The Idea is That People Should Look A Certain Way in the Face of Tragedy

During the 9/11 attacks in NYC, Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker shot what is perhaps the most controversial image created that day: a photo that appears to show a group of young people casually enjoying themselves while the World Trade Center burns in the background. Hoepker kept the image under wraps for four years and then caused quite a stir after publishing it in a 2006 book. Columnist Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times that “The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American.”

Three days after Rich’s column in the NYT, The Slate published an email from Walter Sipser, a Brooklyn artist and the man on the right hand side of the photo. Sipser had harsh words for both Hoepker and Rich:

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.

Photographer Colin Pantall has written up a great post on this issue and how we look at images with expectations:

The idea is that one should look a certain way in the face of tragedy, part of the simplistic narrative that is expected of people when they are part of a photograph – a simplistic narrative that does not have an equivalence in writing. Here it is easy to explain the contrast between the glorious sky and the casual dress, the trappings of the picnic and the relaxed poses. These are all allowed to happen, but when it comes to a photograph, God forbid if anybody is caught doing anything that lies outside a very narrow band of expected responses.

You don’t look like a victim (via The Click and Conscientious)

Image credit: Photograph by Thomas Hoepker

  • John Milleker

     I’m not familiar with the story but my first thought looking at the photo is that those five people are doing exactly what any American citizen was trying to do. Find normalcy in a world that was just turned upside-down. Nobody seems to be laughing, dancing around or singing.

     A sad fact is that just about any photograph can be turned around to support any statement. It’s a powerful tool we have and we must use it wisely.

     I applaud these people in the photograph. They appear calm and collected. That doesn’t mean that their hearts weren’t ripped open that day. How many others were watching their local news anchors replaying over and over the video of the plane hitting the first tower while they were in a big d#$* contest with the other stations to publish updated information (true or not) before anyone else?

     Not that there’s anything wrong with being glued to the television all night either – everyone finds comfort in something different, these five just found comfort in quiet company on an otherwise gorgeous day.

  • Dave

    It is a fascinating photograph and I have always really liked it. It makes you think. They could have been sitting there for an hour just coming to grips with the event.

  • Matt

    Sorry, but that photo is somewhat misleading.  My first reaction was the same, they are having a good time.  But, I know that photos can be misleading.  The photographer should have kept this image private.  I know I have taken photos of people that gave a completely different view of the person than the actual facts of the situation.  It is my responsibility to edit those out.  It is not fair to the subject, or the viewer.
    It is even more unfair to write a self serving and pompous column about the subjects.   

  • Slash_Cynic

    Yuppies nuff said.

  • TekAng 

    To me it appears that these people were snapped hours later after the dreadful tragedy happened and like Walter said were in animated discussion. I am sure one would not stand there with hands on head all day. 

  • Livelac

    My first reaction,that it can not be  a real photo. It’s probably fake and made with Photoshop. But if it real, something so wrong with young Americans that make me worry about the future of this country   
    Allsec Locksmith

  • -MARS- Photography

    Obviously by simply looking at the picture… you see 5 people that probably don’t all know each other, the 3 nearest the wall, may know each other, one was on a bike, which means that person stopped to talk to at least one other person.  The two furthest away from the wall, seem to be friends based on their body language, and only one of them actually knows one of the other 3 people that were there before them.

    I know I and probably millions of other Americans, instantly looked for human contact, as if it could possibly be the last time we talked to anyone again, we were all struck by tragedy that day, some more than others, and knowing my family was just on the other side of the river, made it worse.

    I am not in this picture, nor do I know any of the people in this picture, but because it is a great photo, it captures more of how I felt when I found out, than any other story or photo I have seen.

  • MikeAlgar42

    Looking at the body language of the people in the photo closely actually reveals they are having a hard time coming to grip with the situation. The woman on the edge who is looking over the shoulder was probably turning to talk and show respect to the person taking charge of the conversation. The two who are turned away from the camera are crouched forward bodies swivelled towards the skyline heads turned to the speaker. The fact they are crouched implies severity of the situation. The other two guys are also leaning over to look at the tower, turning back to add to the discussion. Look at a higher res image and you can see it clearer.

  • Wilson Jones

    It’s said that every photograph is a self portrait. I think this one says more about the photographer than the subjects. 

  • Steven William Blackwood

    There us really nothing that you can deduce from the picture. Its only value is in its apparent contrast with what is going on in the background. While it was not necessary to obtain consent for this photograph, it would have been better if the photographer had joined the conversation. Chances are, he would have learned that his photo gave a false impression.

  • K J

    Why? Because they’re not crying like North Koreans?

  • philhoyt


  • newamericanclassic

    I love how this is because “They’re just American.” oh my, what’s wrong with American youths these days? don’t mind their behavior, they’re just American kids. What sort of generic blanket statement insult is that?

  • Justin Kerr Sheckler

    I had only been in NYC for 10 days when this happened, and I remember stumbling through the village trying to find a subway station that was still open and would take me “home” to Brooklyn.  I remember people out rollerblading, jogging, and walking their dogs down an empty sixth avenue, and yes, I thought they were callous.

  • Gavin Stokes

    If the bike was not in the shot and the woman with her head back was sitting up right or facing forward….you would draw completely different conclusions. As some else said….you cant stand around all day with your hands on your head and your mouth hanging open, how long after the collapse was this taken.

  • Owen Smith

     “The photographer behind Mr. Hoepker’s photo isn’t necessarily callous. He’s just a photojournalist. It’s possible he lost people but was not stirred by it….” as he was too busy taking photographs… 

  • kendon

     exactly what i was about to say. how callous is the photographer not be down on his knees crying his lungs out, for several consecutive weeks?

  • Usapieceofsh1t

    Their massacre philosophy against the rest of the world, it´s just not free… at last you pay for what you do.
    United States has been killing people all around the world “in name of democracy” (or let´s call it “in chase of money and power”)
    United States deserves many more of these events and for sure will continue happening.

  • Usapieceofshot

    Seems that petapixel censors certain type of messages, you must be with the USA or your message will be censored.
    Good to know.

  • Michael Zhang

    Nope, we don’t. Is one of your comments missing?

  • Joey Duncan

    photographer should have kept this image private.” Really? This kinda goes against EVERYTHING media photographers and journalists are all about. 

  • Jackson Cheese

    There’s nothing wrong with any of the people in this image.  

    It’s just a split second in time of a few people sitting there. You have no idea what is going in their minds, or what they were doing just moments before or after this photo.

    Photos can & do lie.

  • Ann

    Did you people know a lot of us in NYC didn’t have TV that day because of the antenna being on the towers? Better view from there anyways.

  • Richard Ford

    “Did not ask permission..”  ?  From an American that supposedly is a product of the land of the free.  Nice Try Dear Leader Walter Sipser you drop kick of the most arrogant type.

  • Ted Bautista

    you can only look grief stricken and tragic for so long before normalcy asserts itself. have you never been to a funeral and suddenly, in the middle of your grief, a happy memory intrudes and you and your friends are sharing a *moment* where it’s ok to *not* be sad?

  • Simon Brown

    I actually rather like this image. For me, it shows a certain dignity, an almost British stiff upper lip, something which seems to be lacking in recent years. It has strong value showing that, even so soon, people were adjusting, coping: they were continuing to live. For the record, I lost a loved friend as a result of the obscenity pictured here in the background. A French person who lived in New York and witnessed the events and aftermath of that day. The ensuing nightmares and subsequent mental illness lead to them taking their own life some six years later.

    But, to return to this image. The “lies” which some of you see in this image actually come from your own presuppositions.  I Invite the naysayers to, in your mind’s eye, change the casual clothes for NYPD uniforms. As this modified image settles into your perception ask yourself again, “what does this image say to me?”

  • mugget man

    Nothing wrong with that picture for me. So Hoepker didn’t ask for their permission to take the photo – I wouldn’t have either. They’re in public, no problem. 

    But there is a problem when Hoepker adds his own narrative to the photo, without knowing the full story and actually speaking to those people. 

    He took a photo – so just let it be. No need to try and add your own commentary IMO.