Time Magazine Publishes ‘Disturbing’ Cover

Editor consulted child psychologists before putting image of Afghan woman with nose cut off on newsstands

It’s no WikiLeak, but Time magazine has published a photo that may carry the weight of 92,000 Afghanistan war documents.

The magazine’s cover this week features "Aisha," an 18-year-old Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off by the Taliban.

The photo, shot by South African photographer Jodi Bieber and which Aisha posed for, accompanies an article about the resurgence of Afghan women in the region “and how they fear a Taliban revival.”

“I thought long and hard about whether to put this image on the cover,” editor Rick Stengel wrote in a post on Time.com. “First, I wanted to make sure of Aisha's safety and that she understood what it would mean to be on the cover. She knows that she will become a symbol of the price Afghan women have had to pay for the repressive ideology of the Taliban. We also confirmed that she is in a secret location in Kabul protected by armed guards and sponsored by the NGO Women for Afghan Women."

He noted Aisha is heading to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery sponsored by the Grossman Burn Foundation, a humanitarian organization, and that Time is “supporting that effort.” I asked Time if its “support” is financial; I’ll update this post with their response. (UPDATE: A spokesperson for the magazine said it will run a pro-bono P.S.A. for the foundation in a future issue to support women like Aisha, but it is not paying for her surgery.)

Stengel continued: “I'm acutely aware that this image will be seen by children, who will undoubtedly find it distressing. We have consulted with a number of child psychologists about its potential impact. Some think children are so used to seeing violence in the media that the image will have little effect, but others believe that children will find it very scary and distressing — that they will see it, as Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston, said, as 'a symbol of bad things that can happen to people.’ I showed it to my two young sons, 9 and 12, who both immediately felt sorry for Aisha and asked why anyone would have done such harm to her. I apologize to readers who find the image too strong, and I invite you to comment on the image's impact.”

I read some of those comments, and many were supportive of Stengel’s decision. Even this, albeit backhanded, one by “Kimmee P”:

Perhaps if TIME had managed to focus on substantial issues for the past several years instead of covering political horseraces and every pop-culture fad Time Warner had its hand in, we wouldn't have been floundering around aimlessly in Afghanistan for the past nine years and might have been able to help this woman. So congrats, Rick Stengel, on finally showing up for work. Spend a little less time patting yourself on the back for doing a little journalism this week and a little more making sure next week's cover story doesn't involve Lipitor, orgasms, or Justin Bieber.

I’ll give Stengel the final word. “The much publicized release of classified documents by WikiLeaks has already ratcheted up the debate about the war,” Stengel wrote. “Our story and the haunting cover image … are meant to contribute to that debate. We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground.”