The ambiguous shock of the frozen moment

I always get a bit of a jolt when I read about things that were founded in the war years – for example when the premiere of something came in 1943 or the completion of some study happened in 1915. It seems somehow wrong, a kind of “didn’t they realise there was a war on when they were struggling with the last words of the final scene …” But then I remember that on the one occasion when I’ve been caught up in something awful I wound up having coffee and a pastry whilst a few hundred yards away innocents died. That’s how life works. It’s messy and not always straightforward.

Take this shot by Thomas Hoepker. Of the many images of 9/11 this was the one that has stuck with me (although it appears I can’t actually have seen it until 2006 at the earliest). That smoke in the background is the stricken World Trade Center and these folk are enjoying – and enjoying seems the right word – their lunch break. Aside from the thousands trapped on the other side of the river it looks like a pretty nice time. Of course the framing acts as a sort of judgement – the tree ends the image but the wooden struts in the river lead us to the smoke, just as the participants look away from it.

But here’s what, Walter Sipser, one of the people in the photo says.

Had I taken any photos on 9/11 they would have shown events being broadcast on WGN in Chicago. They tastefully had a live relay of the Sears Tower in an on-screen box in case any missing plane should strike it down. I then had lunch out – the waitress switched off the television to show us pictures of her newly born grandson. Then, with the people I was staying with, I hired and watched two DVDs and drank a lot of wine. It’s worth remembering that if Hoepker or anybody else had snapped me in any of these activities I would have looked callously, uncaring and also a little drunk. And yet the destruction that nobody was yet calling 9/11 was always to the fore – it’s just not always possible to photograph the inner workings of somebody’s mind.

This shot is now on display at the Magnum Print Room as part of an exhibition celebrating Magnum’s press prints. Magnum being the photographers’ photo agency it’s all about work that reveals what words never could and is well worth a visit. Though probably worth bearing in mind that you shouldn’t rush to a conclusion about what you’re seeing.

And if you’ve a spare few hundred you can pick up something nice for a Christmas present as well – after all nothing says I love you like an uncomfortable record of a terrible event.

You can read a bit more about Thomas Hoepker here.

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