What does the Time breastfeeding cover tell us about photography?

time breastfeeding cover Jamie Lynne GrumetWhen I saw this cover mentioned on TOP I wondered what it told us about photography (the actual cover is not pixellated). This photo of a woman breastfeeding her three-year-old reminds me that photography can be an artistic medium (i.e. making a photo when the primary intent is to create something that is aesthetically pleasing), a tool used to achieve an end (e.g. when a photo of a cracked engine part is made), or both.

In this case photography is being used as a tool, i.e. it is intended to sell magazines by creating a lot of talk on the internet and catching eyes on magazine stands: any artistic component is secondary to that purpose. The function of this photo reminds me of Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” and of newspapers that put large photos of crash scenes above the fold. This Time cover is a variation on “if it bleeds it leads”.

Journalism is not neutral or objective, it is coloured by the world view of the writers and is often overtly pushing a certain set of beliefs. You could argue that Time is using photography as a tool in an attempt to change generally accepted standards of decency, and/or to foster acceptance of fully exposed breastfeeding in public places, and/or to promote attachment parenting, but it would be very difficult to prove such intentions.

I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with using a photo to sell magazines, I’m simply saying that this photo is a tool and that when looking at a photo it is helpful to discern whether it is intended to be aesthetically pleasing, to be a tool, or both. Why is this helpful? Well, one of the interesting aspects of making a photo is that it is possible to manipulate the minds of almost all the people who look at that photo. Sometimes that manipulation is as simple as causing viewers to lock onto a certain part of the scene (directed attention). Emotional manipulation is also part of the art, e.g. this shot and this one. Emotional manipulation can also be a tool, and is commonly used in advertising. At other times photographers are trying to push an agenda: a common example of the latter is publishing a photo of an accused person standing in court which makes that person look mad or bad, and in such situations it’s good to identify what’s happening and decide whether or not you want to go along with it.

What does this magazine cover tell you about photography?

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