknpI

One response to “Photojournalism or war-porn?

  1. I’m also concerned when I hear self-described progressives or leftists calling for censorship of the media. While the headline “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan” may have been questionable, running the photo with the express permission of the subject, is not. If it’s the truth, and it’s an injustice, it’s our job to get it in the public eye. Stamping out freedom of the press is the job of dictators, not those pursuing social justice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s