The Time of Mourning
Almost immediately after the attacks, the images of destruction were not the dominant images seen around New York City and in the press; they were superseded by the innumerable home-made posters of the missing, posters pasted up on walls, cars, lampposts, bulletin boards, worn on bodies and walked around the city. As images from another moment 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. They 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 on 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. They were intended to be placed in school yearbooks, collected in family albums or circulated among friends, not to be displayed in public as they came to be. Violently yanked out of one context and inserted into another, 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 ignores.
The walls of posters themselves changed from day to day. Initially hopeful calls for information - containing detailed descriptions of the missing person, down to outfits, moles, tattoos and other markings, and inscribed with names of friends, relatives and phone numbers to contact - they soon became memorials to the dead. The hopes of finding anyone alive, changed to the hopes of finding a body, or a part of a body, to bury. Of course, this shift made the smiling faces and the familial scenes in which they were photographed all the more poignant and touching, the knowledge of the ways in which they died all the more devastating. And, more haunting still was the next phase - when the images faded and washed out, when they disappear to be collected and classified in the archives that were created for this purpose, or when they were covered in plastic to serve as a more lasting memorial to a moment that is as transient as it seems eternal. Later photographs of the memorials became the basis for exhibits about this act of memorialization.
The power of these images and posters lies in their confrontation of past and present, but here in a private and protected familial context, a context that is familiar and shared. Violated by the attacks, it stands as a measure for the loss and devastation with which any of us can identify. These familiar family pictures engage us in the "affiliative looking" that characterizes ordinary family photographs. We all have pictures like these in our own albums and thus we invest them with a form of looking that is broadly shared across our culture. And thus, precisely, they become markers of loss: the loss of our children's childhood, the loss of a time before, the imagined loss of a mother, or father or friend. They mark the ordinariness, the familiarity, the domesticity that for so many was interrupted by the attacks. And, at the same time, their haunting presence brings that past life back in spectral form.