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September 17, 2010

Why There are So Few Pictures of the Attack on the Pentagon

Chang Lee/AP Photo
Chang Lee/AP Photo

I am currently teaching a senior seminar on photojournalism and civic culture and it should come as no surprise that we have spent some time this past week discussing the ways in which photography contributes to how we remember and memorialize the most recent day of infamy in U.S. history.

After a recent class one of my students wrote with a question, wondering why it was that there are so many pictures of firefighters at ground zero and no pictures of “the Pennsylvania flight or the DC attack.”  Of course, such pictures do exist and they have had some distribution and circulation, but nevertheless the sense of the question is dead on correct: for the most part we have remembered the 9/11 attacks photographically in terms of New York City and the heroic efforts of hundreds of firefighters. The photograph above, which led off a recent slide show on 9/11 remembrance at The Big Picture offers some hints as to why.

The focal point of the photograph is the pink rose being offered by a young boy to a firefighter.  The child appears to be happy, safe and secure on his fathers shoulders; but more, his pose—cast against a cloudless, bright blue sky—suggests a return of the innocence that had been purportedly erased once and for all on that fateful day, nine years ago.  The dark pink rose, of course, is a symbol of gratitude and appreciation, and its significance here is enhanced by the fact that it is being offered backwards from a representative of a future generation to a representative of the earlier generation whose sacrifices made the present possible.

But that is not exactly right, as the offer of gratitude is not simply from one generation to another, but from a citizen to a representative of the state.  That the citizen is cast as a pre-adolescent child is very much to the point as it prefigures the parental role of the state.  And therein perhaps lies one of the reasons why the firefighter has become such an iconic representation of 9/11, as well as why we see so few pictures of the assault on the Pentagon: although no one is to blame, images of a successful sneak attack a

gainst the nation’s premiere citadel hardly inspires confidence in the ability of the state to protect its citizenry; by the same token, the New York City firefighters more than rose to the task in responding to an attack against a public site.

But there is more going on in this photograph than an allegory of parens patria.  And to see what you need to look more closely at the deep background, shot in soft focus, that blends the vivid blue sky with erection of  the new tower.  That the emergent tower is aligned with the child, and thus identified with a bright future is not incidental, but the bigger point is that the landscape background serves to frame the events on the ground.  The effect of that framing is to redirect our remembrances of 9/11 away from a narrative of trauma and loss and towards an unreflexive and over weaning pride—one might even say hubris— in our ability to rebuild and reconstruct, a point underscored throughout the slide show (e.g., here, here, here, and here), but emphasized elsewhere as well, as with photographs such as this one of a father and son appearing to admire the construction site for the new World Trade Center.

The full implications of conflating remembrance (of the past) with rebuilding (the future) are a bit unclear, but they are also somewhat unsettling.

Emphasizing the trope of “rebuilding” no doubt draws attention to Ground Zero more than to other sites of 9/11 memory, and in that sense it might help to explain why we see so relatively few photographs from Pennsylvania or Washington D.C, where there are no easily recognizable rebuilding projects.  But it should also lead us to notice a potential shift in attention away from the firefighter as hero to the construction worker, and by extension from the state to the private sector.That shift is underscored by the fact that the new tower, originally identified  as “Freedom Tower,” has more recently been dubbed “One World Trade Center,” almost as if to shed its connection with the world of state politics and to locate it back in the world of capital and commerce.  And what better site for that than New York City?

And so it is that the two photographs above seem to work in close tandem with one another: in the first the child must turn around awkwardly to address the firefighter who, it turns out, is barely in the frame, seemingly fading into the past and perhaps soon to be forgotten altogether, or remembered as little more than a relic of a distant time and place; in the second image, father and son comfortably cast the gaze of multiple generations ahead to the future.

It made me recall the words of George Santayana.  Not just his prophecy that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but also that “Those who speak most of progress measure it by quantity and not quality.”

Photo Credit: Chang Lee/AP Photo; Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

crossposted at No Caption Needed.

  • DennisQ

    We’re not going to get closure until they get honest about what happened on September 11th. The purpose of the 9/11 Commission was to absolve the government of any wrongdoing, but it didn’t do that. What it did was create the unspoken myth that the attacks were miraculous. Bush exploited that myth by using it to attack Muslims in general, so that today the belief in the “holiness” of Ground Zero is used to justify religious bigotry. It’s untrue that nobody was to blame for the successful attack on the Pentagon. We don’t know the names of the guilty John Does, and perhaps we never will, but there were enormous security lapses that day. By not assigning blame to the people who certainly failed us that day, we’ve elevated the nineteen hijackers to the status of mythic heroes. They clearly had God on their side to overcome as many obstacles as they did. Imagine Hani Hanjour’s magical ability to pilot a massive 767 through a maze of obstacle, make a 270º turn at barely subsonic speed, then crash into the Pentagon without leaving a trace. Come on now. Let’s own up to some responsibility for allowing September 11th to happen. We can make a deliberate choice not to name names, but it doesn’t help us to maintain a policy of denial. If we say nobody did anything wrong, we’re left with the inescapable conclusion that the attacks were successful because Allah blessed them. This is not an appropriate legacy to leave the child offering the pink rose to the firefighter.

  • Amir Goy

    A very astute analysis of these images that only bolsters the ever more glaring reality that they themselves are as much of a psy-op and fantasy as the actual 911 event itself and the 911 Commission report respectively.

  • serr8d

    As with the sad sack 9/11 ‘Truthers’ and the pathetic Obama ‘Birthers’, there’s a subset of individuals, moronic Pentagon ‘Truthers’, who believe a mad conspiracy between George Bush, the Saudi Princes and who knows who else caused release of a military missile into the Pentagon (and obviously wired the WTC’s cores with high explosives, set off by a red button under a desk located in the White House). A FLASH treatment, with some decent Pentagon 9/11 photos, here. For more g00gle ‘pentagon truther’. One poor fool gave his life in an effort to uncover Pentagon ‘truth’.

    Of course, no one gives this a second thought, right? Right?

    • charlie chan

      second thought like second helping, not always serving self…

    • Gasho

      The Pentagon Attack is going to prove to be the Achilles Heal of the whole 911 bullshit official story. You can say whatever you want about how nutty it is, but if the hole ain’t big enough for a plane and there’s no skid mark on the grass, then I’m sorry, no passenger jet hit that building.

      It’s the big “oops”.

  • marc sobel

    sorry, but I keep on remembering “Those who fail history have to repeat it in Summer school” Buffy Summers.

    Why is there no memorial to the Bush briefing. You know, a “You covered your asses” statue ?

  • black dog barking

    The “rose” photo does indeed support a deep reading. It captures elements of the interaction of generations, of social structure (tall buildings are a commitment to the future), of the fractal relationship between the nuclear family and a functioning sustainable society.

    Call this a Political Science view. My first reaction to the boy and the rose was different. I saw a child, immersed in his own world, his attentions focused away from whatever held the attentions of the adults around him. The boy’s energies and the brightest lights in the image are aimed down the barrel-like (apparently thorn-less) rose. It is an imaginary energy the boy channels but an imaginary energy that once dominated the lives of each of the surrounding adults, too. So, to the extent that human imagination is real, this is a real force.

    Call this an English major view. You almost have to be a poet to make this argument but luckily we have access to poets. William Wordsworth could have been writing a caption to this picture when he wrote:

    Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
    Shades of the prison-house begin to close
    Upon the growing Boy,
    But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
    He sees it in his joy;

    Surrounded by skyscrapers, staring at a man in formal uniform, the child sees magic where no one else does. Now. Now that they are adults. More Wordsworth:

    My heart leaps up when I behold
    A rainbow in the sky:
    So was it when my life began;
    So is it now I am a man;
    So be it when I shall grow old,
    Or let me die!
    The Child is father of the Man;
    I could wish my days to be
    Bound each to each by natural piety.

    • lucaites

      Nicely done! I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t note that your poet is very clearly a “romantic.” And the romance of unbounded innocence–child is the father to man–is part of the ethos that animates the “political science” read, i.e., the notion that fuels the parens patria sensibility here.

      But the bigger point is that the photo is capacious enough to incorporate multiple readings …. and in that context a powerful resource for civic engagement and discussion. Photojournalism, in this regard, is truly a public art.

      Best, JLL

  • Rafaelq

    Interesting use of the word “patria” (whence Patriotic comes from) as it stands for “father” in Latin, as the right “Patria Potestad” of the father to do as he wills with his family, including (in some extreme cases) murder them.

    Also, the Pentagon is a simple of war and naked Empire. As much as American society has been militarized in the last 70 years, there is still a gulf between the civilian and military cultures, ones that alienates one from the other. A firefighter wears a uniform and as part of a para-military force, a rank, but he is still a civilian.

    The Pentagon is also a reminder of the long, meddlesome history behind the attacks, meddlesome because it soils the concept of America as victim.

  • LanceThruster

    Even with the focus primarily on “Ground Zero”, I find it unfortunate that other aspects of what is actually taking place in NYC is still being omitted. Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth made a bold statement by adding a light for WTC 7 but that was largely ignored everywhere I looked. Truly shameful as these are professionals who would certainly know a bit about the physics of 9/11.

    3 Beams for Truth on Sept 11, 2010

  • Bretty

    We don’t see pictures of the other sites because the Islamic Community Center/Terrorist Breeding Ground Mosque/Ground Zero Victory Club can’t easily be fit into the media narrative before the November election if the focus is to the South and Southwest. The media is being played. Again.

  • louboutin

    Nazi. He is dressed as a Nazi, not in lederhosen. Obama was dressed in traditional garb.

  • Colin Nicholls

    “Ground Zero Reconstruction: Picking the scab since 11/2001.” It occurs to me that Ground Zero is much more useful to the Powers That Be as a site mired in eternal rebuilding, than it is as a shiny new building and park, completed, all healed over and happy.

    How many skyscrapers have been built from scratch and completed in Dubai since 2001?

    But that’s a great picture.

  • the mugster

    My best guess would be that John meant to use the single word “overweening,” which, when coupled with the word “pride,” is the old classical direct translation of “hubris” from the Greek…so of course “one might even say hubris!”

    Happy Hollandaise to all!

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