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How we chose our relaunch cover

New Internationalist

An unknown rebel fighter adorns the relaunch issue of New Internationalist. He has no identifiable name or title. There is no flag or emblem to signify allegiance. He’s young, but how old exactly? Oversized military gear complements dull metal rings and a wristband. He looks straight into your eyes.

‘You’re left wondering what his story is and what his facial expression is saying to you,’ says Kelsi Farrington, production editor at New Internationalist. ‘Is it guilt? Is it anger? Is he going to pull the pin?’

It’s Liberia, 2003 – the fifth year of an unfolding civil war. Conflict breaks out in the north and south against the government. At one point, rebels besiege the capital Monrovia. The war started barely two years after another eight-year-long civil war – yet another peace agreement that could not hold. Some 250,000 dead. One million displaced. Child soldiers on multiple sides. 

The front cover of NI515, September-October 2018. Featuring a photograph by Tim Hetherington/Magnum Photos, illustrating the issue's Big Story on peace.

History lurks at the edge of the photo, outside these claustrophobic, bubble-gum walls. Here he is: the young fighter and a hand grenade. Will he pick it up and launch it?

‘We chose the photo because of that tension,’ says Hazel Healy, the New Internationalist co-editor who edited the issue’s Big Story, which focuses on peace-building.

‘It seemed to communicate the threat of violence: it could go either way. And that’s what the magazine is about – war is not inevitable. There are plenty of options that will increase the likelihood of peace.’

That’s what we chose to focus on in our relaunch issue: it’s not true that there is no other option. The world needs to get better at ending wars, and we wanted to tell readers how peace is made, what makes it hold, and how we can make it a just peace, worth having. The photo was taken by British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, and emerged as a favourite candidate early on, although not everyone liked it.

Some of us were reluctant to use a rebel soldier to illustrate a magazine about peace. ‘I felt like the media is dominated by war already,’ says Hazel Healy.

We are fed up with warmongers, and this magazine was trying to move the focus on to the peacemakers. ‘But we all read the photo differently – some saw him as sympathetic, others were more ambivalent. And perhaps that complexity reflects how the lines between good and bad are never as straightforward as you might think, and hints to a more complicated story behind the root causes of wars or choices that lead people to take up violence.’

We all read the photo differently – some saw him as sympathetic, others were more ambivalent. And perhaps that complexity reflects how the lines between good and bad are never as straightforward as you might think

‘We felt that choosing a photo by Tim Hetherington made sense,’ says Kelsi Farrington. ‘He was also a human rights advocate and produced a series of incredible portraits of young rebel fighters in intimate moments, avoiding to characterize them as violent thugs.’ Hetherington once said, ‘I think it’s really important that we understand that we share this world, and we’re connected to it.’

Tim Hetherington died in 2011, hit by a mortar shell in the Libyan Civil War: this is also a small tribute to the journalists who are prepared to capture stories from dangerous places that will help us to understand our world. There might not be any conflict in Liberia any longer, but violence has reached terrifying levels in Yemen, Syria and Nigeria – the focus of this magazine. Could the violence have been prevented? That is the same choice our rebel soldier faces.

‘And that, in a way, is the perennial choice,’ says Hazel Healy. ‘To pursue self-destruction – or a more peaceful path.’

Our relaunch magazine –​ the September-October issue –​ focuses on how to make peace in a world at war. Pre-order your copy or subscribe to New Internationalist and receive our magazine six times a year.

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