Past tired: The need for more confusion about 9/11

I was somewhat amused to find upon my return from America that while I’d been away, this post of mine from 4 years ago about “September 11th” enjoyed some linkage on various blogs — linkage I might add that it never got at the time of writing.

I was amused in part because about a week before I left for America, I had one of those “Oh, great.” thoughts when I realized that we would be in America during the 5th anniversary of 9/11. I don’t remember what exactly I envisioned would be happening on that day across the land, but somehow I did imagine myself having to endure at the very least the metaphorical flag-waving of broadcasters and bleating nonsense about “a different nation” that can “never be the same” after that “historical” day from pundits of all persuasions.

Well, guess what? I missed it. September 11th came and went and it wasn’t until a few days later that I realized that. The wonders that can be achieved just by not watching television and being in a household that still pays by the minute for a v 56k internet connection. I’m sure there were vigils and the like at Ground Zero and elsewhere, and moments of silence in baseball ballparks, but driving around the back roads of western Kentucky as we did that day there was nothing to catch the eye and remind one of the anniversary.

Thomas Hoepker's "Brookly, New York, September 11, 2001"

I also apparently missed a little Internet brouhaha about a photo taken on that September 11th by Thomas Hoepker of Magnum, and only recently published in a new book by David Friend called Watching the World Change. At the time (2001) Hoepker didn’t feel comfortable with what the image reflected, or might reflect:

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.

I haven’t read all of what was recently written about the photo (if inclined, you can start with the Frank Rich editorial which started it all, and read Hoepker’s thoughts from which the above quote is taken), but this recent controversy about the photo would seem to show that 5 years later, there are still plenty of folks who can’t handle ambiguity or confusion about September 11th. There is still a sizable majority who now, as then, can only handle what has been spoon-fed to them. And I dare say that Hoepker’s misguided reluctance at the time to possibly “distort reality” (in and of itself a loaded concept vis-a-vis photography) was itself a pandering to this passive consumer that makes up much of the American public.

I couldn’t help but laugh when reading emails from two of the people (a couple at the time) in Hopeker’s photo, published in Slate, who were compelled to write in and let us know that (surprise surprise) they weren’t some disaffected Generation X-ers but “were in a profound state of shock and disbelief [on that day], like everyone else.” Particularly worthy of a howl is the email from subject Chris Schiavo, a professional photographer herself, particularly this histrionic bit about her priorities:

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.

One shudders to think what sort of “professional photographer” this person is, always wearing her intentions on her sleeve, but the bit that sticks in the craw the most is her last declaration of the supposed moral high road she occupies: her “policy” of asking for permission from people she photographs, and of course the implied damning of Hoepker for not having asked the same of her. Her boyfriend Walter Sipser is more explicit in his email: “Thomas Hoepker did not ask permission to photograph us nor did he make any attempt to ascertain our state of mind[…]” (emphasis mine).

Somehow it always seems to come back to this nonsense of permission. And intent. One doubts Schiavo or Sipser, nor most Americans, ever quibbled about these arbitrary concepts as they watched the weeping survivors or exhausted firemen or any number of people involved in the events of September 11th and caught on video and in photographs for their consumption. As long as those images “felt right,” as long as they conformed to what they wanted to see, what they wanted to feel, who cared if the image makers were putting their lenses between themselves and the moment, intentions undeclared. But when that camera turned around to imag(in)e these two 15-minuters who have now come out of the woodwork demanding ex post facto declarations of intent, to serve them up as fodder for pundits, it’s predictably another story.

Part of the problem of course is that unlike the shots of the heroic firemen or grieving survivors or the grace under pressure Giuliani, one can’t jump quickly to any conclusions about Hoepker’s photo. The photo, suggestive of a posed and setup composition, the gathering of the five people and the backdrop of the burning World Trade Center framed almost too perfectly by the “twin towers” of those cypress trees in the foreground, is rather impenetrable at first glance. To be sure, one might make some assumption that the people are oblivious to or at least nonchalant about the disaster in the background, but just as easily one could assume the people were stunned, or trying to project a false bravado. One can assume any number of things about these people, and any number of things about what caught the photographer’s eye about the scene. Letting us make our own assumptions, rather than merely “ascertaining” the truth for us, would seem to me photography’s raison d’être. If the photographer must declare his or her intentions up front, why bother with taking the picture? The photograph is rendered superfluous.

This is why I hold Hoepker himself culpable in all this. At a time (that September 11th) when what folks needed were more questions and less ready-made answers, when people could have used more ambiguity and less declarations, Hoepker succumbed to the prevailing obsequiousness of the time and put his ambiguous photo “in the “B” box of rejected images,” fearing “it would stir the wrong emotions” (as quoted in the Rich piece). As Friend writes, it “didn’t meet any of our standard expectations of what a September 11 photograph should look like.”

Five years later, Hoepker still can’t let the photo speak for itself, telling Friend with apparent certainty that “[The subjects] were totally relaxed like any normal afternoon. It’s possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it.” Now, after two of those subjects have come forth to proclaim their righteousness, Hoepker acknowledges more equivocally that

Now, 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?

If only Hoepker had spoken up five years ago, in 2001, with his photo, rather than with his pen from the safer distance of 2006, perhaps things would’ve been diffrerent. But then again, probably not. Like that “falling man” photo which made a brief appearance only to be summarily banished, one can I think conclude a similar fate would have happened to Hoepker’s photo.

One Reply to “Past tired: The need for more confusion about 9/11”

  1. Good piece, old chap.

    Obviously the photo is a number of sizes too big for our friend Hoepker to handle, even 5 years later. Or perhaps he is just too small for it. Images like these don’t come round too often and he completely failed dealing it. His name sounds non-American (German in fact), which gives this another interesting twist, but then do we really need to care about him?

    Perhaps goes to show that photography can take on tremendous power and be more important than the person who authored it. Probably a good thing.

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