Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
July 18, 2013

Ready, Aim, Backfire: Police Photographer's "Rolling Stone Retribution" Photos

I don’t know if it’s from acting impulsively out of anger, a lack of visual sophistication, or a complex brew of both. Whatever the reasons, I think the tactical photographer, Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Sean Murphy, has seriously missed the boat if he though his pictures of Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would pigeonhole him as just another evil-doer. To clarify the context, Murphy released these photos in response to what he and many others perceived as a romanticized (and now, viral) portrait of Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone. (Our post, by the way, along with other thoughtful observers, such as Ian Crouch at the New Yorker and Nathan Jurgenson didn’t see it as nearly so simple, and certainly not fan bait.)

The larger photo edit publish in the Boston Magazine post does tend to blunt the impact of the photos of Dzhokhar, sandwiched as they are around many photos of the police mobilization. The two individual pictures of Dzhokhar above that The Atlantic Wire published, however, showing him wounded at the edge of the boat in that backyard in Watertown, don’t — in my mind, at least — come anywhere close to fulfilling the police photographer’s motive of dehumanizing the bomber.

Just to feather in another layer of visual complexity, by the way, the Atlantic’s article also featured that infamous arrest photo of the disheveled Khalid Sheik Mohammed in his undershirt. The intent of that picture was to serve as a close cousin to the Murphy images, somehow illustrating how Murphy’s pics makes Tsarnaev look equally as bad.

Well, far from it. Here are the two tweets I posted about the photos above:

Clearly, there will be a raft of articles about the politics of these photos and the ins-and-outs of conducting a media-based photo war. For our purposes, however, it’s the content and the nature of the photos that really matter. And to the extent that this kid looks so small and exposed, so bloodied and bowed, so targeted by shooters and shooters alike, I wonder if Mr. Murphy and his counterparts aren’t feeling now like they should have just finished the job.

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UPDATE 9:55 pm PST – Consistent with the speculation above, anger and revenge and a photo edit and the phone number of local media trumping better judgement, Sgt. Murphy has been suspended by the police department and barred from further contact with the media.  Here, by the way, is still another photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that Murphy released:

This photo is the tightest of the three and shows the kid pretty much spent. In contrast to the Rolling Stone cover, which set up a brilliant clash between Dzhokhar’s surface and Dzhokhar’s story (otherwise, you never would have seen such a raging debate), these photos pull in a mostly uncomplicated way for an empathetic response. It’s an indication how blind with anger Mr. Murphy must have been that he couldn’t see or anticipate how “one note” these pictures are.  A tiger could rampage through a town and even maim some residents and still, photographed in the dark after being shot up by forest rangers and writing in agony, it would be hard not to feel “poor lion. “

And, studying the images a little further  — spotlit as they are, the canvas like drapery (and like a backdrop), and the red spot like stage lighting (with the symbolism of curse), as well, the photos evoke the rhetoric of the theatre and of drama, specifically tragedy, far more than the pedestrian documentary quality of, say, those NTSB photos of the Asiana crash.

If these pictures do set a lot of association and feelings in motion, evil isn’t topping my list.

(photos: Sean Murphy. caption 1: A SNIPER TRAINS HIS BEAD ON TSARNAEV. caption 2: TSARNAEV EMERGES FROM THE BOAT. linked photo: http://www.isus-krist.net78.net)

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