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  • 07.29.15

The Story Behind New York Magazine’s Powerful Cosby Cover

New York mag’s photography director, Jody Quon, on the cover’s creation and hearing the women’s stories firsthand.

The Story Behind New York Magazine’s Powerful Cosby Cover

By now you’ve likely seen the cover of this week’s New York Magazine. Thirty-five of the 46 women who have publicly accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault appear on the cover, dressed in all black and seated side by side, along with one empty chair representing those who remain silent. It’s a striking, memorable image that puts into perspective the sheer number of women who say Cosby abused them and have gone largely unheard over the course of four decades.

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The issue features an essay by Noreen Malone and portraits by Amanda Demme in addition to the testimonies—in text and video—of the 35 women. When it was released online Sunday night, the cover drew widespread attention and prompted others to share their support of the victims and their own stories of sexual assault using the hashtag #theEmptyChair on Twitter. “It became yet another platform for all these voices to come forward, which was incredible,” says Jody Quon, New York‘s photography director. “We could have never predicted it.”

It was Quon who had the idea six months ago to start approaching the women who had spoken out against Cosby and see if they’d be interested in participating in a photo essay for the magazine. Now, after dozens of phone calls, group photo shoots in New York, Las Vegas and LA, and at least 40 different cover iterations, the issue is out on stands and online. (After receiving record traffic on Monday morning, the site went down briefly, apparently because of a cyber attack.) The dialogue that it has sparked online and in the media extends far beyond the allegations against Cosby and addresses a larger culture of silence that surrounds rape.

We talked with Quon about how she came up with the idea for the piece, what it was like to hear the women’s stories first hand, and why she thinks the cover image took on a life of its own online.

Co.Design: The cover of this week’s magazine featuring 35 of Cosby’s accusers is such a powerful image, and it has struck a major chord online. How did you arrive at the idea for the cover?
Jody Quon: We didn’t know that it was going to be a cover initially—you never do when you’re photographing a cover. You know, a cover’s never a cover until it’s a cover.

We didn’t know how we were going to play the story out in the magazine. In other words, if you are getting the opportunity to photograph 30 women, I don’t have 30 pages in the magazine. So one of the things the photographer and I discussed was how we would photograph everyone individually but also make some group portraits, so that when we got to the layout we could potentially be going from single portraits to group portraits in order to compress this onto fewer pages while still keeping a photographic integrity.

That led us to photograph the single portraits in color and have them wearing white. [The photographer, Amanda Demme] has this very unique painterly palette that’s very specific to her, and she thought that it would be beautiful if they all brought their own white outfit. We wanted everyone in the same color scheme only because we didn’t want the clothes to detract from their faces, and to keep a constant, to keep this all very graphic and very intentional.

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So then we thought, let’s also have them bring a black outfit, and this outfit would be great for the group portrait. The more old-school [Richard] Avedon sort of portraits. Another way to group the women—and this was Amanda’s idea, she thought it would be very strong—would be to do these very stark, confident, graphic, chair pictures. Which you can just line up. It was brilliant on her part.

So we had three different kinds of pictures, and every time we did a shoot we would photograph them three ways and then when it came time for the cover, we had many discussions internally about what the project should be, what it could be. And it was pretty clear to us early on in the cover discussion that this project is about numbers, it’s about volume. It’s about the women obviously, but it’s about how many women and the extraordinary thing about it is when you see all these women next to each other. And that’s what we wanted the cover to surface…was everybody there and how could we get everyone on the cover in a very graphic, cover-like way. You have to be reductive, you have to get the message across. So believe me, as simple as this looks, I think our director and designer worked on probably 40 iterations.

What was the creative process that led you to the layout? Had you always planned to put the women in chronological order?
We realized that it was important to have every woman on the cover and then we put them in order of their alleged assaults. So there’s really nothing arbitrary about the placement of the women. It starts on the upper left corner with Sunni Wells, who was the first [out of the women who decided to participate], and then ended with Kacey, who was allegedly assaulted in 1996.

Then we have the empty chair, which symbolizes all of the other women out there who could not participate in this project for legal reasons or who didn’t feel comfortable participating. As well as for any other women out there who may not have come forward.

Describe what must have been a logistics nightmare in putting together this shoot.
At first, it was really just myself and a dedicated photo editor [Sofia Deguzman], who did a miraculous job….I called initially half a dozen women in January to feel them out to see if this was a project that they would want to participate in, to see if we should even do the project. I was gauging people’s interest at first, it wasn’t necessarily a green light at the beginning… Of the six women I spoke with, they were all receptive, and I thought “Okay, this is very exciting.” And that’s when the editor of the magazine signed off on the project.

Sofia was just starting to work for us as a freelance photo editor. Her first day on the job, that was the first assignment I gave her…. We made a master list, a chart, with their name, their location, when they were assaulted, do they have legal representation, do they not. If they’re part of a small unit of women that they know, we needed to connect the dots. It was just this big reporting thing, no writer was attached to this yet.

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We did shoots in New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas….there was a lot of advanced planning. That’s what we do as photo editors, we connect the dots, we make things happen.

Once we had figured out the puzzle of the schedule, we engaged our photographer and started the creative conversations about what these pictures should be. We wanted them to be artful and elegant, but also journalistic. We wanted them to feel very real and pure. We wanted to have some art from them, but not too much art to detract from the journalistic aspect of the story. You have these very real women who are going through this very real situation in real time. We had many internal discussions between myself and the editor and chief of the magazine and the editorial director about what would be the right direction artistically.

The cover prompted the creation of the #Emptychair hashtag and an incredible response online from people who are sharing own stories of sexual abuse. Did you expect for the image to spark this kind of dialogue?
When the cover went up online on Sunday night, people were tweeting the cover around and someone launched the hashtag and it became yet another platform for all these voices to come forward, which was incredible. We had no idea. We never could have predicted it, it just happened. It was one of those incredible, happy accidents in life. That was not something that was orchestrated by us at all.

In Noreen Malone’s essay that introduces the piece, she writes, “Each story is awful in its own right. But the horror is multiplied by the sheer volume of seeing them together.” What was it like to meet these women and hear them tell their stories?
I only met the dozen or so women who came to New York for the shoot because we didn’t have the budget to fly to LA every time we were shooting.

It was incredibly moving. The day starts out, everybody arrives and everyone is very polite, but it’s quite quiet and quite somber. And then women are getting ready for their pictures. Slowly but surely the conversation starts again and they started sharing their stories with each other and with me. They started comparing their stories. There was crying, there was laughter, there was every emotion and it was really quite stunning.

A lot of the women were meeting other women for the first time who had gone through what they had gone through. You can just imagine that feeling. For a lot of women, they had just come forward as recently as last January or last December, so this was all so fresh for them. There was only so much guarding of your emotions that you can do on a day like that. So that was really incredible to witness.

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Did you expect this sort of reaction from the cover?
We expected that it would be a cover that people would pay attention to, certainly. But I don’t think that you can anticipate the kind of reaction this cover has gotten. This is so unusual for us. We have heard so much positive feedback from the women themselves, other people in the media. People are just reaching out. Even if you go into our comment section on the website or on Facebook, the positive response is just overwhelming, it’s beautiful.

There are always those who will have the opposite reaction and that’s just par for the course, that’s just what happens when you put any story out there. For the most part, the majority has been overwhelmingly positive. It really feels good to put something out there and have that kind of warmth come back at you. It’s really been very special for this magazine, and that really speaks to the power of journalism and the unique privilege that we have as journalists, and what you can do.

Read the full New York magazine story, and see portraits here.

Correction: Richard Avedon’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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