This Is This
by John Taylor
My friend Dr Death – named for his diligence in gathering representations of war – confessed that he had been unable to collect the newspapers from 12 September onwards. He had bought his daily Guardian, but had not been able to study it closely. I confessed to buying all the papers for that week, as my collecting habits extend to all types of catastrophe in photographs. Though we are both squeamish and only look at pictures, I am a greater ghoul than he.
Nonetheless I attend the lowest (armchair) class in the tourism of death. I have already collected numerous examples of photographs that were taken moments before death, or at the moment of death, or after death. Some of them are gruesome, most are not; almost none are medical or forensic in their detail. Some are less affecting, emotionally, than photographs of grief. I realise that picture agencies and picture editors protect me from the worst sights. I expect photojournalism to disturb me, incidentally to satisfy a morbid curiosity and perhaps (rarely) to politicise me. I do not expect it to induce Post Traumatic Stress syndrome.
Any event can be turned into a story and squeezed into a newspaper. Journalists can take many angles to make the narrative, all with photographic support. These include ‘The Politicians Act’. ‘The Hunt is On’. ‘The People Speak’. ‘Heroes’, ‘Survivors’, ‘Victims’. ‘The Bitter Deaths of the Youngest/Bravest/Most Famous/Most Promising’. ‘Mourning’. ‘Unity’. ‘Retaliation’.
Occasionally, news photographs of terrible events may be beautiful. Speaking about the collapsed towers in New York, one British photojournalist remarked (in a radio interview) that he could not help noticing the lovely effect of sunlight filtering through the debris – but then he was born into a culture that invented the Sublime. There is already plenty of talk of Fine Art in the aftermath, and some of the existing photographs have already given aesthetic pleasure. This ‘art‘ response is as normal as curiosity, and neither is to be condemned. Similarly, the fact that Newsnight gave five-minutes-of-fame to semiologists talking about American icons is not surprising or in bad taste. Nor is the measurable decline in news value of the attack on the Pentagon and the flight brought down in Pennsylvania. These attacks were either not so well covered by photographers or were, perhaps, more strictly censored. They were smaller in size; their intent was less fully realised. Given that news value derives from stories that are the-same-but-worse, it is unsurprising that the attack on the World Trade Centre has most of it.
News is a type of eternal recurrence, or more simply, a kind of endless loop that morphs into different examples. Planes crash routinely; bombs routinely explode; huge buildings collapse; thousands die in single, man-made incidents on a regular basis. Photographs exist of most of these events, but not some of the most spectacular or dreadful ones – such as ground level, eye-witness photographs of the destruction of whole cities or whole armies and whole peoples (permutate any number of cases in the 20th century).
On September 12 the broadsheet newspapers dispensed with advertising and devoted whole pages and double-page spreads to full-blown single images because signature buildings of the United States of America had simultaneously come under attack. Another reason for such extensive coverage was not only the destruction of iconic buildings and the huge loss of life but the recognition that Americans had experienced attacks which altogether were more significant than the sum of their parts. These acts seemed at first incomprehensible in scale and in meaning. Yet what Americans were looking at was what Robert De Niro meant when he held up a bullet in The Deer Hunter and screamed "This is this!". De Niro's American bullet and the aircraft attacks might be initially incomprehensible but they were also unequivocal. The Americans had dealt out unequivocal ‘This is this’ on a vast scale to foreigners and had long had nightmares of it returning home, making their fears central to film and fiction. Some of them had imagined this reckoning, but there was no defence against it.
Choice words in the headlines of the US press from Orlando to Bakersfield, Milwaukee to San Jose were AMERICA, NIGHTMARE, ATTACK and TERROR (see Guardian G2, September 13). The choice picture was of Manhattan as one tower burned and the second plane approached the other. The picture was a terrible and complex moment of realisation. Some things were known but some things imagined were still becoming reality. Viewers know what happened next. Viewers know – but only in the simplest sense of knowing – what those still alive were going to experience, once and for all.
Photographs suspend everything for a moment and keep it still, preventing it from moving on. In this case, they create a gap for onlookers to fill in their own sense of America, nightmare, attack and terror. They are the equivalent of 'This is this' in journalism. They are unequivocal: one tower burns and a plane flies towards the other.
What we can see in photography is the combination of actual, irreversible motion and its (seeming) total cessation. However, sustaining the moment has implications: it is a charm or perhaps a curse. Time is fixed in an image, certainly, but that results in other kinds of disorder in time and space. A photograph of a plane fixed on flying into a tower, or several people fixed in falling from a tower, or a whole tower fixed in falling, is a pictorial chasm. Any of these still moments will ask an onlooker to face something that may be personally uncomfortable, to say the least. Any photograph may be poignant, but news photographs such as these go deeper. They wound and bewilder; they invoke cries of anguish and anger. In this light, calls for swift revenge seem justified, if not right.
None of these photographs can give – or are intended to give – perspective. That happens only in the larger body of the newspaper – in its reportage and analysis. That is not to say that political or humanitarian arguments cannot be carried forward, or crystallised, in photographs. There are many such examples in living memory, from Vietnam to Tiananmen Square and after. Indeed, the ability of news photographs to carry stories with a minimum of text is one of their most potent uses in repeating and reinforcing (and sometimes criticising) the ideology of the day.
Take for example the image of George W. Bush Jnr. The Mirror of November 16, 2000 had a portrait of him on its front cover. He was standing stock still in a suit and was top-lit. The unnatural light in his hair and the unusual shadows on his face made him look unearthly, as if he were somehow engaged in an Encounter of the Third Kind. The man was not yet elected President. The lengthy caption referred to the fact that as Governor of Texas he had sent 150 prisoners to the death chamber and had spent as little as four minutes in deciding their fate. The main caption was a single word in huge type: LETHAL. The weird-looking man was lethal.
Less than a year later, on September 11, 2001, Bush was photographed hearing the news of the attacks from an aide, a picture used full page in the Sun. He looked "ashen", according to the Mirror. This look of disbelief was forgivable, though a surprising moment for citizens to see. What happened next? After some initial signs of weak leadership that kept him on the move in the deep hinterland of the United States, a flight soon explained as necessary for ‘national security’, Bush emerged to speak from the autocue. Gone was the other-worldy top-lighting. Instead Bush had become the embodiment of what was then called ‘Infinite Justice’. Kind light and clever words had transformed him by directing his death-dealing where it belonged.
Expect more of the same: kind light and clever words may well ensure that very little of what happens in Afghanistan will be seen in our press. There are many precedents, before, during and after the Gulf War. As in earlier conflicts, everything lethal will go from the USA outwards, relayed through allies, who will also accept a degree of ‘sacrifice’. All enemy deaths will be unseen or represented as suicides, self-inflicted and deserved. It is unlikely that photojournalism will be used as in reports of the attack on America, except in one respect. Photographs will show, without equivocation, that 'This is this!' It is unlikely that agencies, picture editors or viewers will be asked to engage with the curse of photography – the difficult questions posed by the fixed moment and the gap before realisation and consequence.