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Aftermath – 9/11

David Campany suggests that there are some ‘problems’ with ‘late photography’, that is photos taken after an event, rather than during and event (also known more precisely as ‘aftermath’ photography). His essay, Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’, explores these perceived problems in the context of Joel Meyerowitz’s work, Aftermath, which deals with the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Centre on September 11th, 2001.

Screen Shot 2015-10-10 at 09.25.14
Source: houkgallery.com, photo by Joel Meyerowitz

So, what are the problems that Campany perceives? I read the following aspects:

  1. Campany draws on the television programme, Reflections of Ground Zero, as scene-setting for the essay – commenting on its ritualistic melancholy and above all the ‘the contrast drawn between the complexity of the geopolitical situation and the simplicity of Meyerowitz’s camera and working method’. He states that ‘the photographs were being positioned as superior to the television programme in which they were presented’. This sets up Campany’s later comments on the relevance (or irrelevance) of photography in a multimedia age. Interestingly, I didn’t perceive that the TV programme proposed this view – it was dealing with Meyerowitz’s work in relation to 9/11 and his interaction with some of the people caught in the aftermath, not a comparison on the merits of the photography and televisual media.
  2. There is an eloquently description of aftermath photos as ‘not so much the trace of an event as the trace of the trace of an event’. Campany summarises this type of photography, saying, ‘it turns up late, wanders through the places where things have happened totting up the effects of the world’s activity. This is a kind of photograph that foregoes the representation of events in progress and so cedes them to other media.’ However, a recurring theme mentioned in the TV documentary was ‘the absence of people’ – from a building that was full of life and activity there was nothing. It was transformed in to a six acre grave yard. 10,000 body parts were found but only 800 identified. To me the event was still in progress – it didn’t stop with the fall of the towers, the aftermath was a continuation of the event; the poignant searching for survivors and bodies, the clearing of the ruins of biblical proportions. I feel Campany is off the mark in effectively dismissing ground zero as a non-event.
  3. I believe, but it is not entirely clear from the text, Campany then suggests that photograph’s special place in relation to memories does not deserve to be above contemporary video photojournalism. He points out that memories develop and change (inferring like a moving picture). He says, ‘In popular consciousness (as opposed to popular unconsciousness) the still image continues to be thought of as being more memorable than those that move. Yet if the frozen photograph seems memorable in the contemporary mediasphere it is probably because it says very little.’ But surely this exactly the reason why it has greater relevance to memory – our short-term memory can only hold around seven pieces of information at one time (http://psychology.about.com/od/memory/f/short-term-memory.htm), so we are quickly and hopelessly overwhelmed by a stream of moving images. This is the human condition, not ‘popular consciousness’. A still image allows us time to absorb and reflect on information – this is not a cultural trend.
  4. ‘Today it is very rare that photographs actually break the news. The newspaper constitutes only a second wave of interpreted information or commentary. Furthermore when ‘late photographs’ appear in the slower forms of the illustrated magazine or gallery exhibit they are at one further remove.’ This is  Campany’s suggestion for the reason in the trend towards aftermath photography. There is some truth in this but it is perhaps also a personal perspective of Campany as viewer of news. I am one of  the, I assume, many who take their news through online/mobile apps, which are still-image driven rather television or streamed images. So, much of the information on the recent Syrian refugee crisis, I have seen accompanied by photos (including the infamous drowned toddler on the Turkish beach). Perhaps a more likely reason that photographers (and the media in general) are not present as events unfold is the greater control and organisation by police, security and military sources over access to events. There is also the deliberate targeting of journalists in conflict zones, which didn’t seem to be a factor in the decades up to the 1970s, to which Campany refers to as photojournalism’s glory-days.
  5. Campany’s final concern about late photography is ‘in its apparent finitude and muteness it can leave us in permanent limbo, obliterating even the need for analysis and bolstering a kind of liberal melancholy that shuns political explanation like a vampire shuns garlic.’ I don’t understand why he singles out late-photography specifically as causing this kind of apathetic response to events. I would have thought a constant stream of over-whelming moving images is more likely to engender this kind of response – people spending huge chunks of their lives glued to TV screens, leaving little time for worthwhile activities. If anything, a still image (and it’s context) allows us time to reflect upon the information and decide upon a response – whereas with moving media we are quickly over-run by new information.

Late-photography suffers the same flaw as other photography as documentary, no-more, no-less; that is its message can be complete changed depending upon the situation in which it is viewed. For example, Meyerowitz’s photos could be viewed as celebratory by Muslim extremists. Campany refers to the context problem, saying:

It is not that a photograph naturally ‘says a thousand words’, rather that a thousand words can be said about it. This is why television and film tend to use the still image only for contrived and highly rhetorical moments of pathos, tension and melancholy.

And, this is exactly the value of the still image over the moving image – we have time to absorb, reflect and discuss. To not be in a rush for at least a short time.

References

Campany D (2003) [website]. Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’. Available from: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [accessed 10.10.15]

Reflections of Ground Zero (2002) [Television]. Teresa Smith. UK. ITN Factual. Available from Youtube: https://youtu.be/A8hN-aNWWBE [accessed 10.10.15]

Bibliography

Edwynn Houk Gallery [online]. Joel Meyerowitz
Aftermath. Available from: http://www.houkgallery.com/exhibitions/2011-09-10_joel-meyerowitz/ [accessed 10.10.15]

Conrad P (2006). The Guardian [Online] 9/11: the aftermath. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2006/aug/27/photography.september11 [accessed 10.10.15]

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