The story behind TIME’s Brittney Griner cover

Although photographer and multimedia artist Lorna Simpson has never met WNBA player Brittney Griner, she has no trouble imagining a vulnerability like the one Griner, another black American woman, has experienced since being detained. in Russia since February.

“In February, as threats of Russian invasion of Ukraine escalated, watching the airport surveillance video of Brittney Griner going through security made my heart melt,” said Simpson, whose art recontextualizes narratives around race, gender, and identity through collages of found photos. — said TIME. “One of my biggest fears as a teenager growing up in Queens, NY has always been imprisonment.”

Griner, a two-time Olympian, eight-time WNBA star and player for the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA and UMMC Yekaterinburg in Russia during the offseason, was arrested for drug trafficking on February 17, just a week before the Russia invades Ukraine – after airport customs officers found vaping cartridges containing traces of cannabis oil in his suitcase. In the months that followed, concerns were raised about Griner, a prominent American athlete and openly queer black woman, imprisoned in the midst of a war, in a country known for its anti-gay legislation.

For the cover of this issue of the magazine, to accompany Sean Gregory’s profile on Griner and the effort to bring her home, Simpson created an image that reimagined a standard media portrait, by photographer Stephen Gosling, of Griner in his WNBA uniform. The collage centers Griner’s unwavering gaze, but with his uniform replaced by a celestial overlay of meteor showers – taken from a 19th-century engraving – stretching into the background.

Read the cover story: Brittney Griner’s fight for freedom

The cosmos has long been central to Simpson’s art, a visual tool for exploring the vastness of identity. “If the stars fill that space, then what body is actually there that isn’t filled with that kind of expansion?” she explained in a 2021 interview with Harper’s Bazaar. Using starscapes and astronomical maps, she transforms vintage images of black women from Jet and Ebony in celestial bodies that challenge preconceived ideas about identity. She used this same practice to create her cover of Griner.

“For me, the strong impression of this image of Griner is not only what could be interpreted as the solemnity of his expression but also the symmetry of the star tattoos on his shoulders,” Simpson told TIME. The inversion of the illustration is a way to “highlight how his life has been turned upside down, the urgency of his release and safe return to the United States, and the preciousness of the passage of time” .

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Write to Cady Lang at


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