The devil wears a pleasing face

The controversy over the new Rolling Stone cover featuring Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – some discount drugstore chains are refusing to carry the issue – is fascinating for what it says about the ability of beauty, photography and human nature to romanticize evil.

Would Rolling Stone – and for that matter, The New York Times, which ran the same wide-eyed, tousle-haired image on its front page May 5 – have done so if Tsarnaev were less handsome? Possibly. But then again, maybe not. Evil is often glamorous – look at all those Death Row marriages – but never more so than when it comes with a comely face.

But let’s not underestimate the role still photography and its descendants – movies, TV, the Internet – play in this as well. Before the mass-produced visual image circa 1839, infamy was just that. You were held up to public ridicule and very few people knew what you look liked or cared. The devil wore horns, not Prada.

With the advent of photographic portraiture, all that changed. It’s not merely that a handsome face can be circulated instantaneously. It’s that the very act of photographing someone, no matter how heinous his or her actions, raises that person and thus his act to the realm of theatricality. Portrait photography sets them at a remove.

The Tsarnaev who stares out on the cover of Rolling Stone – like the John Wilkes Booth, another charming kid brother gone horribly wrong, who leans in to us from Alexander Gardner’s iconic photo (circa 1865) – is aware of his attractiveness. And it is this awareness that we respond to and find so disturbing.

Given that a picture is said to be worth a thousand words, it hardly matters whether or not the words “misled student” or “monster” apply.

– Georgette Gouveia

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