Last week we got two reminders about going too far: the one you heard about and one you probably didn’t. But they prove the same point: If you’re going to go too far to call attention to something, you had better have a good reason and you had better deliver.
By now more than enough people have weighed in on the Time magazine cover that shows a Los Angeles woman breastfeeding her nearly 4-year-old son. The reaction was predictably mixed, but let’s focus instead on motivations. The stated reason for the photo was to illustrate a story on attachment parenting, which advocates extended breast-feeding, sleeping in the same bed with children, and carrying them in slings. Another reason for the photo could have been the slow decline of American news magazines. But is either an adequate reason to go too far?
Courage and ‘Emblematic Images’
The other reminder about going too far came with the death on Thursday of Horst Faas, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his photographs of wars in Vietnam and Bangladesh. Let’s let his New York Times obituary take it from there:
As celebrated as his own work was, the photographs that came to be most closely associated with Mr. Faas were two that he selected, as an editor, for transmission around the world. Because of their graphic nature and the unwritten rules of conventional journalism, neither might have ever been more than a dot on a contact sheet in a drawer. Instead, they became emblematic images of the tragedy of the American involvement in Vietnam.
The first, taken by the celebrated photographer Eddie Adams during a surprise insurgent attack on Saigon in 1968, showed a South Vietnamese official, his pistol at arm’s length, executing a captured Vietcong soldier at point-blank range. The second, taken in 1972 by the South Vietnamese photographer Huynh Cong Ut, known professionally as Nick, showed the aftermath of one of the thousands of bombings in the countryside by American planes: a group of terror-stricken children fleeing the scene, a girl in the middle of the group screaming and naked, her clothes incinerated by burning napalm.
“The girl was obviously nude, and one of the rules was we don’t — at The A.P. — we don’t present nude pictures, especially of girls in puberty age,” Mr. Faas said in an oral history recorded in 1997 for The A.P.’s corporate archive. Nevertheless, he set his mind on “getting the thing published and out.” The photograph won a Pulitzer.
Missteps Damage Brands
Horst Faas knew exactly where the line was, but with both photographs was determined to cross it in the interest of describing in as much detail as possible the suffering that comes with war. Conversely, Time magazine chose to be deliberately provocative for a cover story about parenting styles. Is it any wonder the reaction was at least partially negative?
There’s a danger here too, one that anyone involved in advocacy should keep in mind: that is further damage to Time’s brand, diminished as it is from so much online competition. Sure readers might take notice; there might even be a bump in subscriptions. But what will be the effect long-term?
Most likely the public will see an effort to push the bounds of good taste in the interest of marketing. That’s not something that can sustain a brand. The focus has to be on the content, whether you’re putting out a magazine, editing photographs, or delivering any kind of information.
The fact that the two photographs from Vietnam have become iconic is proof that Horst Faas was right to go too far. He had a good reason, and he delivered compelling content. What about Time? Does anyone think that cover will go down in history? Will people even remember the story?