In his Sept. 10 column, Frank Rich of the New York Times describes a “taboo 9/11 photo,” one so “shocking” that photographer Thomas Hoepker didn’t publish it for four years. The photo, which the Times did not run but which is reproduced here (and which Slate also wrote about here), shows five people on the Brooklyn waterfront, engaged in conversation while the smoke from the fallen towers billows over Manhattan behind them.
In an interview with David Friend—who published the photo in a new book, Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11—Hoepker said his subjects “were totally relaxed like any normal afternoon” and that he didn’t publish the picture in 2001 because “we didn’t need to see that, then.” Rich, who quotes the Hoepker interview, evidently agrees with the photographer’s characterization of the image, writing, “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.”
But wait! Look at the photograph. Do you agree with Rich’s account of it? Do these look like five New Yorkers who are “enjoying the radiant late-summer sun and chatting away”? Who have “move[d] on”? Who—in Rich’s malicious, backhanded swipe—”aren’t necessarily callous”? They don’t to me. I wasn’t there, and Hoepker was, so it may well be that they were just swapping stories about the Yankees. But I doubt it. The subjects are obviously engaged with each other, and they’re almost certainly discussing the horrific event unfolding behind them. They have looked away from the towers for a moment not because they’re bored with 9/11, but because they’re citizens participating in the most important act in a democracy—civic debate.
Ask yourself: What are these five people doing out on the waterfront, anyway? Do you really think, as Rich suggests, that they are out for “a lunch or bike-riding break”? Of course not. They came to this spot to watch their country’s history unfold and to be with each other at a time of national emergency. Short of rushing to Ground Zero and digging for bodies, how much more patriotic and concerned could they have been?
So they turned their backs on Manhattan for a second. A nice metaphor for Rich to exploit, but a cheap shot. I was in Washington on 9/11. I spent much of the day glued to my TV set, but I also spent it racing home to be with my infant daughter, calling my parents and New York relatives, and talking, talking, talking with colleagues and friends. Those discussions were exactly the kind of communal engagement I see in this photo. There is nothing “shocking” in this picture. These New Yorkers have not turned away from Manhattan because they have turned away from 9/11. They have turned away from Manhattan because they have turned toward each other for solace and for debate.
Rich and Hoepker and I have all characterized what these five people were doing and how they were feeling, but none of us really know. Wouldn’t you like to hear from the five themselves? I would. If they’re out there and they’d like to respond to Rich or me, they can e-mail me at email@example.com.
Soon after this article was posted, one of the people in the photograph e-mailed Slateto respond. Click here to read his e-mail.