July 23, 2005
When a city is being terrorized and suspected bombers are at large, the last thing anybody needs is a semiotic analysis of a sweatshirt. I’m sure to a Londoner, just the thought could be perceived as insensitive.
Still, if you believe as strongly as I do in the power of news images not only to shape attitudes, politics and emotions, but to also provide greater understanding of the events and people they depict, I believe it is worthwhile to delicately touch on a visual confusion about this closed circuit image of the Oval Street station bombing suspect released Friday by London police.
In most of the news accounts I have seen this morning, the text on this shirt has typically been reported (Guardian; NY Daily News: Chicago Tribune) as reading "New York." On closer inspection, however, it actually reads: "New You." In either case, the implications are ironic. For example, "New York" could be seen to reference 9/11 as inspiration. (In fact, the NYT ran an AP story filed yesterday afternoon with the following first line: One of the four London bombing suspects shown in closed-circuit TV photos distributed Friday by police wore a dark shirt bearing the name of a past target of terrorism — New York.)
Or, "New York" could be thought to foreshadow Gotham as a new target of transit terror — especially since the look of this passageway is so generic.
(Not to discount the media’s tendency toward over personalization, NY Newsday actually ran a story — Reading Into Bomb Suspect’s ‘New York’ Shirt –claiming the sweatshirt as local and possibly even purchased at the World Trade Center.)
Of greater relevance, however, is how the actual text ("New You") might offer some small insight into the psychology of the bombers themselves. In picking out this particular sweatshirt (as a purchase and/or his choice of attire this day), was this young man hoping to reinvent himself — and do so specifically through this act? Or, does it imply a profoundly brash and narcissistic message directed at all of us that we could be transformed through the actions of a few young men? (And, isn’t he right?)
(Big credit: Bob K.)
(image 1: nynewsday.com. 7/23/05. front page image. image 2: guardian.co.uk)