A Semiotic analysis of Thomas Hoepker’s 9/11 Photograph
The photo above 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. On account 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.
Semiotics is an effective tool to employ in order to analyse a photograph. By looking at the cultural signs and symbols within the image certain meanings can be understood. This picture denotes a group of people, possibly in their late 30’s/ early 40’s, seemingly enjoying the sunshine on a river bank. They are casually dressed in t-shirts and light trousers. They are wearing sunglasses which in western culture connotes ‘coolness’. Their postures and body language offer subtle clues; the position of the two ladies, one kneeling, the other seated but both with elbows to knees leaning forward shows their ease in each other’s company. The other lady leans back, looking over her shoulder in a relaxed and informal gesture. They appear to be chatting, almost smiling and oblivious of what is happening around them. Each of them engaging in some light discussion..
The composition of the photograph holds many striking contrasts. The colours in the foreground are vibrant, the shiny red bicycle highlighting these fit and healthy young people. The two bright green fir trees provide a natural framing but are also symbolic and provide a mirror image of the distant 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, its colour associated with grime and dirt. The volume and continuity of the smoke points to the scale of the disaster. The towering buildings are man-made structures, stony and bleak stand against a backdrop of natural clear blue skies. These conflicting images emphasise the depth of disparity and the atrocity of the event in the background
The river provides a natural barrier between the group of people and serves to heighten their distance from the event both physically and metaphorically. 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 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 that caused so much shock and offence as the photograph seemed to offer a social comment. 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. It is important to consider the context and history surrounding both photograph and photographer in order to understand the many messages that it conveys.
The people in the photograph complained that it was not a true representation of the situation. They said that their permission had not been asked and that the photo misinterpreted their feelings and behaviour. But can an image truly 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.
The photograph is a powerful medium of non-verbal communication. A photograph can communicate through its visual language. This process follows the Shannon and Weaver Model of Communication of 1949 which illustrates a linear interaction. The photographer is the information source, transmitting a visual message through the receiver to its final destination, the captive audience. However, the message that is conveyed depends on how the photograph is interpreted which will always remain subjective.
In analysing this photograph using semiotics we can see that the photograph communicates more than the spoken word. The captured image subtly urges us to question what we see. With retrospect, this has become an iconic photograph in many ways because it remains “fuzzy and ambiguous”.
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).