photography Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.10: Jodi Bieber’s Afghan girl portrait in context

Jodi Bieber has won the overall 2011 World Press Photo award for her portrait of Bibi Aisha, the young Afghan women disfigured in an act of punishment (above left). Bieber outlines her thoughts on making the photograph in a brief interview here. Any image selected from over 100,000 entries produced by 5,847 photographers is going to draw its fair share of advocates and detractors. Rather than passing comment on the particular merits of the award, I am interested in what this photograph says about the context of pictures, how their meaning is produced, and how we judge them.

As many have observed, Bieber’s photograph recalls Steve McCurry’s famous portrait of Sharbat Gula that appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 (above right). In her brilliant essay on Gula’s picture, Holly Edwards notes the original function of McCurry’s picture was to “epitomize the plight of refugees displaced by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.” Since that time “the image has been republished frequently in diverse contexts, its meaning altered and augmented with each incarnation.”

It is revealing that a portrait can be so mobile and fluid. It is also revealing that two photographs similar in style can point to such different political situations: refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion in the case of Gula’s picture, and the barbarity of the Taliban in the context of the US-led invasion in the case of Aisha’s.

The individual portrait is the most common photographic style in the representation of context. But the portrait (as I argued in my 2005 World Press Photo Sem Presser Lecture) more often than not decontextualises and depoliticises the situation being depicted, leaving it to accompanying captions, headlines and texts to temporarily anchor meaning.

Jodi Bieber (whom I have never met) was interviewed after my lecture and remarked: “What Campbell said about our lack of control was quite obvious and very true. As soon as you hand over your work its not yours anymore.” This means when Bieber’s portrait of Aisha appeared on the 9 August 2010 cover of Time, with the headline “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan,” its form was beyond her control (see below left). At the moment it entered the public domain the image was no longer Bieber’s.


Focusing on the headline, Jim Johnson calls the Time cover propaganda and the World Press Photo award a category mistake. He provides an effective demonstration of how meaning is changed by associated text with an imaginary cover using the same photo with the headline “What Still Happened Despite Ten Years of Occupying Afghanistan” (above right).

Johnson’s most insightful comment is that the World Press Photo award has performed another decontextualisation and depoliticisation of the Beiber photograph. The award process has extracted the image from the political issues it became associated with, reconstituted the picture as a discrete object, and reattached it to Jodi Bieber as author.

World Press Photo focuses exclusively on pictures alone, and the jury never sees anything other than the photographs themselves when making decisions (though in the case of well-known images such as the Aisha portrait they will surely know what they are looking at).

That is a curious process for the World Press Photo award. Most of us in the viewing public encounter photographs in one context or another. We rarely if ever see them in isolation, devoid of contextual elements. Shouldn’t WPP somehow consider the way images are published and circulated? I am not suggesting that the organisation take political issues and interpretations into account when making their decision. But can we really judge photographs in isolation as discrete objects any more?


Holly Edwards, “Cover to Cover: The Life Cycle of an Image in Contemporary Visual Culture,” in Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain edited by Mark Rienhardt, Holly Edwards and Erina Duganne (University of Chicago Press, 2007), pp. 75-92.

UPDATE 23/02/11: The Sunday Times in Johannesburg has an interview with Jodi Bieber in which she offers some very brief reflections on the use of her of photo. In it she says:

When the story broke in Time magazine, it was berserk. The headline was misleading and it flew all over the world, all over, in front of Obama, everyone. But it was a good thing, regardless of the headline…

There were some women who said I objectified Aisha by showing her in that way, but I want to go and tell them: ‘F**k you, you’re sitting in an armchair at a university and she hasn’t got a nose. Must I show her crying and without ears, too?’

I learnt a lot, because there wasn’t just one response. It depended on whether you’re right- or left-wing American, or a feminist. In South Africa, it was more about the photograph, because we have no association with the politics between America and Afghanistan. In the end, you just put your picture out there and you can’t determine the response or push it in any direction.

While the observation that ‘you can’t determine the response’ is correct and reinforces her quote used in the post, given the significance and prominence of the image it would have been good to have heard more about its use. Whether she said more that didn’t make the final write-up is something we can’t know.

19 replies on “Thinking Images v.10: Jodi Bieber’s Afghan girl portrait in context”

While I have no doubt Afghanistan is not exactly as portrayed in the media, the reality of abuse and violence highlighted by Jodi Bieber’s photograph cannot be denied, just as it cannot be denied in places other than Afghanistan. So there’s no question of defamation of an entire group or country here. Even if I am not the head of TIME magazine.

I am an Afghan who study business. I really shame that you are want to defame Afghanistan and
Afghan men. Even Afghan girls are domestic but they have all that ability that a girl has. for you th e head of this magazine why you want to misdirect world concept to us. as some strangers defame as by name of Alqayeda. by seeing this photo what will be concept of world to us. please publish my this comment that is say”Afghanistan is not exactly as advertise on media.

Thanks so much for this post! When I first saw the Time cover in question I was so outraged – it felt like an extreme example of something like ‘pornography of poverty’ or war fetishism – and definitely the use of someone’s intimate trauma to make a political point. I wish Susan Sontag was required reading for these people.

I usually love the press photography awards and make a point to attend the showings, but I was really disappointed to see this picture win – and I do think the context is important. I think it was last year that brilliant photograph of women standing on their roofs in Tehran shouting protest was the winner, and I completely agreed with that choice – as a photograph it made you think about the context, made me want to learn more, spoke to other things going on, but wasn’t gratuitous. I don’t think it’s impossible to photograph extreme violence or poverty responsibly (I think James Nachtwey is a rare example of someone who consistently does), but it’s certainly difficult and the way this photograph (and the subject of it) was used is my go-to example of how NOT to do it.

It especially drives me crazy given the ‘rescuing Afghan women’ narrative that’s been used to sell the war – and the fact that Afghani feminist groups are, in fact, deeply divided on the issue of withdrawal vs continued occupation – there are certainly several very prominent women’s rights advocates who argue strongly for a withdrawal. Using this kind of deeply emotive image of a brutalized woman with that Time caption is extremely disingenuous – and the point about how the whole context would shift with the alternate caption above is spot on.

Anyway, thanks heaps! It’s nice to know I’m not alone in being riled up by this.

Thanks for the comment Sue. It is definitely a multi-party effort, and I hope photographers will do more to thinking about and explain context, even when they don’t have control and aren’t the only ones involved. Meaning cannot be controlled but it can be directed to an extent by making the context overt and open to debate. ‘Misinterpretations’ will always occur and they too need to be part of the debate.

Maybe a thought to frequently revisit and reconsider is how our images may be misconstrued and how can we anticipate these challenges? I agree, debate is important, and when using our images as a means to raise awareness (or otherwise), I think we should constantly be thinking about how a global audience may misinterpret an image w/o a proper explanation or context, especially in a world where global and cultural sensitivities can easily be agitated through media and a sequence of keystrokes. I agree with the comments about finding out more information regarding the ‘power relations’ in these situations and wonder if this is something that can be defined given the various individuals involved though. Similar to what Tom stated, I think it’s a multi-party effort where photographers, magazines, print media and organizations need to collaborate toward responding and utilizing these materials in a way that is socially and culturally responsible.

Thank you for sharing this dialogue.

Harpreet; if you click on the second link in the post above (Aisha’s name) you will be taken to a story that details some of the medical aid she received from the US military and then later at a burns facility in the US.

I’ve been reading this debate with interest.

“There is one key point re World Press Photo here – the awards often raise issues and provoke debates.”
It does, and I will.

With all the publicity/celebratory affair/money and debate surrounding this Time cover/award, has it prompted any human action yet?

Prompted any philanthropist, or top class plastic surgeon to go out there and help Aisha with reconstructive surgery?

That would be the ultimate award, in any context.

I agree that the World Press has great potential to address issues and hope that this is something that will become more explicit – it certainly seems like it is becoming more important. It is also true they could reach a wide audience. I always pay attention to the awards. It was seeing their touring exhibition many years ago that opened my eyes to the wider world of photojournalism than what I saw on the front page of the paper.

I may be a bit harsh in my criticism of Bieber. It is noted that she provides information and links related to the real issue she was photographing – that of the situation of women in Afghanistan – but at the same time I think there could perhaps be a little more fire from her in regards the Time cover. Certainly having the tear sheet on her homepage rather than just the photo itself raised my eyebrows high on my head. The Time cover’s text was so provocative and out of context with the actual article and of Bieber’s photographs. I don’t know, perhaps Bieber’s political views are in line with the Time statement. Perhaps she is indifferent. Perhaps she doesn’t want to upset her relationship with the magazine’s staff. All of these I could understand. That doesn’t make me any less concerned.

Tom; thanks for the comment. I think your call for much greater attention by photographers to the use of their images is very important. The question is, how much control can a photographer presenting work to a magazine like Time have? In the 2005 interview I cite Bieber says you lose control completely, which is why I say at various stages it is and is not ‘her’ image. It would be good to hear more about the power relations in these situations.

The only part of your comment I would quibble with is the last line. I wouldn’t want to assume something because of the ‘absence of rejection’. Yes, Bieber displaying the cover on her site looks like endorsement of a particular context. But her various interviews are very equivocal on how she thinks about the context. Ideally someone in her position should have thought more about this and expressed it more clearly, but I would want to give her the chance to say what she thinks directly.

There is one key point re World Press Photo here – the awards often raise issues and provoke debates, which are essential. But WPP itself does little if anything to provide space for those debates. The award days in Amsterdam are a celebratory affair and the organisation lacks a forum for the discussions ongoing in the photography world. Any interviews they do a largely uncritical. WPP really needs to do better in this regard. If it is at the forefront of photojournalism it needs to engage and promote the debates around photojournalism. If it did, we would be able to hear directly from Jodi Bieber on the question of context.

I agree that context is everything, and the Time cover is a great example of this. What troubles me – as is noted over at the Duckrabbit blog – is that Jodi Bieber displays the Time cover on her website, not the image alone. It does appear to be an endorsement of the way this photograph was used by Time. While people may view this context based upon their own prejudices, many people have called this photograph in this context propaganda, which is something that should be addressed. So far, I have not seen any attempt to recontextualize this image beyond the vague notion that Aisha Bibi is beautiful despite the mutilations. Nothing about the political context in which TIme framed this beautiful woman.

There are photographers out there who take great care in making sure their work is presented in the correct context and I believe that this is something that is sadly lacking in too many others. Visual style and sensational content are often considered more important than facts and information. I teach mostly technical classes in photography on journalism courses but in amongst file organisation, metadata management, photoshop techniques and exposure control I try to bring in the debate on ethics and context, stressing the journalism part of photojournalism as often as I can. I think as a community, we need to work harder in treating visual journalism as documents and be more rigorous in our scrutiny of these documents. This includes acknowledging their use as propaganda and marketing tools and where possible, correcting what may be an erroneous, incomplete or false declaration of what those photographs represent. In the absence of a rejection, we can only assume an endorsement of the context in which the work is presented.

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