Part of: Killed

Essay: The Worst Thing in The World

by John Taylor on 23 January 2002

Writer John Taylor considers the role of photographic images in our comprehension of catastrophe, specifically that of 9/11.

Writer John Taylor considers the role of photographic images in our comprehension of catastrophe, specifically that of 9/11.

The worst thing in the world varies from person to person. It may be death by fire, or by falling, or fifty other deaths. Whatever is worst or disgusting varies, and everyone has their own threshold. But the worst thing in the world also has a public face. Of course, no news picture is the real thing, or even the same as being there. The face of terror never appears in full. Besides, the daily press in Britain is not a forensic report or a freak show.

News stories recur eternally. News is an endless loop of different examples. Planes crash routinely; bombs routinely explode; huge buildings collapse; thousands die in single, man-made incidents on a regular basis. The press squeezes these events into stories. Journalists write the narrative from any one of many angles, all with photographic support. Popular formats include 'Heroes', 'Survivors', 'Victims' and 'The Bitter Deaths of the Youngest/Bravest/Most Famous/Most Promising'. Photographs exist of most types of event, but not all of them. Some of the most spectacular or dreadful events are not recorded in any photographs - events such as the destruction of whole cities or whole armies and whole peoples.

Image from Raf Simons' Spring/Summer 2002 show, August 2001

Almost everything happens out of sight. Thousands died in the 9/11 attacks, but, not surprisingly, very little of that appeared in the press. One controversial picture, taken by Richard Drew, staff photographer for Associated Press in New York, showed a man falling to his death. Some people reckoned they could name him, which would be a cruel burden for his family. Naming is not normal practice in Britain, where the dead are seen at a distance, if at all. Drew's picture is rare, but in a tradition of 'falling' imagery. Given that news value derives from stories that are the-same-but-worse, what makes this picture so poignant, even savage, is the height (and therefore the time) of the drop. The unknown, suffering stranger falls to his death. We know that happened, though we do not see it fully.

Few unknown, suffering strangers die in photographs. This may be a mercy for those living, and is not even irresponsible. When such pictures are published, blame is often attached to them for inducing 'compassion fatigue'. This special blame attached to photography is unnecessary, because our whole culture is a contract of mutual indifference. We learn the art of mis-meeting, allowing our eyes to graze over and fail to see whatever is potentially disturbing. It is not even irrational to feel nothing and fail to respond to the misery of others.

News photography is blamed for being there, for its authenticity. No matter what technological changes take place in picture gathering and printing, the press derives its authority from the truth-value of its stories and pictures. But no one can bear too much reality, so editors present it in euphemistic forms. The aftermath of terror is twisted metal, not blown flesh. Bad news often appears in pictures that are aesthetically pleasing. In fact, photographs always have some aesthetic appeal. Speaking about the collapsed towers in New York, a British photojournalist remarked 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. This 'art' response is as normal as curiosity, and neither is to be condemned.

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.

The destruction of iconic buildings and the huge loss of life in the USA on 9/11 was, for a while, the worst thing in the world. The next day the broadsheet newspapers dispensed with advertising and devoted whole pages and double-page spreads to full-blown single images. The scale of the attacks was astonishing, but the coverage was so extensive because Americans had experienced attacks that were altogether 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 were unequivocal. In pictures, 'This is this. It is not something else'.

Choice words in the headlines of the US press were AMERICA, NIGHTMARE, ATTACK and TERROR. 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. 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. A photograph of a plane shows it fixed on flying into a tower, or a whole tower fixed in falling. In Drew's picture, one man is fixed in falling from a tower. We see him hanging there, never falling any further, so the man is dying and living forever.

However, sustaining the moment has implications: it is a charm or perhaps a curse. Time is fixed in a news photograph, certainly, but that results in other kinds of disorder in time and space. The curse of photography is to 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. Popular story formats also include 'Mourning', 'Unity', 'Retaliation'.

The result is that Americans have dealt out their own unequivocal 'This is this'. The Afghans have discovered, as did those on 9/11, that 'This is not something else'. The unequivocal retribution is, for unknown strangers, the worst thing in the world, though we who look at photographs see almost nothing of it. For us, that is something, and somewhere, else.




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