The meaning of 9/11’s most controversial photo

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hoepker 9/11

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:

"German Tourists Study The Dialectic"


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.

"Nothing Will Distract Us From Our Hate"


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7 Responses to The meaning of 9/11’s most controversial photo

  1. robotslave says:

    This alludes to something that’s been bothering me a bit here at PO. The problem I have is that there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of deconstruction in some posts here.

    Deconstruction is not decoding. To deconstruct an ad, a movie, an article, etc. is to identify the context, assumptions, external structures, etc. that contribute to the perception of the thing. So far so good. But to decode is to find hidden meaning; to decode is to impose an alternate interpretation on the text. Decoding is reconstruction, not deconstruction.

    I’m not suggesting that reinterpreting your media stream is a bad idea, but it’s not the same thing as deconstruction. If you want to share your alternate perception, great, but please understand you’re not deconstructing anything. You’re instead rebuilding the world using your preferred framework.

    Some might use a different word for that, but pushing that hot button would completely derail the point I’m trying to make, so please just mouth it silently to yourself if you’re inclined to view things that way.

    • claudius says:

      If three blind men are next to an elephant, and one grabs the tail, one grabs the trunk, and one feels its stomach, they’re all feeling an elephant, aren’t they? Each position is what makes them feel things differently. But if they described it – they’d still be describing an elephant. The different parts, at least.

      Different vantage points provide different views, and thus different empirical information about the same thing. True, sometimes we fall victim to projection. After all, we are human. You must take any interpretation with a grain of salt. But if a personal “reconstruction” helps you understand something empirical about reality, does that mean it is personal?

      • robotslave says:

        Empiricism is not agglomerated Sensualism.

        And deconstruction is entirely “reality”-neutral; it does not care whether or not there is a thing called “reality”, let alone what its characteristics might be. If you are trying to extend, substantiate, or solidify your “reality” (as opposed to, say, pruning or contextualizing it) then yes, you will tend to get more from reading multiple reconstructions than you would from deconstruction.

  2. DataShade says:

    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.

    Why can’t I have it both ways? I mean, if there’s a kind of Islam, that implies there’s at least an other kind, and if there’s another kind, then, by definition, neither kind should be able to support all Muslims. It seems like, unless those statements are revised, for either to be true the other has to be true.

    • xiphoidmaneuver says:

      That quote is immediately followed by “If they do, this does; if they don’t, this doesn’t. ”

      I think not having it both ways refers to claiming that the ‘snapshot’ (either a photo of Americans or a terrorist act by Islamists) does generalize or does not generalize.

  3. Sfon says:

    We readily assume there is no information we do not have. We see the picture and think we understand it only because of that assumption.

    The amount of information lost in the cropped pictures is nothing compared to the information missing in the original picture. In other words they are more like the original than the original is like the reality, and all are roughly equally representative.

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