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’.”