Believing is Seeing

I’m doing a unit on “visual literacy” in my freshman composition classes this week, and because the photographs in our textbook aren’t that interesting, I’ve been trying to find images that will make class discussion a little more compelling. With that in mind, I’m thinking about introducing the recent debate over Thomas Hoepker’s “Brooklyn, New York, September 11, 2001,” discussed most recently in this Richard Cohen Washington Post op-ed. Hoepker’s photograph became the ubject of some controversy when it was mentioned in a Frank Rich editorial published in the subscription-only section of New York Times. The CBS news blog, Public Eye quotes Rich as arguing that

Mr. Hoepker found his subjects troubling. ”They were totally relaxed like any normal afternoon,” he told Mr. Friend. ”It’s possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it.” The photographer withheld the picture from publication because ”we didn’t need to see that, then.” He feared ”it would stir the wrong emotions.” But ”over time, with perspective,” he discovered, ”it grew in importance.”

Seen from the perspective of 9/11’s fifth anniversary, Mr. Hoepker’s photo is prescient as well as important — a snapshot of history soon to come. What he caught was this: Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American. In the five years since the attacks, the ability of Americans to dust themselves off and keep going explains both what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong on our path to the divided and dispirited state the nation finds itself in today.

Hoepker found his phoographs so troubling that he withheld publication of the photograph for five years until it was included in the recently-published anthology, Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 (see David Friend’s blog entry on the discussion).

Of course, as Slate’s David Plotz and others have pointed out, the subjects of the photograph do not appear as if they are enjoying just another relaxing fall afternoon but instead look as if they are engrossed in the events taking place across the water in Manhattan, and while I wasn’t present when the photograph was taken, it’s not hard to guess that they are discussing the attacks, a reading confirmed by two of the photograph’s subjects, Walter Sipser and Chris Schiavo. Slate has also included a response to the controversy written by the photographer, Thomas Hoepker. I don’t know that I have anything specific to add to the debate about the photograph, but I think the debate itself would be interesting to teach.


  1. A. Horbal Said,

    September 27, 2006 @ 1:51 pm

    I think that that’s a great idea. The debate at Slate is a textbook example of the ways that people ascribe different meanings to pictures. And because it’s 9/11 you can expect to see a higher level of personal involvement from your students, too, right?

  2. Chuck Said,

    September 27, 2006 @ 2:11 pm

    I’m assuming that students will be more invested because of the stakes. It’s an interesting debate, although I may have framed things too narrowly when I was introducing the assignment in class today. We’ll see how it goes.

  3. David Friend Said,

    September 27, 2006 @ 5:41 pm

    Great idea. I’d also suggest having the class get copies of my book if you’re discussing how we assess images in modern culture. Note the subtitle. WATCHING THE WORLD CHANGE: THE STORIES BEHIND THE IMAGES OF 9/11. I think you’re onto something…David Friend

  4. Chuck Said,

    September 27, 2006 @ 5:47 pm

    I won’t be able to require students to buy copies for this activity–for now we’ll just have time to discuss Thomas Hoepker’s photograph–but I may be able to put something together in future semesters. The book itself looks intriguing and certainly worth wider discussion. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Chuck Said,

    September 29, 2006 @ 4:25 pm

    BTW, the discussion went incredibly well. Students raised some interetsing points about the composition of the photograph and the subjects’ responses to it, and I was pleased that the discussions (in all three sections) never quite came to any consensus, and the photograph’s ambiguity even gave me an excuse to throw some Roland Barthes in at the end of class, which is always fun.

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