(Re)imaging 9/11: A Reflection on Photographic Representation and the Politics of Memory

“Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing—may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self- righteously. Don’t forget.” – Susan Sontag

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. What struck me during the past few days leading up to the anniversary, was the overwhelming amount of historical images of 9/11 that are recirculating around social media websites, print media, news articles, and blogs.[1] With cultural media we are constantly re-imaging and re-imagining the past.

These images are for the most part used to commemorate the events and the tragic loss of life endured that day. Are photographs of 9/11 vestiges that force us to come to terms with the violence and trauma endured as a society? Although photographs are more than just ‘evidence’ of past events, they often speak to us despite their captions and accompanying text. Photographs are also a language on their own that we are versed in as consumers of media. For me, images of 9/11 prompt memory of that day and invoke feelings of fear and loss.

The photographs I speak of clutter our collective memory and are depictions of the scarred landscapes and cityscapes of 9/11. They display smoking, crumbling buildings and damaged emergency response vehicles. We see the troubled faces of witnesses, victims, firefighters, police, families and countless others standing near crash sites, helplessly. We contemplate the Falling Man and the impossible decision he (and hundreds of others) made to jump. Thousands upon thousands of tattered papers and documents appear littering the streets of New York, possibly reminding us that we are not safe no matter where we work or play. For me, some of most horrific photographs capture the act as it was about to occur, the airliner about to make contact with the tower. But how do traumatic images like these impact collective memory of 9/11, and what are the politics surrounding their recirculation, particularly as images of a traumatic event? What does this mean for us as a society? Do they still shock us? Should they? Critics who are against the circulation of photographs depicting violence, war, and tragedy, cite our fascination as a society with morbid images, and rightfully so.

In Regarding the Pain of Others (2004), scholar and cultural critic Susan Sontag remarked on the audience’s experience of gazing at images of trauma and violence:

Something becomes real—to those who are elsewhere, following it as “news”—by being photographed. But a catastrophe that is experienced will often seem eerily like its representation. The attack on the World Trade Center on September 11 2001, was described as “unreal,” “surreal,” “like a movie,” in many of the first accounts of those who escaped from the towers or watched from nearby. (After four decades of big-budget Hollywood disaster films, “It felt like a movie” seems to have displaced the way survivors of a catastrophe used to express the short-term unassimilability of what they had gone through: “It felt like a dream.”)

Perhaps then, for witnesses it was surreal and for consumers of media, 9/11 became a horrifying truth. Photographs of  9/11 serve as painful reminders of that day, almost storing our memories for us. The infamous image of the Falling Man is a telling example of the politics of visual representation. When it was initially printed, critics described the image as disturbing, commenting on the act of taking the photograph: “if it’s disturbing to look at these pictures over your morning cornflakes, it’s traumatic to take them, and witness the terrible events of September 11th.” Richard Drew, who photographed the Falling Man maintains that it was just part of his job as a journalist.

It’s part of the history that I have been able to photograph in my lifetime for the AP [Associated Press], whether it be a car wreck, or a fashion show, or this thing. I just have to place in that file drawer where you say “I have covered major stuff”, and this will go in that major file drawer.”

Others like Mark D. Thompson viewed the Falling Man as a powerful and necessary testament to the existential crisis following 9/11. According to Sontag, epic photographs such as that of the Falling Man, become “the ultra familiar, ultra-celebrated image[s] – of agony, of ruin” and they are “an unavoidable feature of our camera-mediated knowledge of war.” As a society that consumes media at a fast rate, have wee seen too much? Have these images lost their impact? Are we too distant from 9/11 as an audience? Ten years have gone by, and for most of us who didn’t experience 9/11 firs hard, we can only know it, feel it, and see it through the media and representation.

The Falling Man was reproduced on page seven of The New Tork Times on September 12, 2001, and was not reprinted in the Times until six years later due to controversy and outcry from readership. Speculations as to the identity of the Falling Man began almost immediately after the photo was printed and controversy arose after many claimed his identity. There is even a documentary about the history of the photograph called 9/11: The Falling Man (2006). It seems that there is a struggle between the intent of the photograph as an object of art and visual representation and the context of how it will be viewed and understood by the public.

Fast forward ten years later, do they hold the same meaning in 2011? Do they horrify us? Or are they part of a much larger collection of images of war and trauma that we’ve been inundated with since 2001? While flipping through Life 100s Photographs that Changed the World a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon the image of the Falling Man alongside other photographs of tragedy and war. It haunts me no matter what context I am viewing it from.

The September 11 Memorial Museum has created a free smart phone application called Explore 9/11, which allows users to view historical photographs of 9/11 in place while listening to witness testimonies. Remarkably, Explore 9/11 also allows users to submit and share their own media through the Museum’s Make History website. This kind of participatory practice transforms private and corporate photography into sites of memory for the viewing public. I think people will ignore their cornflakes for a few moments to take the time to view these images, I know I did.

In a recent article about Explore 9/11, one reader commented: “After reading this article, I got up from the sofa, went to another room to fetch my iPhone 4, and downloaded Explore 9/11. This is the kind of intelligent interest in the tragedy we need to see more of.” Another reader remarked: ” I think that something could have been done all those inocent people who died and dont have anything to do with politics or other stuff like countries fighting eachother like little kids…. Remember 9/11.”

On the other hand, someone else wrote: “The year 2001 should not be repeated.” I think to myself after reading this comment “you are entirely right,” but does looking at photographs repeat the event? Can we chose to not look? Deciding not to look does not mean we decide to forget. At the same time, viewing does not equate memorializing 9/11.  We need to have a little more faith in the viewing public while maintaining the utmost respect for witnesses, victims and families. Let the photographs haunt us, as they should.

How have these images impacted you as an audience? Please leave a comment as I would love to hear your interpretations.


[1] You will notice that I omit the images discussed in this post. The photographs in question are not what interest me but rather, the politics and meaning of their circulation. For this reason I leave it to readers to view images within their own contexts if they wish to see them. One thing I did not cover in this post are the implications of these images for victims and their families, which is another topic in its own right.


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5 thoughts on “(Re)imaging 9/11: A Reflection on Photographic Representation and the Politics of Memory

  1. finn

    Perhaps another facet we may explore is the monetization factor. These images are profit machines. What media empire could resist republishing them? We are still in consumerism mode of 9/11. To consume these images and to invoke certain emotional response human beings naturally crave. Be it sadness, happiness and every shade in between. If these images and stories are not worthy of consumption (profitless) and invoke no emotional response, they will fade away just like every other documented traumatic events in any given civilization.

  2. Kaleigh Bradley Post author

    Great point, Finn. From the understanding of the media, who circulate these photographs, consumption of photographs means viewing them as aesthetic and material objects and nothing more. Like Richard Drew mentions they’re just part of his job and are going to be filed away in his “big events” drawer. What happens when they’re taken out of the drawer? Does that mean they’re more valuable than other shots that day?

    Contexts of their creation and distribution are blurred when we focus on photographs as commercial and artistic objects. This is complicated in the digital era, when photographs are recirculating and being re-imagined throughout the blogosphere. This (often unintentional) practice makes invisible the process of their creation, and the histories of photographs as commercial objects. The photograph of the Falling Man on Wikipedia page loses its attachment to the photographer, controversy, and viewing context within the New York Times, after it is copied and pasted onto another blog or article.

    Is the image of the Falling Man taken by Drew any more meaningful (commercially and emotionally) than a similar photograph taken by a pedestrian who just happened to be there that day? That’s why I think Explore 9/11 is neat because it allows everyone to be involved in the practice of visual representation.

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