COMMENTARY: Time Magazine Alters Historic Rosenthal Icon For "Green" Cover


By Donald R. Winslow

NEW YORK, NY – If it's attention TIME managing editor Richard Stengel wanted from this issue's cover, it worked; he's sure got it.

TIME magazine has used Joe Rosenthal's iconic Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph and altered it, replacing the flagpole and American flag with a tree, and they've also turned the magazine's red border to green, for a TIME issue on global warming.

Time cover alters Joe Rosenthal's historic, iconic Iwo Jima photographThe cover story by Bryan Walsh calls green "The new red, white, and blue."

Well, at least red ... which is what some people are seeing after viewing the cover, including some veterans and Marines who lived through one of America's bloodiest battles.

An Iwo Jima veteran who survived World War II has his own opinion about TIME's cover. "It's an absolute disgrace," Donald Mates told the Business & Media Institute yesterday.

"Whoever did it [the cover] is going to hell. That's a mortal sin. God forbid he runs into a Marine that was an Iwo Jima survivor."

Mates served in the 3rd Marine Division and landed on Iwo Jima to fight in the battle on February 24, 1945, Business & Media reports.

Personally, my father - a Marine Corps medic in World War II and the Korean War - would join me in not being amused. For many of us when it comes to Rosenthal's icon, that's sacred ground.

Maybe before the cover went to press someone should have suggested to Stengel that he drop by YouTube and listen to Kermit the Frog sing "It's not that easy being green."

It's been about a year now since a Time-Life Inc. magazine altered a famous news photograph (at least that we know of).

Last year after the Virginia Tech massacre People magazine, a Time-Life Inc. property, digitally altered a news photograph by Alan Kim of The Roanoke Times of a gunshot victim being carried by police down a grassy knoll. People's editors thought that part of a bloody tourniquet dangling down under the victim may cause some readers to think they were seeing part of the wounded student's genitals (despite news stories that explained viewers were not seeing genitals, but a bloody piece of torn cloth the student himself created to try to stop his own bleeding). But People's editors had the photograph altered anyway.

When questioned about it after publication, the magazine's photography director said that yes, he believed Time-Life did indeed have an ethics policy against digitally altering news photographs (although he'd never seen it, and wasn't sure where in the company to find a copy of it), and that they abided by that policy – except in instances where they felt it was necessary not to.

Like maybe in this current instance with Rosenthal's iconic image, when altering the historic document would create what someone thought would be a brilliant idea for a cover. TIME editor Stengel told MSNBC that the cover's purpose was to liken global warming to World War II, and that the U.S. needed to make a major effort on that scale to fight global warming.

"Joe Rosenthal's photo, the granddaddy of the picture icon, has suffered more than its share of parody over the years," said the author of a book where Rosenthal's historic picture and the flag raising was a central theme. "And believe me, there will be more."

The author, Hal Buell, wrote Uncommon Valor, Common Virtue about "the photograph that captured America" and the battle of Iwo Jima that surrounded it. He was also the former head of photography for the Associated Press for many years and the author of Moments: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photographs.

"Parody uses most photographs that have become icons," Buell told News Photographer magazine today. "Pictures by Eddie Adams of the Saigon execution, and by Nick Ut of the 'napalm girl,' and by Jeff Widener of a man facing down a tank in Beijing, have been worked over by artists, opinion providers, and many others who sought to make a point in a supposedly sly or clever way.

"The problem with parody is that it takes a point of view which may or may note be factual, true, or even meaningful. Rosenthal's picture in particular packs an emotional wallop because it captures the essence of how Americans saw their mission at mid-twentieth century, and showed Americans the way they wanted to be seen. Marines have a special affection for the picture for obvious reasons: their blood paid for the picture and it resonates in their soul."

Buell says that for the most part he agrees with the Marine's objection to TIME using the Rosenthal photograph to try to make their global warming point, "a point that remains debatable among scientists and so-called journalist experts who disagree over climate change."

Buell says that TIME's use of Rosenthal's altered photo trivializes the icon. "As a picture journalist I hate to see any photo tampered with, altered, or used to make a point different than the point of the photo. It dilutes the original message. There is an unavoidable slopover to all picture journalism. But parody will occur again and again. It goes with the territory. We have a ways to go before photography gets the same respect in the newsroom that words get."

"This is an insult," said NPPA's Ethics & Standards committee chair John Long, who is retired from three decades at The Hartford Courant and is now teaching photojournalism at Syracuse University.

"It's not so much unethical in the sense of digital manipulation since the original photograph is so obviously changed, but it's an insult. It's another example of the lack of respect photojournalism gets in the world of word journalism. If they respected the photograph in the same way they respect the written word, this would never happen."