Thomas Hoepker took this photo on 9/11, in Brooklyn. What does it mean?
Hoepker decided not to publish the photo:
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.
The photo can stand as an obvious example of American apathy, disconnectedness– a feeling of still living in the Matrix. Or, it can mean Americans are resilient and hard to scare. Or…. whatever you want.
The problem is that this isn’t a photo, it is a work of art, and can only be understood as art.
A photo, like a painting, is staged. This angle, this perspective, cropped here but not here, the center here and not there.
This was 2001; in 2011, everything about a photo is suspect: color, placement, size, focus– content.
But most simply, the photo is whatever the photographer explicitly wants it to be, and everything else is the viewers. Consider:
and then suddenly we have a photo that suggests the rest of the world is celebrating payback. You can disagree with “my” photo, but you’re stuck starting with my interpretation.
The criticism that this photo isn’t staged but a snapshot of reality– those are Americans– supports my point. If this is real, if this isn’t “the photographer trying to say something through his art,” then these are only five individuals. Even if they were masturbating to the sight of the smoke it would say nothing about America, only about those five masturbators. It is only when you suggest that these five represent “America” that the picture becomes interpretable as a message, and then we’re talking about the message, not about it being a snapshot of reality.
This is why you can (and should) deconstruct ads, movies, and even/especially photos that appear in the news– because all of those are deliberate constructions that have unconscious motivations.
But taking someone’s snapshot and saying it has a larger meaning fails because you are saying it has larger meaning, which then immediately makes it not a snapshot but a message. So now the argument is not about the photo, but about the interpretation of the photo.
It’s fashionable for some to say that the hijackers don’t represent all Muslims; and for others to say that the hijackers do represent a kind of Islamism. But you can’t have it both ways. If they do, this does; if they don’t, this doesn’t. Either way, this photo really says nothing about America, but the controversy says a lot about what people think about Americans.
And what it says, basically, is that Americans think other Americans are idiots.