Iconic Photos

Famous, Infamous and Iconic Photos

9/11 – Thomas Hoepker

with 23 comments

Photographs can speak a thousand words but without a narrative device framing them, they are mute. These days, we have a lot of photoeditors and pundits to tell us what they think of a particular photograph and what it actually means. The trouble is sometimes situations are complex, and it is not easy to understand the stories behind photos. The above photo is one such:

On the morning of September 11, Thomas Hoepker, a Magnum photojournalist, crossed from Manhattan into Queens and then Brooklyn to get closer to the scene of the disaster. He stopped his car in Williamsburg to shoot a group of young people sitting by the waterfront as the plume of smoke rose from across the river. The result was a pastoral scene of five youths chatting amicably as the towers burned. Hoepker expressed concern that they “didn’t seem to care,” and did not publish the shot at the time, feeling it was “ambiguous and confusing.”

The photo was published as the fifth anniversary of 9/11 approached. In The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote he sees the photograph as a prescient symbol of indifference and amnesia. “This is a country that likes to move on, and fast,” Rich wrote. “The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American.”

David Plotz, deputy editor of the online magazine Slate, reacted vehemently. “Those New Yorkers Weren’t Relaxing!,” read the headline. The subjects, he interpreted, “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.” Plotz argued that Rich took a “cheap shot,” and he called for a response from any of the subjects.

Shortly thereafter, Walter Sipser wrote to Slate. “It’s Me in That 9/11 Photo,” the magazine said in the headline posting Sipser’s e-mail message, which explained that “we were in a profound state of shock and disbelief, like everyone else we encountered that day,” and denounced Hoepker for not trying to ascertain the state of mind of the photograph’s subjects and for misinterpreting the moment. Hoepker responded on Slate that “the image has touched many people exactly because it remains fuzzy and ambiguous in all its sun-drenched sharpness,” especially five years after the event. He wondered, was the picture “just the devious lie of a snapshot, which ignored the seconds before and after I had clicked the shutter?”

Yet, the photo remains the focus of a debate on a metaphorical level. In Underexposed, Colin Jacobson observed, “It took a photographer of courage and subtlety to stand back from the immediate crisis and show another side of the story. The calm scene challenges the conventional wisdom that ‘ nothing in America will ever be the same again’.”

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 17, 2010 at 5:28 am

Posted in Society

Tagged with , ,

23 Responses

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  1. The media’s criticism of the subjects was very unfair and the photographer was very unprofessional and cowardly to not talk to the subjects after wondering about their mental state and then presuming to know anyway and publishing it knowing people would jump to his uneducated conclusion. I can’t imagine anyone in NY at the time was ambivalent about 9/11. Not sure what I’d expect them to do besides be with loved ones and try not to lose it.


    June 24, 2010 at 10:17 am

  2. It’s great to not career got ourselves to think about and were all good!

    roger swab

    August 19, 2010 at 10:05 pm

  3. […] To which his aide adds, “The Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits.” Indeed. I personally do not subscribe to any of these papers (when I am in London, I just get the Metro for free) rather confining myself to their online versions. The Guardian has a good photography blog and section, and regularly produces nice supplements. This weekend, I heard they had a two-part series (The Guardian/Observer supplement) on History of Europe in Pictures. It is too late for me to get hold of paper copies (if you got it, lucky you) but an abridged version is online. I missed their previous great nine-part series on 100 years of great press photographs too. It was in November 2009 and I was in Moscow. (Again, an abridged version online). In addition to great photos, the supplement included interviews with one of the last surviving witnesses of the 1937 Hindeburg disaster, photojournalist Ron Haviv on his harrowing ordeal photographing the Balkan war, BBC reporter Kate Adie’s eyewitness account on the Tiananmen Square ‘tank man’, a scientific analysis of Jacques Henri Lartigue’s famous photo, and the story behind the most controversial picture of 9/11. […]

  4. […] On the first glance, the photo espoused the quintessentially Seidfeldian — and by extension, New Yorkian — values of nihilism. Accordingly, Frank Rich opened the debate by saying the photograph is a prescient symbol of indifference and amnesia: “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.” This assessment was met with objections from many people, including the photographer himself and the people in the photo. (More ….) […]

  5. […] La primera, de Thomas Hoepker para la agencia Magnum, fue tomada en Williamsburg y «secuestrada» por el fotógrafo, temeroso del debate que podía generar esa imagen bucólica con la tragedia de fondo. No fue hasta el quinto aniversario del 9/11 que Hoepker se decidió a publicarla. Y aún a lustro de distancia del episodio que dio comienzo al siglo, provocó encendido debate. […]

  6. I wasn’t aware of this photograph or the issues surrounding it until today. This is a totally manufactured controversy created by judgemental people who believe they have the god-like power to look at a photograph and determine what’s in the hearts and minds of the people in it. What is it that makes people interpret this as an apathetic response by these individuals? Is it the pleasant setting, the bicycle, the young lady leaning back with her hair blowing in the breeze? Yeah, I guess that proves what a self-absorbed bunch of jerks they are. What response would be deemed acceptable…lying prostrate on the ground, screaming in despair? This reminds me of the people who believed JonBenet Ramsey’s father was guilty of murder because his eyes shifted to the left too many times during an interview. Who needs facts, logic and reason when you can see what you want to see in order to reinforce your prejudices.


    September 11, 2011 at 9:00 pm

  7. Et in arcadia ego.


    September 11, 2011 at 10:51 pm

  8. There is no denying that it’s a striking shot. What it seems to capture is provoking and genuinely remarkable. But that doesn’t mean it’s a reflection of any kind of reality. It’s just an example of the power of photographs. These freeze frames which, at times, can be piercingly representative but also potentially so contrary to what’s actually going on. Intelligent people should know better than to interpret anything from this. We should be able to see it for what it is and not go into the absurd realms of imagining we know what was really going on. It’s art, nothing more. If people choose not to use their brains and make something else of it then that’s their choice.


    October 16, 2011 at 9:56 am

  9. What Adam said.


    October 18, 2011 at 3:07 am

  10. Foes anyone know what these people are doing or saying, a picture says a thousand words, but what are they.


    November 20, 2011 at 9:13 am

  11. If you’ve ever wondered who the “Occupy” crowd is, their sitting right there laughing as 3000 people die.

    Alecur Lazar

    February 22, 2012 at 4:22 am

    • lmao are you fucking braindead? Did you even read the description, or was the wall of words too scary for your caveman brain?

      you're a dipshit

      March 30, 2012 at 6:36 am

  12. They look powerless and caught up in the moment – observing from the safe distance of disconnected impotence to solve the horror!


    April 5, 2012 at 10:21 pm

  13. They are talking about the book “my pet goat”


    April 7, 2012 at 12:35 am

  14. […] have written about this photo a couple of times before. But to continue my yearlong devotion to contact sheets, here is the assemblage of frames […]

    • It is a remarkable photo you have taken Thomas. The frame itself can say so much. The group of people in the picture probably didn’t know what exactly was going on except for the smoke. So to those who commented badly about them, it would be the same as any one of you on a normal day. No one is “laughing” at all of those people dying.


      November 4, 2012 at 1:05 am

  15. There’s no ambiguity. It’s a lie. It just happened to be a pretty day, and the asshole photographer deliberately found a fetching angle, and greenery, and a moment when it looked like people were laughing about a ball game or something. Go ahead, ask me how I know. (Or don’t).


    January 12, 2013 at 4:01 pm

  16. […] have written about this photo a couple of times before. (…) On 9/11, Hoepker crossed from Manhattan into Queens and then Brooklyn to get […]

  17. […] 2. Young people on the Brooklyn waterfront on Sept. 11 (2011) At: https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/911-thomas-hoepker/ (Accessed on […]

    Exercise | cormac513273

    August 22, 2014 at 4:40 pm

  18. […] Hoepker Brooklyn, New York, 9/11 2001 […]

  19. […] There are a million of photographers all over the world. But the best photos are always taken when most unexpected. Here are some lucky photos that were taken just by ‘accident’ but managed to crawl up to become the bests…. 1. The Afghan Girl Who won’t know The Afghan Girl? But the irony here is the girl herself doesn’t know that she became that Afghan girl with those piercing green eyes. This photograph was taken by Steve McCurry and recently, after seventeen years he had gone in search for the ‘Afghan Girl’ and revealed her life. Apparently this lady is actually called Sharbat Gula, and she had approached McCurry, during her time in Pakistan refugee camp, for taking a photograph of her. And he himself doesn’t knew it at that time that, that photo will be the most famous icon of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the life of the refugees… The Afghan Girl… 2. The Napalm Girl Another sensational photo, taken at the neck of the moment. A true example of a photo which symbolises the impacts of a war. The photographer Nick Ut, was supposed to take the attack of Napalm, during the Vietnam War. But then he was suddenly struck with the idea of capturing the children who were running away, with the terror of the war at full swing, that the girl in the centre ripped her burning clothes off… The Napalm Girl… 3. The Hindenburg Disaster This is the masterpiece of coincidence becoming popular. This was the mark of the event that ultimately stopped the usage of passenger-carrying airships… But this photo was never even supposed to be taken. THe photographer Sam Shere was unwillingly sent to take the pictures of the famous stars getting down the Hindenburg. But all that happened was completely different. And when it burst, he didn’t have the time to raise it to the eye and ended up taking the picture from the hip…. The Hindenburg Disaster.. 4. Migrant Mother This iconic photograph was taken by the Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange. Yet, another picture out of luck. Lange had already packed up her camera, after taking a thousand shots of the Great Depression, already. In fact she wasn’t even supposed to meet the poor agricultural worker— Florence Thompson. But she did, out of intuition and it was just a couple of vague subtle shots at the point of time. But later, she discovered that nothing more best can capture the harrowing realities of the Great Depression, other than the photo of the Migrant Mother, who was supposed to sustain a family of seven children in that condition…on the whole, her picture was not just a mere capture of the situation but the human tragedy… Migrant Mother… 5. 9/11 On the morning of September 11, Thomas Hoepker, a Magnum photojournalist, crossed from Manhattan into Queens and then Brooklyn to get closer to the scene of the disaster of the Twin Towers. It is then he stopped his car in Williamsburg to shoot a group of young people sitting by the waterfront as the plume of smoke rose from across the river. The result was a pastoral scene of five youths chatting amicably as the towers burned. Hoepker expressed concern that they “didn’t seem to care,” and commented; “This is a country that likes to moves on, and fast” What more can be termed as placid?? 9/11 […]

  20. I can only assume that this photo received a lot of negative feed back. Not because the capture is bad but what is happening is questionable. When an ordinary person looks at this photo, he or she might talk badly about the people just sitting there and acting nonchalant about what is happening behind them. But there are some who are curious behind what is being “perceived” in the picture.

    Nadilys Degante

    September 11, 2015 at 3:31 pm

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