Faces of Time (2009 – 2014)

Being featured on the cover of Time magazine used to be a big deal, so much so that movies use that as a visual cue to signify the noteworthiness of the protagonist. Is it still a big deal? 


Iconic Photos is turning five soon – so maybe time to finally submit a thesis and graduate?

We looked back at the last five years (April 2009 – March 2014) during which time Iconic Photos had been alive. During this time, Time America, Time International, and its regional prints have published 125 different covers featuring 139 faces. Assuming 500 different covers during that period (260 weeks, one U.S edition cover and one International cover), 25% of Time covers feature famous people. In Time’s early days a century ago, nearly all its covers featured noteworthy faces. Iconic Photos’ analysis is not academically rigorous; we have adjusted for 2012 Presidential Election and presidential bully pulpit by counting Governor Romney only once, and not counting President Obama at all. Special issues – such as Olympics specials, Time 100 – are not counted (exception is made for Malala).  [Data is at the end of the post]


Since we counted all international editions, international politicians outnumber US politician nearly two-to-one. (However, international politics rarely intrude upon US editions as superbly illustrated here). Artists are strongly represented, although Jonathan Frazen makes a lonely writer. The Holy See punched above its temporal weight, with five covers between the present pope and his predecessor. Three Supreme Court Justices were featured; four soccer players were featured, all on international editions. Lone basketballer, Jeremy Lin, curiously appeared on the Asian edition. Four chefs appeared (three on one issue); as did four British royals.


On the other fronts, our analysis is depressing. Faces are overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male. Among 139 faces are mere 27 female faces or 20%, and ten of those appearances were by four women (Chancellor Merkel, Aung San Suu Kyi, Secretary Clinton, and Governor Palin).

Nationality-wise, Americans dominate. Excluding the current pope, South Americans are underrepresented – and would be more so if not for footballers. Africans appeared only four times — notorious Joseph ‘the Hashtag’ Kony, legless armsman Oscar Pistorius, late-lamented Nelson Mandela, and protest poet Youssou N’Dour – five, if we bend over backwards and count Mario Batolleli, Italian footballer of Ghanan heritage. There were only three African-Americans on the cover excluding all of President Obama’s appearances: First Lady Michelle Obama, popstar Michael Jackson, and the Rev. Martin Luther King. [Time is not racist. For the magazine, historically, almost anyone from south of the Alps was termed ‘swart’ – I am not even kidding, look it up, I dare you – and by that measure, its cover selection looks pretty diverse].


A surprisingly strong entry was Ms. Suu Kyi’s homeland of Burma. The Nobel Laureate herself appeared three times, while General Than Shwe, the country’s brutal dictator from two decades, appeared once. His successor, the current President of Burma, appeared once. The country’s controversial anti-Muslim monk, Wirathu, appeared once on a cover titled ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’ which was promptly banned in Burma and Sri Lanka.

That Burmese leaders appeared six times highlights Time’s strange editorial decisions. By contrast, Chinese leaders appeared four times – twice when Bo Xilai was embroiled in the scandal that marked his downfall; the German Chancellor and the British Prime Minister appeared three times, while Indian, French, Italian, and North Korean leaders appeared twice each. Putin was on the frontpage three times, a dubious honor he shares with Col. Qaddafi of Libya. Notably missing is lethal President Assad of Syria.


More crudely put, if you are Burmese, you have 1 in 15 million chance of being featured on the cover. If you are American, your chances improve to 1 in 5 million. Global average is 1 in 50 million. In Russia, it is 1 in 100 million; in China, it is 1 in 450 million; in India, it is 1 in 600 million. Even such odds will be enviable to Brazilians, Indonesians, Nigerians, and the Japanese who, despite making up 12% of the world’s population, haven’t appeared on a Time cover in last five years.


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2 thoughts on “Faces of Time (2009 – 2014)

  1. I wonder why the Time editors think that the portraits of politicians on the empty, I mean, without context and plain backgrounds, are the ultimate cover. They are very very boring in spite of the excellent photographers, lights and photoshop.

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