Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
March 18, 2011

TIME's "Meltdown" Cover: Insight, or Working Japanese Stereotype?

It’s a bold and impressive move to run one photo containing no accompanying detail of an incredible, and detail-stunning series of cataclysms on TIME’s Japan Earthquake/Tsunami/Nuclear Disaster cover. Going that route, it throws all the weight on the emotional response of the population, otherwise notable in the West for the more opaque Japanese mind.

What I’m wondering, though — given how I’m seeing an accelerating number of similarly high profile photos (1, 2) in the U.S. press of Japanese people weeping in public — is how much this cover frames the intense grief and loss one would see in any culture, given the circumstances, and how much the media’s response is informed by cultural stereotyping, these crying images — paired with the obvious double meaning of “meltdown” to refer to a culture coming emotionally unglued — potentially pivoting off that image of Japanese stoicism.

If what the cover accurately captures is a crisis so devastating it punctured that stoicism, it would be one thing. It would be something altogether different, however, if the underpinning here was to document how the overt expression of emotion demonstrates that “the Japanese really are human” (meaning more like us Americans) after all.

See more takes on Japan earthquake photos here and at Tumblr.<<

(photo: Aly Song/Reuters)

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