A Semiotic analysis of Thomas Hoepker’s 9/11 Photograph
I chose to analyse the photo above which has been described as “the most controversial photograph of 9/11″. The image was captured by Thomas Hoepker, a senior photojournalist for Magnum Photos in New York. The photo depicts a group of friends sitting casually in a park by the riverside in Brooklyn as the twin towers burned in the distance. Hoepker, understandably, did not release the photograph at the time. In a video, published by ‘The British Journal of Photography’ 14 years later, he explains, “… after I came with my day’s work to the Magnum office, I didn’t even show it to them. I didn’t show it to them for weeks or for months and even for a couple of years, because I felt it’s not the picture that shows the horror of this day”. http://www.bjp-online.com/2015/09/video-thomas-hoepker-new-york/
Because of its sensitivity the photograph was not released until five years later when it attracted much controversy. Described as “shocking” by Frank Rich, critic and columnist for the New York Times, for its apparent callousness. However, there is more to this image than meets the eye.
If we analyse the photo from an objective point of view, with semiotics in mind, then the picture denotes a group of people, possibly in their late 30’s/ early 40’s, enjoying the sunshine on a river bank. They are casually dressed and from their positions and body language seem to be relaxed. Their proximity and discernible ease in each other’s company suggests that they know one another. They appear to be chatting, almost smiling and oblivious of what is happening around them.
If we look at the composition of the photograph it holds many contrasts. The colours in the foreground are vibrant, the shiny red bicycle highlighting these fit and healthy young people. The two green fir trees provide a natural framing but could also be regarded as mirroring the twin towers. In stark contrast, the dark grey billowing smoke in the background points to a very different scenario. The smoke is an obvious sign of fire and destruction. The towering buildings are stony and bleak against the backdrop of clear blue skies. The river provides a natural barrier between the group of people and serves to heighten their distance from the event.
It is interesting to note that the flow of the river indicates the continuity of life whilst the image captured points to a moment when time has stood still. The contrasts in the photo serve to intensify the atrocity of the event in the background. The horror breaks into a peaceful and happy environment in a split second but will take years to overcome.
The photograph caused an uproar on its publication because of its implications that the five friends were seemingly unaware of the horrific events unfolding behind them. It was this defiance and relaxed detachment towards the violence and death just across the water that caused so much shock and offence. Hoepker maintains that he took the photograph on instinct and withheld it because of its ambiguity and how it could be interpreted. However, given that he is a photojournalist and was taking photos of the 9/11 crisis on that day he certainly managed to capture the moment from a different angle.
The people in the photograph complained that it was not a true representation of what was happening at the time. They said that their permission had not been asked and that the photo misinterpreted their feelings and behaviour. But can an image convey thoughts and feelings? A photograph can only depict what the camera was then able to capture and record. In this case the message that the photograph communicates has been interpreted in many different ways and it’s meaning has also changed over time. It has been seen as an allegory of America’s failure to learn any deep lessons from 9/11. Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. However, this was probably not the message that was intended.
In analysing this photograph for a semiotic analysis I believe that the photograph communicates more than the spoken word in capturing an image which urges us to question what we see. With retrospect, it has become an iconic photograph in many ways because it remains “fuzzy and ambiguous”. It is important to take into consideration the context and history surrounding both photograph and photographer in order to understand the messages it conveys.
Jones, J. (2011) The meaning of 9/11’s most controversial photo. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/sep/02/911-photo-thomas-hoepker-meaning (Accessed: 29 November 2016).
http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/culturebox/2006/09/its_me_in_that_911_photo.html (Accessed: 29 November 2016)
Written (2015) VIDEO: Thomas Hoepker on taking the most controversial photo of 9/11. Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2015/09/video-thomas-hoepker-new-york/ (Accessed: 29 November 2016).
Jones, J. (2011) The meaning of 9/11’s most controversial photo. Available at: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/the-meaning-of-911s-most-controversial-photo-20111014-1lorl.html (Accessed: 29 November 2016).
9/11 – Thomas Hoepker (2010) Available at: https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/911-thomas-hoepker/ (Accessed: 29 November 2016).