If you were not living under a rock in the 90s, you probably have heard of O.J. Simpson and his murder trial. In short, the former football star (and actor manqué) was charged with the murder of his ex-wife and her friend. On June 17th 1994, Simpson fled the police in what was the television event for a generation, but was finally taken into custody. A week later, the LAPD released Simpson’s mugshot which ran on both Time and Newsweek’s covers on June 27th.
The trouble was Time’s version was a darker edited version courtesy of its photoillustrator Matt Mahurin (an unaltered photo appeared inside). Many observed that by darkening Simpson’s face, Time had emphasized his skin color (and therefore his race), gave him a more “menacing” appearance and feral look. In an echo of things to come, Time defended its decision firstly online – on a computer bulletin board then used by less than a million subscribers called America Online – and later on the next week’s issue, but also quietly substituted the cover with another (something it had never done before or since).
I have recently been gifted an excellent coffee-table-book called, Time: The Illustrated History of The World’s Most Influential Magazine; inside, alongside the publishers’ recollections of the entire saga, Matt Mahurin remembers:
This was a fascinating, maddening, challenging and ultimately expanding experience. As an image-maker, I work in a dark palette. Whether it was my Time cover on domestic violence, nuclear terrorism—or a former football hero who is suspected of murder—much like a stage director would lower the lights on a somber scene, I used my long-established style to give the image a dramatic tone. Also, the raw image I was given was washed out—therefore from a pure design consideration, by making the image more graphic, I hoped to give it more visual impact to catch the reader’s eye as they passed the newsstand.
For me, the controversy was as much about power as it is about racism. Time magazine had the circulation power to reach millions of readers—and I had the power to make the image that they would see. In hindsight. the misfortune was that there was not a person in a position of power or perception able to be sensitive as to how this image could be perceived by the various interests each pushing their own agendas on race, power and the media. I also believe it was possible there was no one who could have anticipated the fallout. In the end, my career has been in pursuit of the power of the image and it is through this power of the image that we become educated and in the end, this is what we should hold on to; that we have been educated as to how images can he perceived.
As both a professional and personal experience, it is not one I would wish on anyone, nor would I have ever traded it away, because despite all the conflict that came from this controversy, it is yet one more testament that one image is worth a thousand words.