The black man with the heavy-lidded, smoldering glare, the mouth set in sullen defiance, the badass watchcap, the hatred for America’s decadent capitalist values…
Hey, wait a minute, that’s Tiger Woods!
Of course, that’s Tiger Woods on the right, courtesy of the current issue of Vanity Fair.
On the left is alleged underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, in a photo that Newsweek used on the cover of its January 11 issue (the China Matters media strategy precludes shelling out $5.95 for Newsweek, so I found and cropped the relevant picture of Abdulmutallab pretty much as it appeared on the cover. More about that later.)
On an expedition to my local supermarket I was confronted by these two strikingly similar images and was reminded that an important function of illustrations is to help shoehorn readers’ perceptions into preconceived narratives.
The most recent images available of Abdulmutallab don’t do a good enough job of conveying implacable jihadist menace.
The photograph released by the U.S. Marshal’s Service after his detention is a compositionally striking and flattering photo of a glum but passive, well-groomed, and not particularly threatening-looking young man in a snow-white T-shirt that looks like it came out of an ad for fabric softener.
On the other hand, Newsweek could not be expected to use the other current picture that was available:
This smiling, relaxed image of Abdulmutallab, together with a graphic representing the plane he planned to blow up, was provided by a jihadist website as part of the martyr media package used to glorify, motivate (and recruit) perpetrators of suicide attacks.
As for Tiger Woods, the image Vanity Fair used on its current cover was taken by Anne Leibovitz in 2006, well before his current troubles.
Apparently, Leibovitz was trying to show us the great athlete and competitor–the tiger, shall we say– beneath the pastel knits of the pampered corporate pussycat.
Instead, the picture does a good job of showing that no golfer, not even Tiger Woods, looks good with his shirt off, especially with a lighting scheme dialed to “decaying mackerel”. The snaps were shelved until Vanity Fair discovered that the world was thirsting for pictures of Woods looking down and dirty.
Returning to the underwear bomber, the Newsweek cover is rather effective.
The resentful expression, the inner city accoutrement of knit cap and windbreaker, the booking-photo-meets-security-camera-screen-grab photographic values, the heavensent subliminal message of the vertical bars, all combine to create an image–and impression–of a mean, scary outsider.
Interestingly, the picture Newsweek used was taken in 2001, during a class trip to London arranged by the exclusive international school Abdulmutallab attended in Togo.
Here’s the uncropped photo, with Abdulmutallab and a schoolmate (whose expression and physique would defeat any attempt to convey whipcord menace) in front of some London landmark. The photo was taken by his history teacher, Mike Rimmer, who provided it to the media.
Abdulmutallab was 14 years old or so at the time.
Using an image of a child to illustrate a story about the crimes of a man is, to me, a questionable journalistic decision.
To be fair, Abdulmutallab was already attracted to a radicalized brand of Islam at the age of 14 and probably did not really enjoy his visit to the Crusader stronghold of London just as the Western world was cooking up the invasion of Afghanistan.
And Tiger Woods was probably already well on his way to destroying his trophy life/trophy wife gilded existence through serial lechery when Anne Leibovitz snapped his portrait.
But it should not be forgotten that pictures often don’t tell us anything new; sometimes they merely emphasize something we think we already know.
And sometimes–when images of a (black) terrorist and America’s most successful (black) athlete unexpectedly converge–they can tell us something about ourselves, something that maybe we don’t want to hear.
The images of Abdulmutallab come from the Facebook page of Nigerians for Nigeria, which has an interesting rundown of his background, and further photos by Mr. Rimmer.
P.S. I received some negative feedback concerning this post. To clarify, I feel that any picture showing an unsmiling black male staring at the camera can’t illustrate an article about terrorism (Abdulmutallab) or the temptations of fame (Woods) honestly, given America’s race-related issues. Instead, the picture is all about using a symbol of American racial fears to juice stories in which race is a virtually non-existent element. And using old images that enable this coding–instead of more recent and relevant photos that are readily available–is doubly reprehensible. CH, 1/13/10