War & Peace: Time Interrupted

By Marianne Hirsch '70, '75 Ph.D. / March / April 2002
July 1st, 2007
Put your cameras away! show some respect!" yelled the policeman. "This is a graveyard, not a place to come and gawk." I did not have my camera with me on that day, September 29, but I had taken pictures the previous week, when people were first allowed to walk to the area around ground zero. On my first visit, I walked down Broadway in a crowded line of people who were tearful, stunned, angry, even defiant. But each person had a camera pointed toward what used to be the World Trade Center towers, to take pictures of distant smoke and rubble, to peek around trucks, guardrails, and workers blocking the view.

The week before, on September 14, I had gone to St. Vincent's Hospital to be closer to where it happened. I had not known whether it was appropriate to go to the hospital area where some of the injured had been taken and where families were still looking for the missing; certainly I had not felt comfortable bringing a camera along. But as soon as I got there, I bought a disposable camera and took pictures of the signs, of people holding them, of streets blocked, of the silent crowds at the vigil on Union Square. I took pictures of pictures, of people looking at pictures, of people taking pictures.

All the while I wondered about what I was doing. What was I after? What did this desire to snap the shutter - as uncomfortable as it was uncontrollable - mean? Why record things ourselves that have already been recorded - much better and more accurately - by the photojournalists, who since the first minutes of the September 11 attacks had been working around the city and much closer to ground zero than anyone else could get?


Well-known photographers and ordinary snapshot-takers like me have all been photographing. Within four minutes of the first impact, the New York Times had dispatched four photographers on assignment. One hundred people eventually submitted images for the front page of the September 12 edition. The event marked us visually at the time, as people watched live and in unremitting replay planes hitting towers, towers falling, people jumping, running, screaming. Even as we watched, we wanted to record everything - however grainy, small, amateurish - on home videos and digital or analog cameras. I have even gotten together with friends to compare the snapshots we took, snapshots that require narratives and explanations because, ultimately, not much is visible on them, or because what we experienced as utterly extraordinary appears just too ordinary on our snapshots. Still, we have borrowed each other's negatives, given each other copies of our prints.

"It's caused a sea change," reported Philip Gefter, page-one picture editor of the Times, at a panel discussion held at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. The Times's editors decided that people want to see as much as they want to read, and so the paper runs more photographs, they are bigger and generally in color, and they are more creatively laid out. In Gefter's view, "Words are cerebral, but pictures are visceral."

Mourning and Memory

Certainly, photography has emerged as the most evocative medium in our attempts to deal with the aftermath of September 11. But what does it mean to take pictures at sites of trauma? Is it disrespectful, voyeuristic, a form of gawking? Or is it our own contemporary form of witnessing, even mourning? How, in the context of such devastating destruction, can we explain the dominant role that photography has assumed in our culture?

I started thinking about these issues in response to the ban on photographs at ground zero - a very short-lived ban, as it turned out, but one that seemed to say something important about the relationship of photography to trauma. How, on the one hand, has photography affected mourning and memory, and what, on the other, can the photographic acts of September 2001 tell us about the testimonial functions of photography? Is there an ethics and is there an aesthetic that have arisen from the events of September 11?

Stop Time

Though some observers have noted the similarities between September 11 and disaster movies, the attacks lacked the structure and resolution characterizing that genre. I would suggest that still photography, not film, is the visual genre that best captures the trauma and loss associated with September 2001 - the sense of monumental, irrevocable change that we, as a culture, feel we have experienced. This is related to the photograph's temporality. Photography interrupts time. It is inherently elegiac.

Many commentators have ex- pressed the feeling that time stopped around 9 a.m. on September 11 and that an immeasurable gulf separates the before from the after. What makes us feel that way is precisely that the events that unfolded could not, in fact, be stopped, that the towers, once hit, crumbled in front of everyone's eyes, even as rescue efforts were in full force. Photographic images can somehow convey a sense of this unforgiving temporality and the basic human impulse to stop it. The instantan}, the snapshot, has become the genre of the moment.

To photograph is to look in a different way - to look without understanding. Understanding is deferred until we see the developed image. Deferral connects photography to trauma, which is characterized by a delayed understanding, and so perhaps photography can help us understand the traumatic effects of September 11. One photographer injured during the collapse was surprised to see the images he had taken after the first plane hit printed in the New York Daily News with his byline. He could not remember taking the pictures. And an Associated Press photographer reported on The Charlie Rose Show that a lab technician developing his pictures called to ask if he knew what was visible in one of his shots of the exploding tower - a person holding onto a piece of the falling building. He had not seen that as he was shooting. Here is an example of what Walter Benjamin called the camera's "optical unconscious" - the technologies of sight reveal more than we can see through the eye, but the realization of that revelation is deferred.

The Missing

Almost immediately after the attacks, the ubiquitous images of destruction were superseded by the innumerable homemade posters of the missing, posters pasted up on walls, cars, lampposts, bulletin boards, or worn on bodies and walked around the city. As images from other moments were placed into the context of this disaster, they came to clarify what John Berger calls the shock of discontinuity that photography makes visible, the gulf separating the moment the picture was taken from the moment we are looking at it. The images came to clarify the connection between photography and death.

For weeks, the faces on the posters were the only smiling faces in the city. The smiles were traces of another time - a vacation on the beach or a boat, a barbecue on the patio, a wedding, a moment of familial intimacy. These are images of people looking toward a future they were never to have. Violently yanked out of one context and inserted into a totally incongruous one, they exemplify what Roland Barthes describes as the retrospective irony of looking at photographs - the viewer possesses the deadly knowledge that the subject of the image will not know.

As I look at the pictures I took both near ground zero and around the city, I am frustrated at how little is visible on them, except perhaps the fact that I was there as a witness, looking and trying to see. The gravity, the loss, the smell of smoke, the energy of the cleanup activity - none of this can be shown. Even now, as the new "viewing platform" makes the site more available, and photography is invited rather than forbidden, less is actually visible, more has been cleared away. Normality, incomprehensibly, is returning. I am conscious of what that policeman was trying to convey - that this is a graveyard, that every particle of dust contains human remains. None of this is even remotely visible in the pictures.

But perhaps the flatness of the images is precisely what we need. The photographs might enable us to look at an indescribable event, to make it manageable, frame it, bring it home, show it to friends, make it small enough to fit into our living rooms or even our pockets. Flattening and miniaturizing death is a coping strategy - we look at the remains of the towers, at the missing people, through the viewfinder rather than straight on. We contain and circumscribe the enormity of the event, but even as we stare at the small, square print, we know that it is only a fragment - and that, in itself, brings us back to all that cannot be contained by the frame.

It is for this reason that the snapshot has provided a metaphor with which to describe the profiles published daily in the Times about the victims of September 11. "Each profile is only a snapshot, a single still frame lifted from the unrecountable complexity of a lived life, and there is a world more to know about each of these victims, as their survivors understand only too well," according to an editorial about the profiles.

Ghost Images

As I took photos around ground zero, I began to realize that it is the absence of the towers that I had been trying to show, and that absence is not easily visualized. But although the towers have physically disappeared, they are actually still present all over the city: Framed black-and-white photographs, postcards, T-shirts, and key chains featuring the towers are available on every street corner. In drawings, poems, and reconstructions, people are evoking presence where there is only absence.

Images printed on paper by way of light are ghosts that haunt; as Barthes insists, the photograph attests to the "having-been-there" of the object before the lens. This is as true for the pictures on the posters of the missing as it is for the pictures of the towers themselves. Art Spiegelman understood this when he created the black-on-black cover for the New Yorker. The towers remain in the form of a picture - a picture sold on the streets, a mental picture we carry. But for those who grew up believing in a bodily link between the photographic image and its object, the towers are materially, hauntingly there. Because of photographs' material connection to the object in front of the lens, because of the process of developing a positive from a negative, and because of their relation to loss and to death, photographs can convey this haunting.

Aesthetic questions and aspirations might well seem frivolous or inappropriate at a time of fear and mourning. On the other hand, aesthetic and ethical questions help us understand how our perceptions are affected and structured by this event. Images that are initially documentary often assume a commemorative or symbolic role. Angel Franco, a photographer for the New York Times, talking about his work on that day, said he quickly realized that September 11 was no longer journalism but history. "These are like the images I grew up watching in television documentaries," he said. For the communications scholar Barbie Zelizer, photos are "markers of both truth-value and symbolism," and thus the images of the attacks have come to signify nothing less than a modern apocalypse.

But which photographs? Is it really, as the "Here Is New York" exhibition in SoHo implies, a democratic process in which any image is as powerful as any other? Or do certain images have elements that make them immediately emblematic? "Our intention," write the organizers of the exhibition, "is to display the widest possible variety of pictures from the widest possible variety of sources, believing as we do that the World Trade Center disaster and its aftermath has ushered in a new period in our history, one which demands that we look at and think about images in a new and unconventional way." But is that really possible?

In looking at exhibitions like "Here Is New York" and at the images that appear in newspapers and magazines, I am struck by how coded they are despite the effort to represent an unrepresentable event. They fit into well-known genres and evoke familiar tropes and symbolic motifs. For me the still life is particularly moving. So is the trope of incongruity: Alex Webb's picture of the mother and child with the burning towers in the background; my own picture of a worker feeding pigeons; Edward Keating's picture of family pictures covered in dust.

Every major historical event since the beginning of photography has bequeathed an iconic image - in the 20th century, the picture of the little boy with his hands up in the Warsaw ghetto, or of prisoners in striped uniforms, for the Holocaust; the picture of the naked girl running down the road after a napalm attack for the Vietnam War; the picture of birds in an oil spill for the Persian Gulf War.

What will be the icons for September 11? What elements determine this process of reduction and iconization? And in what ways will the process be determined by aesthetic factors? It was fascinating to me that the four photographers interviewed by Charlie Rose agreed that the icon would be the picture of the three firemen raising the flag on top of the rubble, because it echoes the famous photograph of American GIs raising the flag at Iwo Jima. In their search for the one lasting image, the panelists were looking for the conventional, not the new.

In the aftermath of an event as monumental as this one, we may need, eventually, to reduce the number of available images to just a few lasting ones that will structure our cultural memory. But we are not yet at that point.

Sights Unseen

There are many images that have not yet come to public view, and what they contain we can only imagine. I was at the "Here Is New York" gallery when a rescue worker came to donate 200 images he had taken during three weeks of working at ground zero. "All the guys there have cameras with them," he reported. Initially hesitant to take pictures, he was persuaded by the others, who said, "You have to remember." The picture he felt most embarrassed about, he said, was one showing four rescue workers hugging and smiling for the camera, smoking cigars - for the smell, he said. He thought it would be controversial, but there they all were, together in that other world. What else could they do but smile for the camera in their togetherness?

Clearly, photography is embedded in convention, sometimes teaching us more about itself as a genre than about the scene it is representing: When a picture is taken, we know to smile. And yet, I wonder, when these and all the other pictures taken "down there" in that "other world" get developed and disseminated, what else will we get to see? And what symbolic role will those pictures play? How will they be used?

A professor of French, Italian, and comparative literature at Dartmouth, Marianne Hirsch '70, '75 Ph.D. is the author of Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. She is currently on leave in New York City. This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education and is reprinted with permission.
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March / April 2002