The 9/11 photo debate archive


– Thought people might be interested in the background on the photo we talked about today. Mateusz

Thursday, September 13, 2001. Photographer Thomas Hoepker is looking at the archive of 9/11 photographs in the offices of Magnum Photos. Some of the pictures will soon be published in an album called “New York September 11 by Magnum Photographers.”

David Friend interviewed Hoepker for his 2006 book “Watching the World Change. The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11” (see also project’s website here). “Out on the light table that first Thursday,” writes Friend of the picture we talked about in class today, “was one of the Hoepker’s 9/11 pictures that he hesitated over, then cast aside.

“It didn’t live up to the drama of other shots,” he recalls. “It was too subtle for the news moment. At the time you jumped to the obvious [photographs].” The image showed a disorientingly tranquil and schizophrenic scene: a handful of young people in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as if on a lunch break or taking a breather from a bike ride. They seem to talk idly, turning their backs on the terror of a smoke covered Manhattan.


It’s a kind of a troubling picture [Hoepker says.] The sun was shining. They were totally relaxed like any normal afternoon. They were just chatting away. It’s possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it.”

It took Hoepker four years before he felt inclined to publish the shot widely. In effect, he had self-censored it. The picture seemed to capture and invite complacency. It lacked any sense of outrage, a response Hoepker believed the background ought to have elicited from any civilized person seated in the foreground. It didn’t meet any of our standard expectations of what a September 11 photography should look like. “The idyllic quality turned me off,” he says. “It was too pretty. Maybe we didn’t need to see that, then. Maybe I wasn’t sure it would stir the wrong emotions [in the viewer] (Friend, 2006: 142-3).

Hoepker trying to make sense of the picture he took, goes to Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (Pieter Breughel the Elder, 1558). (Find a William Carlos Williams’s poem referring to the painting here )


“Over time,” says Hoepker quoted in Friend, “with pespective, [the picture] grew in importance.

It’s a very contemporary picture: the bright colors are up front [but] it has that touch of neutrality, a coolness, a bit of distance to suffering and a not trusting of emotions.” Despite its postmodern cast, it reminded Hoepker of Pieter Bruegel’s sixteenth-century painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, in which the subject seems willfully immune to the epic calamity in their midst. Bruegel’s work, says Hoepker, shows “a beautiful Flemish landscape and way in the sky this birdlike figure, Icarus, having flown too close to the Sun, [has] caught fire and is crashing down. [Similarily,] this is bucolic and in the background something awful is happening. I can only speculate [but they] didn’t seem to care. It took a while for the news to sink in. It took a while to know how to react (Friend, 2006: 143).

Sunday, September 10, 2006. In his New York Times column Frank Rich picks up the story from Friend’s book, and calls Hoepker’s picture a “taboo 9/11 Photo”. His piece was titled “Whatever Happened to the America of 9/12?” (read it here), and illustrated with a cartoon by Barry Blitt, a drawing of a New York shopfront with signs reading “Cafe 911” and “WTC Toys”.

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.

What’s gone right: the terrorists failed to break America’s back. The “new” normal lasted about 10 minutes, except at airport check-ins. The economy, for all its dips and inequities and runaway debt, was not destroyed. The culture, for better and worse, survived intact. It took only four days for television networks to restore commercials to grim news programming. Some two weeks after that Rudy Giuliani ritualistically welcomed laughter back to American living rooms by giving his on-camera imprimatur to “Saturday Night Live.” Before 9/11, Americans feasted on reality programs, nonstop coverage of child abductions and sex scandals. Five years later, they still do. The day that changed everything didn’t make Americans change the channel, unless it was from “Fear Factor” to “American Idol” or from Pamela Anderson to Paris Hilton.

Monday, September 11, 2006. quotes Rich’s column and publishes the photo (Times did not).

Tuesday, September 12, 2006. “Those New Yorkers weren’r relaxing!,” writes David Plotz on Slate in a piece titled “Frank Rich is Wrong About That 9/11 Photograph” (read here).

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? None of us really knows what the five people in the picture were thinking or doing, writes Plotz. He gives his e-mail address writing that we wants to hear from people in the picture.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006. “A snapshot can make mourners attending a funeral look like they’re having a party,” writes Walter Sipser, a Brooklyn artist, in an e-mail to Slate. He identifies himself as the man in the far right of the picture. (Slate confirms his identity).

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 other 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.

Later the same day Sipsers then girlfriend, Chris Schiavo, follows up, identifying herself as the “contortionist sunbather” lounging next to Sipser:

I am one of the “disaffected sunbathing youth” in the photo. I think Walter Sipser and your readers have already voiced most of what should be considered when looking at this photo in conjunction with the New York Times article.

I am also a professional photographer and did not touch a camera that day. Why? For many reasons including a now-obvious one: This somewhat cynical expression of an assumed reality printed in the New York Times proves a good reason. (Shame on Mr. Rich and Mr. Hoepker—one should never assume.) But most of all to keep both hands free, just in case there was actually something I could do to alter this day or affect a life, to experience every nanosecond in every molecule of my body, rather than place a lens between myself and the moment. (Sounds pretty “callous,” huh?) I also have a strict policy of never taking a photograph of a person without their permission or knowledge of my intent.

I am a third-generation native New Yorker, who knows and loves every square inch of this city, as did her ancestors before her. My mother and father are both architects and artists who have contributed much to the landscape of this city and my knowledge of the buildings that are my hometown and my childhood friends. (Ironically, my mother even worked for Minoru Yamasaki, the World Trade Center architect.) The point being, it was genetically impossible for me to be unaffected by this event.

(You can find both letters here)

Thursday, September 14, 2006. A rejoinder by Hoepke on Slate (full text here)

Somewhere in Williamsburg I saw, out of the corner of my eye, an almost idyllic scene near a restaurant—flowers, cypress trees, a group of young people sitting in the bright sunshine of this splendid late summer day while the dark, thick plume of smoke was rising in the background. I got out of the car, shot three frames of the seemingly peaceful setting and drove on hastily, hoping/fearing to get closer to the unimaginable horrors at the tip of Manhattan.

The next day I went to the office of my agency, Magnum Photos. There, on the light tables and computer screens, were hundreds of touching, shocking, and moving images that my colleagues had taken at or near Ground Zero. We quickly decided to publish a book, and I took boxes of pictures home to start working on a selection and a first layout. I choose three of my own shots that I had taken from the Manhattan Bridge but set the images from that idyllic scene in Williamsburg aside, feeling that they did not reflect at all what had transpired on that day. The picture, I felt, was ambiguous and confusing: Publishing it might distort the reality as we had felt it on that historic day. I had seen and read about the outpouring of compassion of New Yorkers toward the stricken families, the acts of heroism by firefighters, police, and anonymous helpers. This shot didn’t “feel right” at this moment and I put it in the “B” box of rejected images. Now, in 2006, David Friend, in his book Watching the World Change, wrote that I had self-censored the picture.

Distanced from the actual event, the picture seemed strange and surreal. It asked questions but provided no answers. How could disaster descend on such a beautiful day? How could this group of cool-looking young people sit there so relaxed and seemingly untouched by the mother of all catastrophes which unfolded in the background? Was this the callousness of a generation, which had seen too much CNN and too many horror movies? Or was it just the devious lie of a snapshot, which ignored the seconds before and after I had clicked the shutter? Maybe this group had just gone through agony and catharsis or a long-concerned discussion? Was everyone supposed to run around with a worried look on that day or the weeks after 9/11? How would I have looked on that day to a distanced observer? Probably like a coldhearted reporter, geared to shoot the pictures of his life. I just remember that I was in shock, confused, scared, disoriented, and emotional, but trying hard to stay focused on getting my snaps.

The picture ended up on a wall of my retrospective exhibition in my hometown Munich, together with 200 of my images, and it made the cover of my book, which accompanied the show. When I did guided tours through the exhibition, people stopped and kept asking endless questions about it, questions for which I didn’t have pat answers. Then the press came; they, too, asked many questions. The image has been published in 15 newspapers in Germany but only once in the United States, as a half-page in David Friend’s book on the images of 9/11. But it has now come to the surface through three paragraphs in the New York Times, written by Frank Rich last Sunday. These thoughtful words—without the picture—were enough to incite a debate, which has swept over to Slate, that has just started and seems to grow by the hour on the Internet in many blogs.

I think the image has touched many people exactly because it remains fuzzy and ambiguous in all its sun-drenched sharpness. On that day five years ago, sheer horror came to New York, bright and colorful like a Hitchcock movie. And the only cloud in that blue sky was the sinister first smoke signal of a new era.


4 Responses to “The 9/11 photo debate archive”

  1. Sydney Says:

    This was really interesting. In addition to distributed personhood, the image seems to have distributed wants, which you nicely aggregated here. The multiplicity of “wants” ascribed to the picture and interpretations of them underscore what Renfrew called the “relativist delusion” (p. 24) of putting oneself in the shoes of the photographer, subjects, etc., on that day, in that place.

  2. Fuzzy Threads Says:

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