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.
Thomas Hoepker was a German photojournalist with Magnum living in Upper East Side, New York. On the morning of September 11, he was informed of the first attack by a colleague and quickly left his apartment to get to the scene of the attack. As roads were clogged, he first crossed from Manhattan into Queens and then Brooklyn to get closer to the scene of the disaster.
On the way, he stopped an Italian restaurant on the East River near the Williamsburg Bridge, from whose garden terrace he could see Manhatten. He took the photos with his Canon EOS analog camera and Fujichrome slide film. By this time, both towers had collapsed, and in the foreground of his photo was a pastoral scene of ﬁve youths chatting amicably as New York burned.
He then continued toward the Manhattan Bridge to get to the disaster site. As a result of the road closure, he could only walk onto the bridge. From there, he took more photos.
Hoepker later reflected that the scene reminded him of the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder: an idyllic landscape with something terrible happening in the background. Hoepker expressed concern that the youths “didn’t seem to care,” and did not publish the shot at the time, feeling it was “ambiguous and confusing.” Instead, for Magnum Photos’s 9/11 book for which he was appointed editor in charge, Hoepker used three photographs he had taken from the Manhattan Bridge.
The photograph was displayed publicly for the first time in 2005 in a Munich retrospective of Hoepker and published in the U.S. the following year. In The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote that the photograph was 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, at Slate, offered a rebuttal. “Those New Yorkers Weren’t Relaxing!,” read the headline. The subjects “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, one 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’.”