Five people absorbed in apparently carefree discussion, while in the background the World Trade Center burns. The controversy provoked by Thomas Hoepker’s photograph centred on whether it accurately reflected its subjects’ emotional response to the catastrophe, and on what that response said about them and us. Their lack of fascination with the spectacle of destruction was variously presented as evidence of callous indifference or democratic patriotism.
Photographs, of course, show postures, not emotions. But the controversy was telling evidence of the desire, even after five years, to police public memories of 9/11. This is how governmentality works through the media, shaping what Foucault called ‘the conduct of conduct’.
Since antiquity we have recognised the fascination exerted by spectacles of violence and destruction, and worried about its moral value; in the Republic, Plato tells of Leontion, torn between his desire to look at a pile of corpses and his shame in doing so. What is significant in the reaction to Hoepker’s photograph is that here the decision not to look is under scrutiny.
In fact Hoepker’s photograph and the ensuing controversy dramatise the mechanism of media spectacle and the ambivalence it sustains. The spectatorship of catastrophe forges a common bond of grief and shock, whilst equally provoking anxieties about the erosion of such empathic ties. Here the disaster is a spectacle, even for those who witness it ‘live’. This bizarre marriage of art and reality, CNN and Hollywood, was characteristic of 9/11, but few photographs capture it so clearly. The photograph is troubling because, like Damien Hirst and Karlheinz Stockhausen, it frames the catastrophe as entertainment, as aesthetic.
‘It was like a movie': that phrase, common at the time, recognised the power of 9/11 as spectacle. That the images of 9/11 could provoke not only horror but fascination and even ambivalence was largely disavowed in public memory of the event. Hoepker's photograph insists upon that fascination, and on its limits. We are interpellated as spectators by our choice to look. Eventually we look away, and life goes on.
The image lays bare the relationship of destruction and spectacle in contemporary media culture. By framing the catastrophe as a picture and including a group of ambiguously presented onlookers, Hoepker’s photograph recasts age-old concerns about the powerful combination of horror and fascination aroused by the spectacle of destruction.