The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 2.1 - Public Sentiments - Summer 2003

I Took Pictures: September 2001 and Beyond
by Marianne Hirsch

Giuliani Said Not To

Giuliani said not to. The policeman yelled at people: "Put your cameras away, show some respect. This is a graveyard, not a place to come and gawk." "Put your cameras away," shouted the policewoman. "Keep the line moving." "This is a crime scene, no pictures," yelled a third. I did not have my camera with me on that day (September 29), but I had already 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 and hard to see smoke and rubble, peeking around trucks, guardrails, and workers who were blocking the view.

The week before (on the 14th) I had gone from the Upper West Side where I have been living this year, to St Vincent's Hospital in order to be closer to where it happened. I also went to a candle-light vigil at Union Square that had been announced informally on various flyers and Internet sites. 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. 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?

Commentators have agreed that the September 11 attacks are "the most photographed disaster in history" (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett). Well-known photographers and photojournalists and ordinary snapshot takers like me have all been photographing. Within the first 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 September 12. The event marked us visually at the time, as people watched live, and then in unremitting replay, planes hitting towers, towers falling, people jumping, running, screaming. Even as we watched, we wanted to record everything ourselves - however grainy, small, amateurish - on home videos, digital or analog cameras. I have even gotten together with friends to compare the snapshots we each took, snapshots that require narratives and explanations because, ultimately, not much is visible on them, or, better said, what we experience as utterly extraordinary appears just too ordinary on our snapshots. Websites have been created to collect the images of amateurs and professionals, galleries have invited people to submit their images for public viewing, images are being sold for benefit purposes, exhibitions have opened around the country, magazines and newspapers continue to publish and republish professional and amateur photographs. "It's caused a sea change," reported the front-page photo editor of the New York Times, Philip Gefter, at a panel at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. The paper's editors decided that people want to see as much as they want to read, and thus in the New York Times there are more photographs, they are bigger and generally in color, and they are more creatively laid out on the pages of the newspaper. In Gefter's words "words are cerebral, but pictures are visceral."

Certainly, still photography has emerged as the most responsive medium in our attempts to deal with aftermath of September 11. But what does it mean to take pictures at the sites of trauma? Is it disrespectful, voyeuristic, a form of gawking? Or is it our own contemporary form of witnessing, or even mourning? I started thinking about these issues specifically in response to the ban on photographs - a very short-lived ban, as it turned out, since later a viewing platform seemed actually to invite photography - but one that seemed to say something important about the relationship of photography to trauma. How, on the one hand, has photography affected the public and private process of mourning and memory and what, on the other, can the photographic acts of Fall 2001 tell us about the testimonial functions of photography? How has photography inflected the ethics and the politics of grief?

The Temporality of the Snapshot

If still photography is the visual genre that best captures the trauma and loss associated with September 2001 - the sense of monumental, irrevocable change that we feel we have experienced, it is due to the photograph's temporality. Photography interrupts, actually stops, time, freezes a moment: it is inherently elegiac. The feeling that time stopped around 9:00 a.m. on September 11 has created an immeasurable gulf separating the before from the after. Ironically what makes us feel that 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 - that the fires did not stop burning, that other buildings followed, that those who were caught in them could not get out in time. Photographic images can somehow convey a sense of this unforgiving temporality and the basic human impulse to stop it. The instantanné, the snapshot, has become the genre of the moment.

But to be able to stop time is also to be able to hold on to the trauma and outrage when everything conspires to forget and go back to normal. Every picture of the devastation, however grainy or imperfect, stops this gradual normalization for an instant, recalling the extraordinary that befell us, making it visible even as it is in the process of disappearing like the towers have. This becomes clear for me when I see a number of pictures of quite literal still lives - interiors covered in thick layers of dust, like Edward Keating's beautiful image of a tea pot and cups. The picture can show the dust, but the apartment will soon be cleaned, the cups reused. And in the image it looks like our Pompeii - we can imagine being able to assess the shock of an interrupted life by looking at this one image alone.

A third element of the photograph's temporality needs to be added to these two ways of stopping time. To photograph, we might say, is to look in a different way - to look without understanding. Understanding is deferred until we see the developed image. This deferral is as inherent to photography and as it is to trauma, enabling photography to help us understand the traumatic events of September 11. Thus, for example, one photographer injured during the collapse was surprised to see the images he had taken of the explosion after the first plane hit printed in the New York Daily News with his byline. He could not remember taking the picture. And another AP photographer reported on the "Charlie Rose" interview program on October 31, 2001 that the lab technician developing his picture called to ask him if he knew what was visible in one of his pictures of the exploding tower - a person holding on to 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 supplemental revelation is deferred, as is the experience of trauma.

Thus time and space work the same way in the photograph, they expand, allowing distance and deferral. For Benjamin, the now of the image is composed of layers of interconnected moments and this is nowhere as apparent as in the images of what we call September 11 - a moment that has expanded backwards and forwards into durational time.

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.

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.

Touching Traces

One image from this show illustrates the various qualities of photography that I have raised here with particular force. The tattooed drawing emblematizes the profound bodily effect of the event we have come to call September 11 and the ways in which - for this artist and subject - the nation, has been materially wounded by it, has had its memory carved unto its skin, as it were. The flag marks the tattooed body as a subject of the state, the state that was attacked and injured, and thus it inscribes the state's injury onto the skin of the citizen. The tattoo shows both the moment of injury and the act of perpetration. Highly technological, the syringe is like an airplane, or like a bomb, at the moment of impact (note the angle). At the same time, the drawing on the skin shows the citizen's defiant appropriation and flaunting of the attack displayed for all to see and, more importantly, to feel. The waving flag recalls the words of the national anthem - the flag may be tattered, bloody, but it is still there waving above the sunrise. The visual display of the very act of wounding elicits spectatorial identification on a physical, bodily level - for me a squirm or shudder in response to the prick of the needle with which I identify. I would say that this may be as close as one can come in communicating physical pain visually. At the same time, by invoking well-known icons, the drawing evokes a familiar scenario and thus attempts to elicit predictable emotional responses such as anger, defiance, patriotism. In its close cropping and physical intimacy it seems to me to thwart or foreclose more distant, critical, intellectual responses, thus showing both the power and the appropriability of the visual that lacks a label or narrative frame.

This photograph illustrates for me some of the qualities through which photography can communicate the bodily wounding that is trauma, and the sense memory of it. If photography can even attempt to evoke the material inscription of memory unto the body, it is because of the continuing popular perception of the material link between the photographic image and the object photographed. Semioticians have defined the photograph as an index based on a relationship of contiguity, of cause and effect, like a footprint or a trace. In his Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes argues that the material touch of the photographic image is as painful as a tattoo: something in each photograph "shoots out of it and pierces me," he says (26). "The photograph's punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)" (27). Through the punctum, photography can be the medium for the communicability of trauma: just as the tattoo artist's needle pricks the skin, the photograph's material connection to the real can pierce the layer of consciousness that protects us from traumatic reenactment.

The art historian Jill Bennett has argued that images do more than represent scenes and experiences of the past: they can communicate an emotional or bodily experience to us by evoking our own emotional and bodily memories. They produce affect in the viewer, speaking from the body's sensations, rather than speaking of, or representing the past: "It is no coincidence that the image of ruptured skin recurs throughout the work of artists dealing with sense memory . . . . It is precisely through the breached boundaries of skin in such imagery that memory continues to be felt as a wound rather than seen as contained other . . . it is here in sense memory that past seeps back into the present, becoming sensation rather than representation" (Bennett 92).

But photographic images are also flat and two-dimensional, moments frozen in time and mere surfaces - photo-graphy is literally written on the skin of the paper. This double-sided quality of photography can perhaps best be seen in the white gloves covering the hand in the image and the plastic encasing the syringe. The tattoo artist's skin is tightly covered - impermeable. On one level, the white plastic illustrates yet another aspect of the September 11 events - the fear of "infection" and the careful attempts in New York to contain it in a delimited part of the city. Even the term "ground zero" suggests this effort at containment. But as the tears, or droplets, on the image show, things spill over and containment is ultimately impossible. On another level, the white plastic, and the white gloves can be read as visual echoes of the white frame of the image which contains its impact by signaling that it not the act of wounding but its representation.


As I took photos at the ground zero site, I began to realize that, after all, it is the absence of the towers that I have been trying to show, and that absence, by nature, is not easily visualized. But although they have physically disappeared, the towers are actually still present all over the city: framed black and white photographs, postcards, t-shirts and key-chains featuring the trade towers are available on every street corner. In drawings, poems, and reconstructions people are evoking presence where there is only absence. Photography as a medium can well confront the shocking absence with fantasmatic presence. The photographs of the towers are touched by the towers and looking at them enables viewers to be touched by that touch. There is an intimacy of looking at images that makes that touch gentle, domestic - the pictures are, after all, miniaturized versions of enormous buildings that could only be fully seen from a great distance.

Images printed unto paper by way of light are ghosts that haunt. 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 from the first week when he created the black on black New Yorker cover. In the discussions about the memorialization of the event, focusing on whether the towers should or should not be rebuilt, two artists came up with the same idea: temporarily create life-size neon projections of the towers' outline so that they would not have disappeared. Many say that they still see their outlines, that they are haunted by them. Rick Burns, director of a documentary on new York City broadcast on PBS, called them "our phantom limb." "You feel it but it's not there; you look to where you feel it should be." (New York Times 24 Oct. 2001, p.1) Photographs can convey this haunting.

The Aesthetics of Trauma and the Politics of Grief

Aesthetic questions and aspirations might well seem frivolous or inappropriate at a time of mourning. And yet, aesthetic and ethical questions help us understand how our perceptions are affected and structured by public catasrophes such as this one. More than just evocative and representational power, images also quickly assume symbolic power, Barbie Zelizer has argued, saying that: "the photo's significance . . . evolved from the ability not only to depict a real-life event but to position that depiction within a broader interpretive framework" (p. 8). Thus photos which are initially documentary assume a commemorative or symbolic role. Angel Franco, a photographer for the New York Times reporting on his work on September 11 at Tisch School, says he quickly realized that this is no longer journalism but history. "These are like the images I grew up watching in television documentaries," he said. But, for 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, like the "Here is New York" exhibition implies, a democratic process in which any image is as powerful as any other, or do certain images have elements that make them immediately iconic? "Our intention," write the organizers of "Here is New York," "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." This in the effort also to look at and think about what has happened in totally new ways. But is that really possible?

Every major historical event since the beginnings of photography has bequeathed a limited number of photographs which have become emblematic for it - the picture of the little boy with his hands up in the Warsaw ghetto, or of prisoners in stripe 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 Gulf War. Which will be the icons for September 11? What elements determine this process of reduction and iconicization? And in what ways will this process be in fact determined by aesthetic factors? It was fascinating to me that the four photographers interviewed on "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 prize-winning photograph of American GI's raising the flag at Iwo Jima. In their search for the one lasting iconic image they were looking for the conventional, the coded, not the new. Is this familiarity reassuring, inscribing this event into a known visual register and thus a known history? And does it thus perhaps shield us from the shock of the suddenness and unexpectedness of the devastation? 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.

As I consider the many images I have seen, I think about the many that were never taken, and the many that have not yet come to public view. What they contain we can only imagine. Thus I was at the "Here is New York" gallery when a rescue worker came to donate 200 images he had taken during the three weeks of working there. "All the guys there have cameras with them," he reported. Initially hesitant to take pictures, he said that he was convinced by others who said that "you have to remember." The picture he felt most embarrassed about, he said, was one of four rescue workers, hugging and smiling for the camera, smoking cigars (for the smell, he said). He thought this would be controversial but there they all were, together in this other world, what else could they do but smile for the camera in their togetherness? When these and all the other pictures taken "down there" in this "other world" get developed and disseminated, what else will we get to see? How will these pictures be used? And what images have we not yet seen, or will we never get to see? The debates about what is and is not appropriate to show to a public in mourning are as instructive as the images themselves.

April 2003

"How will these pictures be used?" I asked in Fall 2001/Winter 2002 when I first wrote and rewrote this paper and when I delivered a shorter version at "The Scholar and the Feminist" conference on "Public Sentiments." Now, in Spring 2003, after one "war" and in the midst of another, we look back at images of September 11 from a radically different vantage point. Yes, the ethics of representation - what is and is not appropriate to show to a community in mourning - is still at the forefront of public discussion, this time of journalistic coverage of the "war" in Iraq. Should dead bodies, American or Iraqi, be shown in newspapers or on television? Should prisoners of war be photographed? As commentators debate these questions and analyze the media war, even as it is happening, even as "embedded" journalists themselves become "casualties," and as images of explosions over Baghdad stand alongside those of the smoking twin towers, it is clear to me that the questions about the ethics of representations have indeed always already been questions about its politics.

On September 11, 2002, I walked through New York to take more photographs, this time of numerous ceremonies of commemoration. The World Trade Center site had been totally cleaned up, the gap it left in the landscape quickly covered over by intense and creative discussions of urban planning, memorialization, reconstruction. Memorial events, massively televised live and replayed throughout the day, were strictly ritualized and contained. On Union Square, the site of massive impromptu vigils the previous year, passersby were invited to write their thoughts on bulletin boards put up by the park service: these boards were quickly collected for archiving and eventual display. Even the cultural events organized by various well-meaning New York institutions felt controlled, planned, circumscribed. The only picture from that day that continues to move me is of the signs at a rally in Union Square that read: "OUR GRIEF IS NOT A CRY FOR WAR."

That day, a friend complained that it was disrespectful to the families of the dead to mix mourning with anti-war activism. And yet, it has become clear, mourning has in itself become the alibi for an illegal invasion. And the photos of September 11, some traveling around the world in exhibitions sponsored by the State department, have become effective tools for an elaborate US propaganda machine. These exhibitions demonstrate the easy appropriability of photographic images.

Now, in the midst of the US invasion of Iraq, we can think back on Giuliani's ban on photography as only the first of many acts of control and containment that use ethical concerns to disguise political motivations. Still photographs, strictly delimited by their frame and their two-dimensionality, can reveal other limits to which, at the moment, we are subject, limits that serve an official propaganda machine. What should or should not be shown is nothing more than what should or should not be seen or known by the public - on one side of the conflict as well as the other. Even as we watch the smoking skies of Baghdad, those who want to justify this invasion, want us to think of the burning towers which, at this point are being reframed as our screen memories. For me the challenge now is how to remember the grief and honor those who died and who have suffered immeasurable loss, while, at the same time, vigorously questioning the limits of what we are allowed to see and to know.


1. Earlier versions of this article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education Review, in the Brown Alumni Magazine and in Judith Greenberg, ed. Trauma at Home (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003). I would like to thank Judith Greenberg, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Temma Kaplan, Lorie Novak, Leo Spitzer, Diana Taylor and Barbie Zelizer for sharing their images and their thoughts about photography and memory with me. [Return to text]

2. No images bring this point home more forcefully than those of Bill Biggart, the photographer who lost his life when the second tower collapsed and who left an astounding set of posthumous images in his camera. See [Return to text]

3. On the "Portraits" see Miller, 2003. [Return to text]

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

Bennett, Jill. "The Aesthetics of Sense-Memory: Theorising Trauma Through the Visual Arts," Trauma und Erinnerung/Trauma and Memory: Crosscultural Perspectives, ed. Franz Kaltenbeck and Peter Weibel. Vienna: Passagen Verlag, 2000.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. "Kodak Moments, Flashbulb Memories." Paper delivered at the Council for American Jewish Museums, Cincinnati, Ohio, Jan. 26-30, 2002.

Miller, Nancy K. "Reporting the Disaster," in. Judith Greenberg, ed. Trauma at Home: After 9/11. Licoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Zelizer, Barbie. Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera's Lens. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

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