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Rachel Somerstein: The Selective Memory of 9/11 Iconography

Photos are how we remember. The 9/11 images we no longer see are growing gaps in our collective memory.

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Photo from Flickr via Roadsidepictures

On September 11 2001, according to David Levi-Strauss, “more people clicked on documentary news photographs than on pornography for the first and only time in the history of the Internet.” We couldn’t take our eyes off the pictures. Magazines and newspapers devoted full-page bleeds to the images; a nearly-identical photograph of the smoking towers ran on the front page of hundreds of newspapers around the world.

In 2001, these photographs showed breaking news: people streaming over bridges to Brooklyn. Office workers covered in dust. Relief workers and firefighters working against and within volumes of dust and rubble. But over time, as the mass media reran these same pictures on 9/11 anniversaries, the photographs began to take on a different role. They no longer functioned as documentary evidence of current events, but as objects and sites of public commemoration.

From that robust trove of news photographs, a much narrower photographic narrative has emerged.

Along the way, some of these images have been frequently and widely circulated—the smoking Twin Towers being the most iconic example—but others have not been republished, and their corresponding narratives have gone silent. The paltry number of images showing the Pentagon or Shanksville, at least in the decade of New York Times anniversary coverage that I studied, is emblematic of such critical absences. From that robust trove of news photographs, a much narrower photographic narrative has emerged.

Other shifts are especially pronounced in the New York Times’s “Portraits of Grief,” obituaries of 9/11 victims that appeared in 2001. As scholars Janice Hume and Carolyn Kitch have showed, the 2001 “Portraits” effectively reflected the financial, professional, and ethnic diversity of people who died. And they bestowed equal respect: all obits ran the same length, whether the subject was a corporate executive at Cantor Fitzgerald, a waitress at Windows on the World, or the person who ran the Towers’ elevator bank.

This democratic death-honor registered on mythological and metaphoric levels of what it means to be American.

This democratic death-honor registered on mythological and metaphoric levels of what it means to be American. More pragmatically, it also helped to earn the Times a 2002 Pulitzer in Public Service. And it broke with journalistic routine, which typically only grants editorial obits to elites. For the first and possibly only time in the paper’s history, chefs, construction workers, and executives commanded equal space in what scholars Hume and Kitch termed our “national funeral ceremony.”

On the 2006 and 2011 anniversaries of 9/11, the paper reissued some of these same “Portraits” with updates provided by the dead’s friends and family. Both times the same photographs from 2001 appeared, the long-dead still smiling from the grave, unaware of the mess of things we’ve made in the Middle East (in part) in their names.

The pictures suggest that 9/11 is a male story, a white story.

As I found for a recent paper I published in Journalism, over time, these once-democratic “Portraits” became more and more homogeneous. By 2011, 87 percent of the obits showed men. Nearly 90 percent showed white victims. Together, the pictures suggest that 9/11 is a male story, a white story, of men who didn’t come home that day. In fact, to look at the numbers published by the Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control, one-quarter of the people who died were women, and one-quarter were people of color. Though we wouldn’t know it, now, to look at these “Portraits,” many people among these groups didn’t make it home that day either.

To look at this iteration of photographic anniversary coverage, you’d never know that more restaurant workers died than doctors or nurses. That more restaurant workers died than members of the military.

Over time, the “Portraits” also overemphasized firefighters and folks in financial services by revisiting, and re-picturing, people in these professions more frequently than others. To be fair, people in these jobs far outnumbered those who worked other positions. But to look at this iteration of photographic anniversary coverage, you’d never know that more construction workers died than airline workers. That more restaurant workers died than doctors or nurses. That more restaurant workers died than members of the military.

The paper made other compressions in its visual anniversary coverage. It tended to emphasize the dead, not the wounded, although similar numbers of people died as were hurt. This silence can be explained in part by the kinds of wounds people sustained (breathing problems, PTSD), which can be difficult to show with a camera. But it can also be explained by the ways that the often messy, ongoing story of the wounded complicates the prevailing mythology of 9/11 victims as heroes. To that end, it’s worth remembering a comment that Charles Wolf, whose wife died on 9/11, made to the New York Observer in 2005 (and that Marita Sturken included in her book, Tourists of History): “My wife is not a goddamn freedom fighter. All she was fighting for was a chance we might move to a bigger apartment.” His right-between-the-eyes candor makes plain a harder and sadder truth that much of our anniversary coverage eschews: people murdered on 9/11, like most victims of violence, died for nothing.

Another visual silence evident in the days that followed September 11 2001, which scholar Barbie Zelizer has addressed, manifests in the lack of graphic images or pictures of bodies. This trend is even more pronounced in the Times’s anniversary coverage, which shows buildings. The site. Arad and Walker’s “Reflecting Absence.” The new World Trade Center. The 9/11 Memorial Museum. The towers of light set against the Brooklyn Bridge. The new New York skyline. The gift shop.

September 11 was about the body.

It isn’t bad or wrong per se to turn away from graphic images. But this edifice complex obfuscates what we are supposed to “remember:” 9/11 was about the body. For weeks in New York after the attacks, we could smell the burning (bodies, paper, metal) on the mail. Downtown, we are still finding bone shards. Body images may be too grisly to show—or perhaps they were at the time, before this era of widely-circulated decapitation videos. Still, it is worth noting that our photographic anniversary coverage of such a watershed event is all metaphor.

Whether journalism should function as history is debatable. That it does, especially in the U.S., is incontestable. For those who don’t have their own memories of 9/11—and even for those who do—the mass-mediated past we’re seeing is partial, simplified, whitewashed, masculinized. On this anniversary, to honor those who died, suffered, rescued, photographed, reported, prayed, meditated, gave blood, rushed to the scene, survived—and to remember those who continue to struggle—we might remember the pictures, and the people, whose stories don’t fit the mythology. There were people who were unemployed. People whose jobs were categorized as “other.” There were people who were grumpy, stingy, boring, or braggarts, those whom—to borrow the description from Guy de Maupassant—always had to be the first person to walk into a room. These were people with complex inner lives. Some heroic, some not. All human. And we can honor them, and the past, by resisting the media’s narrowed narrative of loss.

Rachel Somerstein is an assistant professor of journalism at SUNY New Paltz. She writes about collective memory and visual culture.

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