Beautiful Women Used To Obscure The Horrors Of War
Today,* Time hits newsstands with a photo of a beautiful young woman with her nose cut off. Western photography, war, and beautiful "victims" have a long and fraught history.
On Monday, Time magazine will hit newsstands and Ipads with its full story on the plight of women in Afghanistan --- and the disturbing cover image that's already been intensely debated on the Internet.
The photo is of 18-year-old Aisha, a light brown Afghan woman with piercing eyes, a thick mane of dark hair, and her nose cut off. Her husband also sliced off her ears after she ran away from her in-law's home, where she was being beaten so badly she thought she would die.
It's hard, perhaps impossible, to look at the picture of Aisha and not feel horror, anger, fear. What's to be done? Time's editors have just the solution. The story's headline reads: "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan." Critics, including Muslim women bloggers, are accusing Time of exploiting Aisha to gather support for Obama's futile war in Afghanistan and boost dwindling sales of the magazine as well.
But Time isn't the only with Photoshop and a political agenda.
The exhibit is a series of photomontages in which white women's bodies have been visually excavated and scenes of war have been placed where a pale belly or breast or buttock once was. In one piece, a blond woman stands with her legs spread, her hands on her hips, hair tousled. But her torso, including her breasts and vagina, have been replaced with the image of what appears to be an alley or hallway that's been bombed and where soldiers are gathered. A rifle is propped up against the wall, which in this case is the woman's right thigh.
The effect is jarring. Most people don't watch online porn or open up Playboy to look at naked women alongside images of soldiers guarding borders or a man dying on the ground.
Romero, who's 24-years-old and an MFA student at the University of Florida, says that when people first see the photomontages at a distance, they're titillated and drawn to the women's faces or spread legs or exposed breasts. When they get closer and realize what they're looking at, the party's over.
They're disturbed, repulsed.
"I wanted to make a commentary on voyeurism, how victims are photographed, how women are photographed. The way they seem in the media," says Romero, who's Dominican.
Part of what makes "Sexual War Politics" so successful artistically and politically is that it takes into account the degree to which both porn images and war photos in and of themselves now largely fail to move us.
The editors at Time magazine were preparing for outrage over putting such a disturbing picture on their cover. Their managing editor reported that the staff consulted with child psychologists before deciding to run the photograph of Aisha with her missing nose. But the reaction they had expected never materialized. As the AP noted, very little of the discussion has centered on the shock of seeing the mutilated face of a young woman. In a visually saturated culture like ours, it may be that we are reaching a point where we can no longer see violence without --- as Romero's exhibit suggests --- putting it out of context.
In one of her pieces titled "Bomb Shell," the perky left breast and torso of a woman has been removed and in its place is the image of a building that's been bombed. Romero says she didn't realize how violent the porn names were until she adopted them as titles for her pieces. Taken out of context, they revealed more.
Out of context.
The more I've looked at the picture of Aisha this week, the more I've found something that's as disturbing as her mutilation and Time's call to war: the beauty of the image.
In the cover photograph, Aisha's hair is thick and wavy as if it had been carefully arranged in a New York studio. The camera has captured her at a moment when she's staring at us from the corner of her eyes, her lips slightly parted as if she's about to speak. The light falls across her pale brown cheeks, picks up the contrast in the shawl covering her dark hair. The nose, cut away, the flesh having healed as one commentator wrote into a "heart shape," is the only indication that this young woman's life is endangered.
It's a photograph in the tradition of the National Geographic, where brown and black women and men and even children are rendered in bright colors, made exotic, almost desirable, and placed alongside images of whales and polar bears. The pain of hunger or war or disease is eerily absent. The images -- out of context -- are made more palatable to audiences.
It was National Geographic whose editors put an Afghan girl on their cover in the 1980s. Sharbat Gula was photographed in a refugee camp and this became "the" image of the war along the Afghan border at the time, even though the photographer never recorded her name.
Sharbat's picture, like that of Aisha's, was a palette of rich colors: the haunting green of her large eyes, the light brown hues of her face, the dark cherry red of the shawl. With a nose intact, Sharbat could have appeared on the cover of Vogue as Afghan chic.
What were the photographers thinking?
In Aisha's case, South African photographer Jodi Bieber, who took the photo for Time, says in a video that she was struck by the beauty of the young woman. It captivated her. She saw Aisha not as a victim but as a survivor.
But what if Aisha had been unattractive by Western standards? What if her eyes were crossed or her hair cut badly or her skin a rich dark black? Even with the mutilation, the photograph conforms to an aesthetic beauty we're familiar with from women's magazines and it's that, which I imagine, helps American viewers (I'd add white viewers) feel they have a connection to what they are seeing: "How awful, how beautiful, we should do something to save Aisha."
Michelle Chen reported on Time's cover and the savior complex earlier this week. Some women's rights advocates are more than willing to support Obama's futile war on the flimsy pretext that it will save women's lives. Other advocates are, fortunately, clear-headed, recalling that the Soviets used the same rationale for staying in Afghanistan and we can see how much liberation they brought to women there.
A National Geographic team tracked Sharbat almost 20 years after her picture graced the magazine's cover. She hadn't learned to read but she hoped her own daughters would have more opportunities. She didn't know that millions of people had seen her face --- or that they had paid to do so.
War photography, women's faces and race have a long, complicated relationship, one that has taken some decidedly bizarre turns, as in the case of Rita Hayworth.
Hayworth, who was born Margarita Carmen Cansino (her father was a Spaniard), changed her name so she'd stop getting minor "Hispanic" roles in films. She also had her hairline altered through electrolysis and her wavy hair dyed red so that by the time she became a coveted pinup girl, she was white.
Soldiers favored Hayworth's image during World War II and millions of copies of her picture traveled with them into war. She was considered a "bombshell" and so when the first nuclear bomb was tested in 1945, an image of her decorated the missile. She hadn't given her consent.
The story has a science fiction quality to it: A biracial woman makes herself white to get work and her image ends up on the weapon that will be used to kill people of color.
Time's managing editor, Richard Stengel, has written that he published Aisha's picture not to support the war but to show "what is actually happening on the ground." The problem is he forgot the ground.
Granted, a cover photo can't serve too many purposes, not even more than one really. But placing the image of a young woman who's been mutilated outside of the context in which the horror has happened obscures the reality of the situation and conceals those who are responsible.
Here, I'm thinking of Phan Thị Kim Phúc.
The 1972 picture of her as a child, naked, her light brown body burning from napalm, running, revealed the cruelty of the war in Vietnam and actually of the 20th century. It unmasked what was happening on the ground, precisely because it showed Kim Phúc running down the road along with other children, soldiers behind and to the side, in the background the sky had been replaced with ominous man-made clouds.
I'm not suggesting that a photograph should have been taken of Aisha as she was attacked. But it's a disservice to the reality of war to have her image so carefully constructed and divorced from its context: the men and women dying at the hands of American forces, the collaboration of Pakistan spies and the Taliban.
It suggests that photojournalists and their editors today, unlike their 1970s counterparts, might be leaving the hard work of revealing what's actually happening on the ground to young artists of color like Romero.
* This article was first published on AlterNet on August 8, 2010.