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august 2009

The stories that pictures do not tell


by Hans Durrer
Next Photo copyright © Thomas Hoepker

On 11 September (or September 11, as North American logic goes) 2001, Thomas Hoepker of Magnum Photos took a photo of casually dressed people at the Brooklyn waterfront that he kept unpublished for four years out of fear, he said, "it would stir the wrong emotions." On 10 September 2006, Frank Rich of the New York Times, commented on the photo:

"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."

  Needless to say this is a plausible way of looking at this photo, especially in light of what Thomas Hoepker, the photographer, had to say about it: "They were totally relaxed like any normal afternoon. It's possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it."
  Mr. Rich goes on: "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."
Next "But wait!" writes David Plotz in Slate of 13 September 2006: "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?"
Next Okay then, what we have here is Frank Rich's view versus David Plotz' view. Both of them were not there when the picture was taken. They bring to it their own ideas which are of course conditioned by a lot of varying factors (education, political preferences, moods, etcetera) but have not necessarily to do with what the picture shows. But how can we know what it shows? What our eyes register is one thing, what our brains do with what the retina registers often quite another. So let's get practical, let's ask the ones who were present when the photo was taken. No, not the photographer — for he's only as reliable as a regular eye witness. In other words, not very much. Just think of the Russian proverb that says: He lies like an eyewitness.
Next Let's look at what Walter Sipser, a Brooklyn artist, who is the man on the far right of the photo, e-mailed to Slate:
  "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 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."
Next Then Chris Schiavo, who is the woman second from the right in the photo, who was Sipser's girlfriend at the time, wrote to Slate:
  "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."
Next The point I'm trying to make here is this:
  There is no such thing as a right or a wrong reading of a photograph, there is however a more or less informed, and a more or less biased one. A photograph cannot show what was going on at the moment it was taken, it can only depict what the camera was then able to capture and record — in this case, the obvious facts: the sunny day, the burning towers, the people on the waterfront etcetera. Everything else is simply not there, it is brought to, and read into, the picture.
  But isn't what the two, who are shown in this photograph, told us very likely closer to what then happened than what people, who were not there, tell and write? There is no doubt about that yet, contrary to widely held convictions, the photograph cannot tell the story of what happened. It is the words that accompany the photo that tell the story, or the stories (usually there are more than one) — and occasionally the wrong ones for what we are reading into pictures often can't be found there, it exists only in our imaginative minds.
  2009 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes