Issue 2.1 Homepage

Article Contents
·Giuliani Said Not To
·The Temporality of the Snapshot
·The Time of Mourning
·Flat Death
·Touching Traces
·The Aesthetics of Trauma and the Politics of Grief
·April 2003
·Works Cited

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Marianne Hirsch, "I Took Pictures: September 2001 and Beyond" (page 4 of 8)

Flat Death

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. Everything everyone experienced and felt - the gravity, the enormity, the loss, the smell of smoke, the energy of the cleanup activity - none of this can be shown. 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.

Roland Barthes's sense of photography as a form of "flat death" - flat in the sense of "plat," platitudinous - may well be appropriate to think about here. It is this ordinariness, this platitude that I find frustrating in the pictures. I look at them and I seek out the monumentality I feel. I wonder how, through these photographs, others who are not here might be able to share in the dimensions of these deaths, their grandeur.

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 need to place a camera between us and the sight - to use it as a form of protection and distancing: "When I couldn't photograph, I really had to look," says the photographer Lorie Novak of her thwarted effort to take pictures of the search/memorial walls at the Family Center. The pictures she took from a distance inscribe a long barrier separating her from the sight - a barrier is a figure for the inherently distancing camera.

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. Around the edges of the image we catch a glimpse of something huge and incomprehensible except as it is broken into small and painful stories and snapshots. The framing and the flatness of photographs give a sense of the fragmentariness of our knowledge, the inability we feel to take in the magnitude of the event and the losses it engendered.

It is for this reason that the snapshot has provided a metaphor with which to describe the profiles published daily in the New York 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," it says in an editorial about the profiles on October 14, 2001 (12).[3]

And yet, with all that photographs cannot convey, there is one thing that the small print and the square frame, the two-dimensionality of the photographic image cannot disguise - and that is my presence at the scene. Through photography I can become a witness in my own right, a witness not so much of the event as of its aftermath, a witness to the other acts of witness all around me. In circulating my images, I can invite others to become my co-witnesses. The proliferation of books, photographic displays and exhibitions allows everyone to share in this act of witnessing and working through. The most interesting to me is "Here is New York," a photography exhibit, that opened in an empty Soho gallery on September 28, 2001 and which has now opened in another New York location and in several other cities. These are, as the brochure says "Images from the Frontline of History." Subtitled "A Democracy of Photographs," the exhibition includes all photographs, amateur or professional, that are donated in response to the organizers' broad-based invitation to create an activist memorial that would benefit a 9/11 charity.

S&F Online - Issue 2.1, Public Sentiments - Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini, Guest Editors - ©2003.