The image gracing TIME's Person of the Year issue, dedicated to "The Protester," is graphically based upon a photograph of an Occupy Wall Street activist. Care to compare them?
Photo comparison via Rachael Christine.
The image on TIME's cover – in which the 99% is unmistakably absent – is based on a photo of Sarah Mason, a 25-year-old Occupy L.A. activist (and art gallery worker) who was photographed by LA Weekly's Ted Soqui as she stood in a line, arms linked, during a November 17 protest at Bank of America Plaza.
The original image, with a vinegar-soaked 99% bandana masking Mason's face, her eyes focused and determined as she protests corporate greed, has unmistakable intensity and meaning. However, on TIME's cover, she is reduced (in my humble opinion) to a generic, hybrid graphic that fails to invoke passions precisely because it lacks the specificity of place, the specificity of time, the specificity of motivation, of a cause.
In short, it lacks the 99 percent.
Now, the image – created by Shepard Fairey, the L.A. artist known most notably for his Obama "Hope" poster – is intended to represent the panoply of protesters across the globe who have risen up this year, "from the Arab Spring to Athens, from Occupy Wall Street to Moscow."
For this reason, it is understandable why Fairey and TIME magazine decided that the 99% should be scrubbed in representing "The Protester."
However, the above sentence feels, post-writing, like an incomplete justification. It feels watered down. It feels, well, scrubbed.
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Author's Note 1:
I'd like to add here that, while I've articulated some criticisms of Fairey's image, I also have complex, competing feelings about it, particularly with regard to its representation of protesters across the globe. As someone who champions (and has written extensively on) both OWS and protests in the Middle East (particularly Egypt and Israel), my issue isn't that this cover did not focus exclusively on OWS.
Rather, it is about the decisions that lay at the heart of imagistic representations, particularly representations fashioned from actual people, actual moments. In this case, I feel that removing the 99% was, in some respects, unfortunate.
In short, I've offered this post not to alert us to what I view as a dire issue, but instead as an opportunity to reflect on the crafting of this cover, which contextually – given its mainstream viewing – is an important image at this moment in our culture.
Below, I've offered Fariey's own words on the image (Author's Note 2) and a critique from a commenter on the image (Author's Note 3) to complement this discussion.
Author's Note 2:
Thanks to dannyinla, who found and passed along some of Fairey's own words about the cover's image. While I'm sure James Hepburn (see Author's Note 3) and others might disagree, it's important to include Fairey's projected perspective:
As the artist behind our Person of the Year 2011 cover commemorating this year’s pick, The Protester, Fairey says his cover image is based on a composite of 26 different photographs of real protests from around the world. “These organic protest movements have arisen around the globe and a lot of it was fueled by social media, but it was a pervasive phenomenon,” he said. “It wasn’t one specific movement but general unrest. I wanted to look for ideas to represent that.”
Though the protests themselves have been anything up light, Fairey didn’t want the image to feel menacing. “A lot of these people are not threatening,” he said. “A lot of them are just regular folks who feel dissatisfied.” Instead he wanted to create something that “meant business, but wasn’t scary.”
“It makes me proud of idealism and a willingness to stand up for your beliefs,” said Fairey, who has been a vocal supporter of the Occupy movements this fall, visiting protests and creating art to fuel the movement. “There’s a fine line between people feeling threatened by rabble-rousers and people being inspired by those who stand up for a cause. I hope the cover conveys my idea that these are people around the world that are serious, but that they’re just people like everyone else.”
Author's Note 3:
I'd like to include a comment from James Hepburn, which is quite sharp:
I have a long background psychological marketing, and specifically, how images can be used to invoke an emotional response and modify behavior.
What the cover intended, as far as I can tell, is to scare the shit out of people.
It's funny that no one here sees it that way. But I assure you, to the average American, fully indoctrinated into the post 911, Islamophobic, terror zeitgeist (Otherwise known as cable news viewers), this image is terrifying.
And notice the choice of imagery in the background. The hellish red of eternal fire with what looks like screaming faces (Zoom in. You'll see it.).
I don't know what the artist intended, but the use of this image, as it is currently presented by Time Magazine, is quite obviously an attempt to trigger an emotional response associated with Islamic terrorism. It could be accidental. lol. But I seriously doubt it.
Author's Note 4:
An art critic I am not. However, here is a rather critical take on Fairey's cover from the L.A. Times' Christopher Knight:
When Time magazine, voice of the establishment, chooses "The Protester" as its person of the year, only one artist is really suitable for the job of creating the publication's inevitably ironic cover. Shepard Fairey, designer dissident, stepped up to the plate.
Ai Weiwei he's not.
The Los Angeles graphic designer, 41, whose thriving youth-market business, Obey Giant, encompasses a wide array of retail products, produced a signature image for Time Warner's flagship franchise. The masked, shrouded, bust-length head staring out from newsstands has all the marks of the artist's familiar brand. As in his big, corny paintings of Arab women wielding AK-47s, which claim an essential (and insupportable) superiority for maternal benevolence, it's wince-inducing.
The style oozes cozy, collectible nostalgia. On the cover of Time, the schmaltzy result trivializes the portentous power — and authentic potential — of the "Arab spring," Occupy Wall Street and whatever might-or-might-not be breaking now in Russia. Questioning authority never looked more corporate and conventional.
Author's Note 5:
Here I offer the concluding paragraph to TIME's introduction of "The Protester" as Person of the Year. The issue itself has some good writing:
Everywhere this year, people have complained about the failure of traditional leadership and the fecklessness of institutions. Politicians cannot look beyond the next election, and they refuse to make hard choices. That's one reason we did not select an individual this year. But leadership has come from the bottom of the pyramid, not the top. For capturing and highlighting a global sense of restless promise, for upending governments and conventional wisdom, for combining the oldest of techniques with the newest of technologies to shine a light on human dignity and, finally, for steering the planet on a more democratic though sometimes more dangerous path for the 21st century, the Protester is TIME's 2011 Person of the Year.