David Campany’s essay “Safety in Numbness” takes as it’s starting point a documentary shown on Channel 4 which followed the photographer Joel Meyerowitz as he documented the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.
Campany’s main thrust seems to be that when events such as the 9/11 attacks happen they are now shown in great detail and querying whether there is a need for the type of approach taken by Meyerowitz “The programme contained video images at least as informative and descriptive as the photographs, yet television was presenting itself as unable to perform a task now given over to photography”. Campany believes that Meyerowitz’s images may come to be remembered, not so much for the images themselves but that there was “a need, a desire, to nominate an official body of images, and that these should be photographs”.
He then questions the concept of ‘late’ photography which he thinks “foregoes the representation of events in progress and so cedes them to other media”. This means that such photographs will have a different relationship to memory. He states that “The photograph can be an aid to memory, but it can also become an obstacle that blocks access to the understanding of the past”. He even wonders if the ‘primitivism’ of photographic images appeals as a way of helping us through the complexity of memory recall when surrounded by multiple still and moving images in a wide range of technologies.
Campany then discusses the changing nature of war and the reporting of it. He describes Vietnam as the last ‘photographers war’ in later conflicts photographers simply weren’t allowed in or their movements severely restricted. Therefore many of the images were of the aftermath of the event leading to us being able to “see the damage afterwards, but at the cost of a sense of removal”.
Finally Campany considers the possible effect of late photography on the viewer “There is a sense in which the late photograph in all its silence, can easily flatter the ideological paralysis of those who gaze at it with a lack of social or political will to make sense of its circumstance”.
When I first read the essay I found myself disagreeing with much of what was being said, but after rereading it a few times, many of the points that Campany was making started to make a lot more sense. On first reading I thought that the main points were that contemporaneous and moving images gave a better representation of an event than a ‘late’ photograph. While this is part of the argument, I think that Campany’s main concern is around the effect that late photography has on how we view events.
It started to dawn on me that perhaps I had been viewing ‘late’ photographs as artistic forms rather than records of events and that this obviously had some effect on how I viewed that event.
I remember the events of 9/11 vividly, I can remember the initial confusion as to whether it was a dreadful accident and then the dawning realisation of the full horror of what had occurred. Everyone in the office were glued to their computer screens trying to keep up to date with events through news websites that could not cope with the volume of traffic. The most striking images were moving images of the planes striking the buildings, of the fire and of people fleeing the scene. The next day the newspapers were full of images of the attack, the front page images used were of the moment of impact of the planes and of people fleeing. As the days passed the images changed to ones of the aftermath of the event – the hundreds of photographs posted by relatives seeking information about those who were missing.
I think that in many respects Meyerowitz’s photographs are almost ‘delayed’ as opposed to ‘late’ photography. They show the results of the attack, and it is important to bear this in mind and not to think that the only valid images are ones taken at the actual moment of occurrence. The effect of a terrorist attack or a war goes on for some considerable time and I think that it is important to consider images of the aftermath as of equal validity to those of the actual moment of the event.
By way of comparison Robert Capa’s photograph of the Death of a Loyalist Soldier in the Spanish Civil War shows the actual moment of the man being shot, but to me it has less resonance than Don McCullin’s image of a Shell-shocked GI in Vietnam awaiting evacuation. In some ways McCullin’s image is almost ‘late’ photography in that it shows the effects or aftermath of war. To me it is more moving because of the way it humanises the event, perhaps in this way it differs from some late photography that perhaps dehumanises the event.
I have thought a lot more now about regarding Meyerowitz’s images of ground zero. Technically they are undoubtedly stunning images, showing the devastation on the site and of the people engaged in clearing it up. It is important to have a record such as this, after all the site has been cleared and a permanent memorial erected to the people who died. But it is also important to remember that it is a record of only part of the event, the immediate aftermath on that particular site. Of the images that I found online, I couldn’t get a resonance with what actually happened on the day. The work tells part of the story of the aftermath, but what of the people affected, those injured, the bereaved, the deceased; their stories don’t seem to be told here, but arguably these are the most important to remember.