I Took That 9/11 Photo

Photographer Thomas Hoepker on Frank Rich’s column, and why he thought his picture was too “confusing” to publish in 2001.

Editor’s note: On Sunday, Sept. 10, Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote a column (TimesSelect only) about a “shocking” 9/11 photograph by Thomas Hoepker. The picture, which was taken on the Brooklyn waterfront the afternoon of 9/11, is reproduced here. On Tuesday, Slate’s David Plotz criticized Rich’s analysis of the photo. Yesterday, one of the people in the picture, Walter Sipser, wrote to Slate to take issue with Rich and Hoepker’s interpretations. Today, the photographer himself joins the debate. Hoepker is a photographer with the documentary cooperative Magnum Photos. Some of his other 9/11 pictures can be seen in this Magnum/Slate interactive feature. (Incidentally, Slatee-mailed Rich yesterday inviting him to respond, but we have not heard back from him.)

Now that a broad discussion has opened up about a photograph that I took on Sept. 11, 2001, on the waterfront in Brooklyn, I think I should add my voice and view of the event.

This image happened, in passing, so to speak, when I tried to make my way down to southern Manhattan on the morning of 9/11. I live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and, being a seasoned photojournalist, I followed my professional instinct, trying hard to get as close as possible to the horrendous event. When I heard that the subway had stopped running I took out the car, only to get stuck immediately in traffic on Second Avenue. I took my chances by crossing the Queensborough Bridge. Then, turning south into Queens and Brooklyn, I stayed close to the East River, stopping here and there to shoot views of the distant catastrophe, which unfolded on the horizon to my right. The car radio provided horrific news, nonstop. The second tower of the World Trade Center had just imploded; estimates of more than 20,000 deaths were quoted and later discredited.

Young people on the Brooklyn waterfront on Sept. 11

Somewhere in Williamsburg I saw, out of the corner of my eye, an almost idyllic scene near a restaurant—flowers, cypress trees, a group of young people sitting in the bright sunshine of this splendid late summer day while the dark, thick plume of smoke was rising in the background. I got out of the car, shot three frames of the seemingly peaceful setting and drove on hastily, hoping/fearing to get closer to the unimaginable horrors at the tip of Manhattan. 

The next day I went to the office of my agency, Magnum Photos. There, on the light tables and computer screens, were hundreds of touching, shocking, and moving images that my colleagues had taken at or near Ground Zero. We quickly decided to publish a book, and I took boxes of pictures home to start working on a selection and a first layout. I choose three of my own shots that I had taken from the Manhattan Bridge but set the images from that idyllic scene in Williamsburg aside, feeling that they did not reflect at all what had transpired on that day. The picture, I felt, was ambiguous and confusing: Publishing it might distort the reality as we had felt it on that historic day. I had seen and read about the outpouring of compassion of New Yorkers toward the stricken families, the acts of heroism by firefighters, police, and anonymous helpers. This shot didn’t “feel right” at this moment and I put it in the “B” box of rejected images. Now, in 2006, David Friend, in his book Watching the World Change, wrote that I had self-censored the picture.

At the time we did actually use a similar picture in the Magnum book, a shot by my friend and colleague Alex Webb, which shows a mother bending down to her baby in a cart on a roof in Brooklyn with the column of smoke in the background. It has a similar life-goes-on-quality, but there is a tenderness to the image that is lacking in my shot.

Four and a half years later, when I was going through my archive to assemble a retrospective exhibition of my work from more than 50 years, the color slide from Brooklyn suddenly seemed to jump at me. Now, distanced from the actual event, the picture seemed strange and surreal. It asked questions but provided no answers. How could disaster descend on such a beautiful day? How could this group of cool-looking young people sit there so relaxed and seemingly untouched by the mother of all catastrophes which unfolded in the background? Was this the callousness of a generation, which had seen too much CNN and too many horror movies? Or was it just the devious lie of a snapshot, which ignored the seconds before and after I had clicked the shutter? Maybe this group had just gone through agony and catharsis or a long-concerned discussion? Was everyone supposed to run around with a worried look on that day or the weeks after 9/11? How would I have looked on that day to a distanced observer? Probably like a coldhearted reporter, geared to shoot the pictures of his life. I just remember that I was in shock, confused, scared, disoriented, and emotional, but trying hard to stay focused on getting my snaps.

The picture ended up on a wall of my retrospective exhibition in my hometown Munich, together with 200 of my images, and it made the cover of my book, which accompanied the show. When I did guided tours through the exhibition, people stopped and kept asking endless questions about it, questions for which I didn’t have pat answers. Then the press came; they, too, asked many questions. The image has been published in 15 newspapers in Germany but only once in the United States, as a half-page in David Friend’s book on the images of 9/11. But it has now come to the surface through three paragraphs in the New York Times, written by Frank Rich last Sunday. These thoughtful words—without the picture—were enough to incite a debate, which has swept over to Slate, that has just started and seems to grow by the hour on the Internet in many blogs.

I think the image has touched many people exactly because it remains fuzzy and ambiguous in all its sun-drenched sharpness. On that day five years ago, sheer horror came to New York, bright and colorful like a Hitchcock movie. And the only cloud in that blue sky was the sinister first smoke signal of a new era.