Yesterday, Slateposted this piece criticizing Frank Rich’s New York Times column about the 9/11 photo shown here. The picture was taken by Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker on the afternoon of 9/11. Calling the image “shocking,” Rich suggested that the five New Yorkers were “relaxing” and were already “mov[ing] on” from the attacks. Slate’sDavid Plotzdisputed that characterization of the picture, arguing that the subjects had almost certainly gathered to discuss the attacks and to find solace in others’ company. Rather than showing callousness, as Rich suggested, it depicted civic engagement. But since neither Rich nor Plotz knew exactly what the five New Yorkers in the photo were doing or thinking, weinvited them to contact Slateand tell us.
This morning, Slate received an e-mail from Walter Sipser, a Brooklyn artist who is the man on the far right of the photo. (How do we know? Sipser has confirmed his identity in several ways, most persuasively with current pictures of himself. Click here to see a blowup of the man in the photo next to pictures of Sipser taken today.) Here is what Sipser wrote:
A snapshot can make mourners attending a funeral look like they’re having a party.Thomas Hoepker took a photograph of my girlfriend and me sitting and talking with strangers against the backdrop of the smoking ruin of the World Trade Center on September 11th. Earlier, she and I had watched the buildings collapse from my rooftop in Brooklyn and had made our way down to the waterfront. The Williamsburg Bridge was filled with hundreds of people, covered in dust, helping one another make their way onto the street. It was clear that people who ordinarily would not have spoken two words to each other were suddenly bound together, which I suppose must be a fairly common occurrence in the aftermath of a catastrophe.We were in a profound state of shock and disbelief, like everyone else we encountered that day. Thomas Hoepker did not ask permission to photograph us nor did he make any attempt to ascertain our state of mind before concluding five years later that, “It’s possible they lost people and cared, but they were not stirred by it.” Had Hoepker walked fifty feet over to introduce himself he would have discovered a bunch of New Yorkers in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened. He instead chose to publish the photograph that allowed him to draw the conclusions he wished to draw, conclusions that also led Frank Rich to write, “The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American.” A more honest conclusion might start by acknowledging just how easily a photograph can be manipulated, especially in the advancement of one’s own biases or in the service of one’s own career.Still, it was nice being described as a young person. I was forty at the time the photograph was taken.
Addendum: On Wednesday evening, Slate received an e-mail from Chris Schiavo, who is the woman second from the right in the photo. (She titled her message: “From the contortionist sunbather.”) Schiavo, who was Sipser’s girlfriend at the time, has confirmed her identity with current photographs of herself. Schiavo writes:
I am one of the “disaffected sunbathing youth” in the photo. I think Walter Sipser and your readers have already voiced most of what should be considered when looking at this photo in conjunction with the New York Times article.I am also a professional photographer and did not touch a camera that day. Why? For many reasons including a now-obvious one: This somewhat cynical expression of an assumed reality printed in the New York Times proves a good reason. (Shame on Mr. Rich and Mr. Hoepker—one should never assume.) But most of all to keep both hands free, just in case there was actually something I could do to alter this day or affect a life, to experience every nanosecond in every molecule of my body, rather than place a lens between myself and the moment. (Sounds pretty “callous,” huh?) I also have a strict policy of never taking a photograph of a person without their permission or knowledge of my intent. I am a third-generation native New Yorker, who knows and loves every square inch of this city, as did her ancestors before her. My mother and father are both architects and artists who have contributed much to the landscape of this city and my knowledge of the buildings that are my hometown and my childhood friends. (Ironically, my mother even worked for Minoru Yamasaki, the World Trade Center architect.) The point being, it was genetically impossible for me to be unaffected by this event.
Are the other subjects of this photo out there? If so, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Thursday morning, photographer Thomas Hoepker wrote to Slate about how the photo came about and why he thought it was too “confusing” to publish in 2001.