Worth More Than A Thousand Words

An interesting discussion has been going on about a photograph taken on 9/11, and though it isn’t directly related to the topics I usually cover, I think it brings an excellent issue to the forefront: namely, the power of images and how easily they lend themselves to manipulation.

On September 10, Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote the following about a photograph taken on 9/11 in his column “Whatever Happened to the America of 9/12?”. (You can see the photograph by clicking on either one of the links to the Slate articles below, which is easier than finding it through the book website mentioned in Rich's column.)

But there’s another taboo 9/11 photo, about life rather than death, that is equally shocking in its way, so much so that Thomas Hoepker of Magnum Photos kept it under wraps for four years. Mr. Hoepker’s picture can now be found in David Friend’s compelling new 9/11 book, “Watching the World Change,” or on the book’s Web site, watchingtheworldchange.com. It shows five young friends on the waterfront in Brooklyn, taking what seems to be a lunch or bike-riding break, enjoying the radiant late-summer sun and chatting away as cascades of smoke engulf Lower Manhattan in the background.

Mr. Hoepker found his subjects troubling. “They were totally relaxed like any normal afternoon,” he told Mr. Friend. “It’s possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it.” The photographer withheld the picture from publication because “we didn’t need to see that, then.” He feared “it would stir the wrong emotions.” But “over time, with perspective,” he discovered, “it grew in importance.”

Seen from the perspective of 9/11’s fifth anniversary, Mr. Hoepker’s photo is prescient as well as important — a snapshot of history soon to come. What he caught was this: Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American. In the five years since the attacks, the ability of Americans to dust themselves off and keep going explains both what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong on our path to the divided and dispirited state the nation finds itself in today.

I read this column on Sunday and was interested enough to follow the link at the website (and keep going and going) until I could see it for myself. Once I did, both Hoepker’s and Rich’s reading of the photograph struck me as odd and a bit dissonant. To be fair though, I assumed Hoepker had other reasons for his commentary and left it at that.

A few days later though, I came across this column in Slate magazine by David Plotz, titled “Frank Rich is Wrong About That 9/11 Photograph”, and was happily surprised to find a third reading of the photograph that articulated what had perhaps made me uncomfortable about the negative interpretations put forth by Hoepker and Rich. Here is the relevant passage:

But wait! Look at the photograph. Do you agree with Rich's account of it? Do these look like five New Yorkers who are "enjoying the radiant late-summer sun and chatting away"? Who have "move[d] on"? Who—in Rich's malicious, backhanded swipe—"aren't necessarily callous"? They don't to me. I wasn't there, and Hoepker was, so it may well be that they were just swapping stories about the Yankees. But I doubt it. The subjects are obviously engaged with each other, and they're almost certainly discussing the horrific event unfolding behind them. They have looked away from the towers for a moment not because they're bored with 9/11, but because they're citizens participating in the most important act in a democracy—civic debate.

Ask yourself: What are these five people doing out on the waterfront, anyway? Do you really think, as Rich suggests, that they are out for "a lunch or bike-riding break"? Of course not. They came to this spot to watch their country's history unfold and to be with each other at a time of national emergency. Short of rushing to Ground Zero and digging for bodies, how much more patriotic and concerned could they have been?

So they turned their backs on Manhattan for a second. A nice metaphor for Rich to exploit, but a cheap shot. I was in Washington on 9/11. I spent much of the day glued to my TV set, but I also spent it racing home to be with my infant daughter, calling my parents and New York relatives, and talking, talking, talking with colleagues and friends. Those discussions were exactly the kind of communal engagement I see in this photo. There is nothing "shocking" in this picture. These New Yorkers have not turned away from Manhattan because they have turned away from 9/11. They have turned away from Manhattan because they have turned toward each other for solace and for debate.

Rich and Hoepker and I have all characterized what these five people were doing and how they were feeling, but none of us really know. Wouldn't you like to hear from the five themselves? I would. If they're out there and they'd like to respond to Rich or me, they can e-mail me at plotzd@slate.com.

To my great delight, one of the five people in the photograph did find out about the controversy over the photograph and wrote back to Plotz. Slate has published Walter Sipser’s own account about the captured image in their latest article “It’s Me In That 9/11 Photo”.

A snapshot can make mourners attending a funeral look like they're having a party.

Thomas Hoepker took a photograph of my girlfriend and me sitting and talking with strangers against the backdrop of the smoking ruin of the World Trade Center on September 11th. Earlier, she and I had watched the buildings collapse from my rooftop in Brooklyn and had made our way down to the waterfront. The Williamsburg Bridge was filled with hundreds of people, covered in dust, helping one another make their way onto the street. It was clear that people who ordinarily would not have spoken two words to each another were suddenly bound together, which I suppose must be a fairly common occurrence in the aftermath of a catastrophe.

We were in a profound state of shock and disbelief, like everyone else we encountered that day. Thomas Hoepker did not ask permission to photograph us nor did he make any attempt to ascertain our state of mind before concluding five years later that, "It's possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it." Had Hoepker walked fifty feet over to introduce himself he would have discovered a bunch of New Yorkers in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened. He instead chose to publish the photograph that allowed him to draw the conclusions he wished to draw, conclusions that also led Frank Rich to write, "The young people in Mr. Hoepker's photo aren't necessarily callous. They're just American." A more honest conclusion might start by acknowledging just how easily a photograph can be manipulated, especially in the advancement of one's own biases or in the service of one's own career.

Still, it was nice being described as a young person. I was forty at the time the photograph was taken.

It should give us pause that a single image from 9/11 can be so easily transformed into four different meanings (so far) through the narratives of four viewers (one of whom is a participant). This highlights the problem of ascribing absolute meanings to images and of believing that a photograph (or for that matter video) is an objective recorder of life. Given the unrelenting use of images in our culture and the many agendas that they serve, it is to our advantage to process them critically, and to keep in mind that they are as subjective as words.


Blogger Mrs. Coulter said...

Nice commentary. When I was trapped in Manhattan on 9/11, I made my way to a friend's apartment uptown. After watching the news for hours in a state of shell-shocked horror, we decided to get some food at a local restaurant/bar, which was ABSOLUTELY packed with other people who were deeply and animatedly engaged in conversation. Yet we were not relaxing and enjoying ourselves--we were discussing, reliving, and trying to make some sense of the events that had unfolded that day. I am quite positive that everyone else who had crammed themselves into the restaurant was doing exactly the same thing. A momentary snapshot of the establishment, though, probably wouldn't have seemed any different than an ordinary Saturday night. Which it most certainly wasn't for me, or anyone else who was there.

10:07 PM  

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