concerns about newsweek’s oprah cover photo

The June 8, 2009, issue of the “new” Newsweek has a cover article called “Crazy Talk: Oprah, Wacky Cures, & You” by Weston Kosova and Pat Wingert. The print version of the US edition has this cover photo Oprah:

Oprah on Newsweek Cover June 8 2009

My scan of the image does not fully capture the problem, but compare this image with the image of Oprah, first, accompanying the online version of the article, and, second, on the cover of Newsweek from October 24, 2005:

Here I have put the print and online photos of Oprah’s face side-by-side:

oprah comparison photos

I am concerned about this image for several reasons, including perpetuating a stereotype of black (and all) women as hysterical. Mostly, however, I am concerned about the kind of editing that might have taken place on this image to darken Oprah’s skin and highlight shadows, just as we saw with images of OJ on Time and Newsweek (which I also discussed in relation to the images on Obama Waffles):

Without seeing the original image that Newsweek used we cannot be completely sure that malinipulative Photoshopping took place, but the evidence before us certainly points to it. What are your thoughts?

Update 9:45am, June 5, 2009
Inspired by the below comments, in particular Christa’s discussion of the origination of visual texts, I did what I probably should have done for my original post: I investigated who photographed the Newsweek cover image in question. The photographer is Siphiwe Sibeko, who took the photo for Reuters-Corbis. Sibeko is a South African photographer from Sowento. His online portfolio reveals a gifted photographer with images that provide stunning insight into the lives of people in many places in Africa.

A Google image search for “Siphiwe Sibeko + Oprah” brings about 70 results, including what appears to be the original photo from which the Newsweek cover was cropped:


Here we have the original, cropped to match the Newsweek cover placed next to the Newsweek cover:

original photo of oprah next to newsweek cover image

It does appear that some editing took place on the photo (though some shadow difference could, I guess, be due to printing on paper). What was the reason for these edits? Newsweek needs to address this.

Complicating the issue, and building on the comments that focus on the relationship between the image and the written text, it appears that the image of Oprah was taken not while she was espousing “wacky cures” on her TV show, but at a ribbon cutting ceremony for the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls on January 7, 2007. Note the ear-rings, dress, and hair in this photograph, also taken by Sibeko (which can be found at this story):

The photograph accompanying the article, “Winfrey Founds South African School for Girls,” also by Sibeko, also appears to be from the same event:

Readers assume a direct relationship between the image on the cover and the text in the essay. However, now it seems that the image has been taken out of context. This is especially troubling because of the hours upon hours of TV footage and thousands of photographs of Oprah from which the Newsweek cover photo could have been selected. If this were written text and the issue a written source, this would not be acceptible. We need to hold the same standards to uses of visual media, as well.

I’ll leave it up to Christa to analyze the situation more thoroughly since her work is in the area of visual texts.

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7 Responses to concerns about newsweek’s oprah cover photo

  1. Geetch says:

    Oprah annoys the bejeezus out of me, so maybe I’m biased, but I’m not too worried about the cover being an attack on women or African-Americans. What’s interesting about Oprah is that, on the surface, those are her defining characteristics, but, in fact, she’s gone beyond them (in the sense of perceived limitations). At this point, her empire is such that qualifying it with descriptors like “for a woman” or “for an African-American” seem petty and irrelevant; she’s successful enough to have made it by anyone’s standards. In that case, and I would have to read the article to be sure, I suspect any attack is, on not Oprah the Person but Oprah the Phenomenon (as it should be). But she’s been clever in keeping herself right smack in the center of the cultural shift to Oprahism, so any criticism of the movement still looks like an attack on her.

  2. Bill says:

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with you about Oprah and her incredible ability to control her image most of the time.

    I’m less concerned, however, with this being an attack on Oprah or on talk show hosts in general (in truth, I barely skimmed the article). What I am concerned with is the rhetorical choices made when choosing the image and, perhaps, editing it for appearance on the cover of the magazine. As you know, choosing and presenting an image is an argument—and here, we undoubtedly have a negative portrayal of Oprah. What argument are they making and why are they making it? When OJ’s image was altered by Time to make him darker and more evil calls of racism abounded, and with them discussions of how the image was used to play off fears of the black male as a way to sell magazines. We also heard similar cries when Michele Obama was depicted as militant in a variety of publications—an image that reinforces stereotypes of the militant black woman.

    If the editors—and I want to reiterate IF here because we do not know if they did—altered the image in a similar way that Time edited OJ’s image, why have they done so? What are they trying to portray for readers, and how does that image fit within stereotypes of African American woman? Are they trying conjure up images of African witch doctors with their “wacky cures” (as the headline boasts)? Compared to how we normally see Oprah (and how Newsweek has currently and in the past presented her) the image here looks like she is wearing a horror mask with Medusa hair. Alternately, consider this question: why not use the image that was online for the cover? And why not replicate the cover image online? These choices are meaningful and suggestive and require explanation.

  3. Geetch says:

    This again might be personal bias, but perhaps it didn’t mean anything? Or at least not on the subtextual level proposed. I think the argument they’re making is that Oprah the Phenomenon doles out a lot of dangerously stupid advice, and a picture of Oprah the Person looking disheveled and crazy is a good shortcut, especially because she constantly blurs the line between her public and private personae; it’s intended to serve the story, rather than reinforce racist or sexist stereotypes.

    Again, not having read the article, I can’t be sure, but I would chalk up the contrasting pictures to differences in the tone of the respective stories as well as editorial decisions to refrain from demonizing her too strongly (for a variety of reasons, including her popularity with the Newsweek demographic), once the point was made with an attention-grabbing cover. Your inferences are interesting, yet I’m loath to say the cover was implying anything as subversive as what you’re suggesting.

    I’m not sure a satisfactory explanation could be provided; they probably weren’t considering the subtext that might be found by someone specializing in media rhetoric. The conscious/unconscious workings behind the imagery is sort of the point, and certainly one could find layer upon layer of meaning in it, but is it relevant as more than an intellectual exercise? It’s not that racism and sexism are now just abstract concepts, but I don’t know if they can be applied here, in a practical sense. I’m in favor of an Occam’s Razor approach, where the decisions were made to comment on Oprah the Phenomenon via an image of Oprah the Person, rather than Oprah the Woman or Oprah the African-American with the burden of symbols that the latter two bring.

  4. christa says:

    Hi Bill-

    Interesting post–thought provoking, to say the least. I’m responding because I think things might be a bit more complex here. I’m not so sure an adequate rhetorical critique can be made after looking only at this one particular still. Just as we now understand that to better understand writing is to explore not only the text, or what is produced, but the very process and means of production, themselves. So I think you’re right to interrogate the process this composition underwent before landing on our doorsteps (or grocery aisles). I’m eager to see if Newsweek responds.

    My nonacademic P.O.V. is this: I’ve actually grown up with Oprah on in my home. I even DVR her shows. I rarely *watch* them, though. I find she never truly interviews people. She brings guests on and proceeds to talk over them and interrupt them. I have to say I completely stopped paying attention to her ever since she did a show where she declared she’d cured herself of a thyroid disease with which she was diagnosed. I was enraged after this episode because I suffer from hypothyroidism and, I’m sorry, there is no herb, diet, or exercise that will repair my thyroid. Those non-pharmaceutical approaches may improve my health in other ways, but my thyroid (and hers) needs pharmaceutical intervention in order for it to function at a level necessary for healthy living. She had a responsibility that day, and every day, to her audience–sick and well–and on that day she chose to present her viewers with false information.

    I say all this having neither read the Newsweek article nor seen this particular issue at all. And I probably won’t read it or buy the issue. Either way, though, I think, as I’ve just done, readers bring their own experiences (context) to bear upon the image (text) and make connections (intertext) accordingly. But I do think you’re right to wonder about the ethics and responsibility image-makers have to their audience. If nothing else this begins a conversation about:

    what is/where is “T”ruth in

  5. christa says:

    …oops forgot to post this link (which was my whole motivation for writing, actually). Not that magazine covers haven’t been pretty well explored in communications classrooms, etc., but just the other day I was standing in CVS staring at the magazine rack and was literally shocked by a cover similar to this one:

    Maybe what’s appalling about the Newsweek cover of Oprah is not that she’s (perhaps) darker or crazy-eyed, but that there is an implicit genre to magazine covers and this Newsweek cover is more in line with a muscle magazine than it is a (presumable) informative, news-worthy periodical.

    Sorry to babble on and on about this, but as you know, these discussions fascinate me.

  6. Dennis says:

    I have to agree that the ethics of some manipulations are dubious. As Michelle Obama breaks many of the black woman stereotypes, could it be that they just wanted to sensationalize Oprah? Are we just sensitive to it? Could they have darkened a white man’s photo just as much as Simpson’s?

    I don’t want to trivialize the act, however. Photo enhancements are a slippery slope to get into. At what point does a photo become an illustration? At what point should responsibility dictate some method of informing the viewer? All rhetorical questions to which I have no solid opinions yet.

    And Magazines, hungry for ad dollars and readership when print is on a downslide might be getting a tad more tabloid. Not that I have any formal research to back it up.

  7. Why should Newsweek attack Oprah Winfrey?

    Here’s Why:

    Oprah’s TV show advocates Natural Medicine and Bioidentical Hormones in direct competition to the interests of the Pharmaceutical Industry which makes synthetic hormones. Newsweek is merely an attack dog for the drug industry. A typical issue of Newsweek magazine contains $2 million in pharma ads.

    Oprah is depicted as a voodoo witch on the Newsweek cover in a desparate attempt to please the drug company sponsors of a failing magazine.

    To read more:

    Newsweek Attacks Oprah Winfrey and BioIdentical Hormones

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