9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster

9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster

by Thomas Stubblefield

Paperback(New Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Tuesday, August 10


The day the towers fell, indelible images of plummeting rubble, fire, and falling bodies were imprinted in the memories of people around the world. Images that were caught in the media loop after the disaster and coverage of the attack, its aftermath, and the wars that followed reflected a pervasive tendency to treat these tragic events as spectacle. Though the collapse of the World Trade Center was "the most photographed disaster in history," it failed to yield a single noteworthy image of carnage. Thomas Stubblefield argues that the absence within these spectacular images is the paradox of 9/11 visual culture, which foregrounds the visual experience as it obscures the event in absence, erasure, and invisibility. From the spectral presence of the Tribute in Light to Art Spiegelman's nearly blank New Yorker cover, and from the elimination of the Twin Towers from television shows and films to the monumental cavities of Michael Arad's 9/11 memorial, the void became the visual shorthand for the incident. By examining configurations of invisibility and erasure across the media of photography, film, monuments, graphic novels, and digital representation, Stubblefield interprets the post-9/11 presence of absence as the reaffirmation of national identity that implicitly laid the groundwork for the impending invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253015563
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 12/17/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 246
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Thomas Stubblefield is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

Read an Excerpt

9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster

By Thomas Stubblefield

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2015 Thomas Stubblefield
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01563-1


From Latent to Live


As the first year that digital cameras outsold their analog counterparts, 2001 marked a tipping point in the digital turn, one that would forge a new relation between the medium and the spectacle of disaster.1 With its dematerialization into code and capacity for instant transmission, the digital format allowed photography, perhaps for the first time in its history, to satiate the desire for "live" images. As a result of this sudden acceleration of the still image, the cultural position and function of film photography would endure an equally profound redefinition. In an attempt to retain legitimacy in the face of what John Roberts calls the "intrusion" of digital technologies and a "defeated documentary culture," film photography in the twenty-first century appeared to relinquish its hold on the now in favor of more reflective and distanced role. As David Campany explains, in ceding "the representation of events in progress ... to other media," the postdigital identity of the medium became bound to the role of the "undertaker," that shadowy figure who "turns up late, wanders through the places where things have happened" in order to document "the aftermath of the event" rather than the event itself.

However, the experience of photographers "on the ground" on 9/11 suggests that this familiar narrative of digitization was momentarily compromised by the disaster. Within minutes of the collision, gift shops that surrounded the World Trade Center reported selling out of disposable film cameras. The manager of a Duane Reade drugstore in the vicinity of the towers even claimed to have sold between sixty and one hundred film cameras in the first hour of the attacks. These accounts, along with the numerous exhibitions of amateur photography from that day, confirm that the most photographed disaster in history was just as often captured on celluloid as in binary code. While one is tempted to diagnosis this phenomenon as a nostalgic return to a more familiar mode of seeing in the face of uncertainty, framing the issue in these oppositional terms tends to overlook the unique circumstances of this resurgence. As the rivalry between these formats was momentarily eclipsed by a larger desire for visibility, photography in the context of the disaster was no longer simply in a transitional state as of 9/11, but was rather a hybrid medium.

As analog and digital platforms coalesced at the level of practice, new modes of vision were momentarily made possible which would challenge reigning assumptions regarding disaster photography. Under the influence of trauma studies, the camera's presence at the scene of the catastrophic events is typically read in terms of a defense mechanism which safely removes the subject from a scene that is too great. Manifesting as a kind of blindness within the operator's field of vision, this phenomenon is understood in terms of a failure to fully comprehend let alone experience the reality before the lens. However, as a result of the convergence of a series of conflicting forces which center on the delayed temporality of the analog medium and the disaster's demand for instant images, the non-seeing of analog practice was taken to such an extreme that it pushed what is under normal circumstances a deferral of vision into an indefinite suspension. As a result, the model of "looking away" which has characterized the relation of trauma to the camera came to disclose the possibility of what I will call non-seeing, a blindness in which the traumatic experience does not return in a newly encoded symbolic image, but rather remains within this absence as an unfathomable event. This overwhelming of the capacities of the film camera recalibrates familiar models of the sublime according to a new techno-imaginary where enduring metaphysical or transcendental associations are jettisoned in favor of a more immediate redistribution of the senses.

Given the evocative power of the photographs that came out of that day, it is on some level understandable that the operator's experience would take a back seat to the image in the scholarship on 9/11. However, subordinating the act of taking pictures to the lure of images not only threatens to naturalize the interventions of both operator and apparatus, but also reinforces certain elisions within photographic theory more broadly. (It is telling in this respect that the two dominant figures of the field in the last half-century, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, both attest to a dislike for taking pictures.) For these reasons, this inquiry will begin before the image, or rather at a moment when the image exists in latent form, clouding the vision of the operator as a virtual presence. This broadened configuration of practice, which I will call the "photographic situation," understands the immediate phenomenological experience of the camera as a simultaneously futural event in which the present is roped to an impending image. Approaching the act of photography as the creation of an interval within experience serves to draw out the critical relationship between practice and image and in turn bring into view the larger transformations of the medium that were under way at the time of the disaster.


While the motivations behind the impulse to take pictures in the face of the 9/11 disaster are admittedly as varied as the images they produced, it is telling to find a recurring thread running through the accounts of those who either found themselves reaching for the camera or witnessed this response from afar. For example, E. Ann Kaplan describes her own urge to photograph in terms of "a desire to make real what I could barely comprehend." David Friend similarly attributes this pervasive response to the realization that "only rendering this act visually would confirm its reality." Citing the photograph's ability to forge order in the place of chaos, Barbie Zelizer describes its role in 9/11 as "a powerful and effective way of visually encountering the horrific event." Reflecting a larger position within the critical study of 9/11, these comments attribute the resurgence of the still image to a collective need for clarity in the face of an unfathomable event, a desire to slow down and make sense of an event that happened "too fast" and that was because of its sheer scale and unprecedented nature incomprehensible at the time of its occurrence.

While photographs certainly allow for the kind of careful contemplation that the disaster itself does not, this possibility is more often than not contingent upon an impoverishment or at least displacement of the now at the level of the operator. The most well-known articulation of this relationship is found in Susan Sontag's On Photography, which famously argues that the act of taking a photograph functions first and foremost as a way of avoiding experience in the present. As an instrument of "non-intervention," the camera, according to Sontag, effectively removes its operator intellectually and even emotionally from the reality before the lens, a dynamic that becomes especially disconcerting in the face of human suffering. Sontag states,

Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention. Part of the horror of such memorable coups of photojournalism ... comes from the awareness of how plausible it has become, in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph. The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene.

The binary between immersed participation and detached observation is admittedly less restrictive in the context of everyday photography, as the operator seamlessly moves between positions in order to coax his or her model or simply arrange the scene before the lens. However, this scenario is often condensed into an either/or proposition in the disaster, where issues of life and death are often decided in a single, fleeting moment. Even if a given photograph does not itself embody the "pregnant" or "decisive" moment, the potential for such images structures the scene of photography, fueling a prolonged production of images which sustains the disengagement of the operator. The interconnectedness between this pursuit of the image and the violence of the disaster is embodied in Carolee Schneemann's Terminal Velocity (2001), in which the artist arranges thirty images of the falling bodies of 9/11 in serial format. Emphasizing the downward motion of these bodies, the grid of images not only renders the compulsive nature of disaster photography visible, but also, in Warholian fashion, portrays this activity as somehow inseparable from the impending death of the camera's subjects.

However, when read in the context of her larger project it is clear that Sontag is, like so many of her contemporaries, interested more in diagnosing the alienation of the "image world" that the apparatus allegedly produces than in the specific operations which determine the moment of photography. By working backward from this recurring diagnosis of spectacle, a misleading conception of the noninterventionist quality of photography emerges. Specifically, what is considered an active denial on the part of the operator in these formulations is in reality a symptom of a larger sacrifice of vision that takes place via the photographic operation. From this standpoint, the operator does not so much choose the camera over reality, but rather suspends the possibility of such a choice within the interval between blindness and sight that the processes of chemical photography introduce. Once incorporated within the photographic environment, the disaster no longer appears as a space of intervention; in fact, it no longer appears. This capacity of the photographic operation to produce non-seeing is illustrated by two controversial images produced during 9/11, both of which depict a disavowal of the camera at the moment of disaster.

In his 2006 New York Times article entitled "Whatever Happened to the America of 9/12?," Frank Rich wrestles with the larger implications of a photograph taken by Thomas Hoepker on September 11. The image shows a group of lounging New Yorkers, "taking what seems to be a lunch or bike-riding break, enjoying the radiant late-summer sun and chatting away as cascades of smoke engulf Lower Manhattan in the background." Published on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Rich's editorial portrays the image as representative of the growing nonchalance of the American public following the disaster: "Traumatic as the attack on America was, 9/11 would recede quickly for many. This is a country that likes to move on, and fast." Though the piece does not blame the medium per se for the troubling disconnect the image seems to visualize, Hoepker's photograph is nonetheless prompted to engage with its role in producing this disconnect by virtue of the photographer's implied participation in this practice of passive looking.

Ironically, Chris Schiavo, the second woman from the right in the photograph, is herself a photographer and would later confess to wrestling with these same issues of disaster photography on that day. However, unlike Hoepker, she decided to

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.... 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.

Hoepker's photo suggests that Schiavo's refusal of the camera is motivated not only by a desire to fully experience the event and thereby save it from reification, but more immediately to see the disaster. Its internal spectators – whether dismissive or seeking communal support in the face of uncertainty – compose themselves around the act of looking and thereby distinguish their experience from that of the camera and its operator. The stopped bicycle, the two chairs pulled up as if to allow those sitting in them to get a better look, and even the faces of those figures who momentarily turn away from the burning towers, suggest a verbal communication of what has just been seen. As such, the photograph presents two forms of looking: one based in direct apprehension and social engagement, and the other a remove, a virtual blindness that permeates the photographer's own vision of the disaster and perhaps even the "coverage" of the event more broadly.

Fellow Brooklyn photographer Tim Soter responded to the disaster in a similarly antiphotographic manner. Rather than capturing the event itself, the photographer chose to nonchalantly pose for the camera with the burning towers as his backdrop. While some have objected to the image and its seemingly opportunistic memorialization of human suffering (the work landed on the "wall of shame" in the Here Is New York exhibit), it nonetheless reveals something critical about the operation of the camera in the moment of disaster. According to the photographer, the image was born out of a simple desire to include himself in the narrative of a truly historic event and to perhaps even provide a document for his grandchildren who would one day "read about the event in a textbook." In the process of fulfilling this witnessing function, the image necessarily presents the photographer's attempt to evade the camera and its eradication of the event. Accordingly, what might first appear to be a callous mode of apprehending the trauma of that day suggests the exact opposite. Rather, in posing for his own camera, Soter's reflexive gesture equates freedom from the apparatus with the possibility of communion with the disaster. Paradoxically, in order to make good on what John Berger describes as the most basic promise of the photograph, the assertion that "this particular event or this particular object has been seen," both Soter and Hoepker actively present a negation of the photographic process. They testify to "having seen" by foregrounding the act of not photographing and in the process ascribe a kind of blindness to the apparatus that is willfully avoided.

The anxiety that these images visualize regarding the capacity of disaster photography to suspend vision would be validated by a roundtable discussion among the photographers of 9/11 in the weeks after the attacks. In this exchange, David Handschuh, who captured the collision of the jet with the towers in a now-iconic image, confessed to never seeing an airplane enter his frame. The next morning when a neighbor brought over a copy of the Daily News to his door he was stunned to find his byline underneath the image. Similarly, it was only after receiving a call from a lab technician that Richard Drew realized that his photograph of the exploding tower had also captured a person holding on to a piece of the crumbling building. Like so many other New Yorkers, Will Nuñez raced to the local newsstand to buy a disposable camera after seeing the smoking crater in the North Tower. While shooting his colleague standing in front of the window of the thirty-second floor of One State Street Plaza, he inadvertently captured the second plane streaking through the frame, a detail that only became apparent after he got the film developed weeks later.

Such instances dramatize the euphoric blindness which, as Vilém Flusser describes, shadows instances of "photo-mania." In these cases, photographers "are not 'in charge of' taking photographs, they are consumed by the greed of their camera, they have become an extension to the button of their camera.... A permanent flow of unconsciously created images is the result." It is the very alterity of this flow of inanimate and mechanically produced images for which Walter Benjamin praised the medium. Transcending the limitations of vision, the camera's eye excavated that which was invisible to the everyday sensorium, the end result of which was a "salutary estrangement between man and his surroundings." As the disaster confirms, the overcoming that Benjamin and other modernists celebrated is, however, the product of a negative relation to sight that is made possible by the camera's implicit promise to return experience as image. As the expectation of an ensuing image promises to fill in the blanks, the operator is relieved of the burden of fully experiencing the now and perhaps even subsequent reflection upon it. Consequently, the photographer's experience of the moment itself is one of inexperience and non-seeing. Sylviane Agacinski explains,

In counting on a retrospective vision, in entrusting my memory to the material trace, I can save myself the effort of a subjective recollection, indeed even an attentive look at the present. This is how the amateur photographer risks depriving himself of any present.

This guarantee of the return of the experience as image grants the photographer a bye so to speak, as it ensconces him or her in between the "not yet" and the "already no more" of the visible. Such is the unique position of the photographic interval, which effectively defers vision until a later date, leaving the photographer in what artist Ariel Goldberg calls "a place of delay and darkness."


Excerpted from 9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster by Thomas Stubblefield. Copyright © 2015 Thomas Stubblefield. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Spectacle and Its Other
1. From Latent to Live: Disaster Photography after the Digital Turn
2. Origins of Affect: The Falling Body and Other Symptoms of Cinema
3. Remembering-Images: Empty Cities, Machinic Vision, and the Post-9/11 Imaginary
4. Lights, Camera, Iconoclasm: How Do Monuments Die and Live to Tell about It?
5. The Failure of the Failure of Images: The Crisis of the Unrepresentable from the Graphic Novel to the 9/11 Memorial

What People are Saying About This

"How can artworks elicit effective collective action? For a long time, contemporary art has been celebrated for its deployment of emptiness and absence as political strategies. Thomas Stubblefield convincingly demonstrates that this discourse doesn't work any more, and that deferring to participants to 'complete' the work has also become a lazy artistic strategy. In close examinations of the production and reception of monuments to disaster, he stirringly argues that discourses of participation and therapy supplant collective action and prepare people, once again, to receive the rhetoric of war."

Laura Marks

How can artworks elicit effective collective action? For a long time, contemporary art has been celebrated for its deployment of emptiness and absence as political strategies. Thomas Stubblefield convincingly demonstrates that this discourse doesn't work any more, and that deferring to participants to 'complete' the work has also become a lazy artistic strategy. In close examinations of the production and reception of monuments to disaster, he stirringly argues that discourses of participation and therapy supplant collective action and prepare people, once again, to receive the rhetoric of war.

Laura Marks]]>

How can artworks elicit effective collective action? For a long time, contemporary art has been celebrated for its deployment of emptiness and absence as political strategies. Thomas Stubblefield convincingly demonstrates that this discourse doesn't work any more, and that deferring to participants to 'complete' the work has also become a lazy artistic strategy. In close examinations of the production and reception of monuments to disaster, he stirringly argues that discourses of participation and therapy supplant collective action and prepare people, once again, to receive the rhetoric of war.

Jeffrey Melnick

An engaging book with challenging things to say about post-9/11 artistic strategies, the subjectivity of viewers, and the representational paradoxes at the heart of 9/11 art.

Jeffrey Melnick]]>

An engaging book with challenging things to say about post-9/11 artistic strategies, the subjectivity of viewers, and the representational paradoxes at the heart of 9/11 art.

Customer Reviews