9/11 and After

Project image: 
Charlotte Klonk, courtesy author

9/11 and After: Old Pictorial Patterns and New Challenges
Charlotte Klonk

The terror attack on New York’s World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11 is doubtless one of the most memorable historical disasters in contemporary history. Yet in terms of the images it generated, the assault was hardly unprecedented. The spectacular pictures that were released on the day and in the aftermath of the event are misleading in this respect. Since the beginning of the age of modern terror at the end of the nineteenth century, the impact of an attack has largely depended on its dramatic visualisation in the media. By targeting symbolic buildings, central traffic junctions and densely populated locations like coffee houses, theatres and railway stations, perpetrators have always made sure that their acts of violence would be so shocking that the visual evidence would be disseminated widely. Seeing pictures of the 1883 bomb explosions in the London underground must have been as traumatic as viewing images of the New York airplane crashes in 2001. Even the fact that the 9/11 attack was captured live on television cannot explain the sense of singularity that most people associate with the event. However, this also was not unprecedented. When the Palestinian group Black September took eleven Israeli team members hostage during the Summer Olympics in Munich in 1972, it knew that the assault would receive maximum media attention, for the games were the first to be broadcast live around the world.

It is true that the attacks of 9/11 were the bloodiest and most horrific acts of violence ever on U.S. soil, and it is also true that they resulted in the trauma of a misguided war in Iraq and a questionable military engagement in Afghanistan. Yet in terms of the visual imagery that they generated, the assaults remain squarely within the known patterns of modern terror as effected through pictures. In retrospect, it is astonishing to note how homogenous the 

visual memory of the event has become. One picture more than any other is now predominantly associated with the attack: Spencer Platt’s photograph of the World Trade Center, showing one tower already enveloped in black smoke and the other engulfed by an orangey-red fireball, the day’s deep blue September morning sky in the background. An astonishing number of picture editors chose this precise photograph for their newspapers in the hours after the attack. It appeared on at least twelve title pages, including the British Daily Telegraph, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Republican-American. The photograph shows the horror of the moment in a deceptively arrested mode of vision. With the Twin Towers still standing, their subsequent collapse and the drama on the streets below is eerily absent. In consequence, an almost abstract form and colour composition became the vehicle with which news of the disaster was communicated around the world.

Western media reporting on terror attacks has always sought to document assiduously the results of destruction while blocking out as much of the victims’ suffering as possible. The visual coverage of 9/11 is no exception to this rule. As the tragedy of the events unfolding on the streets of Lower Manhattan eventually entered the public view, the imagery concentrated on the heroic efforts of the rescue teams as they aided the survivors. Although many hundreds of people threw themselves out of the windows of the burning buildings in desperate attempts to escape their fate, to this day images of the falling bodies cannot easily be shown or seen in the United States. As always, the media tacitly adhere to an old rule of war photography: The dead bodies of the enemy can be shown, while those of one’s own people are taboo.

The same unwritten norms were also observed for the most part in the visual coverage of a more recent assault, the terror attack on the editorial team of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015 in Paris. Yet significantly, the most powerful and memorable picture that was released on that day fell outside this pattern. What it depicted and how it reached the public marks an alarming new departure in pictorial communication and thus forces us, for the first time since the emergence of modern terror at the end of the nineteenth century, to reconsider our own role in the orchestration, consumption and circulation of images. The Parisian police officer Ahmed Merabet tragically found himself in the path of the two assassins on the run after their frantic killing spree in the offices of Charlie Hebdo. After firing at Merabet from their car, the Kouachi brothers returned on foot to kill their helpless victim with a shot to the head. A local resident had heard shouting and saw the commotion on the street below his apartment, but instead of pressing the emergency call button of his telephone, he recorded the scene with his video camera. Rather than handing the material over to the police, he posted it in the heat of the moment on Facebook. Within fifteen minutes, it found its way to YouTube and from there to a French television channel, whose broadcast was picked up by newsroom editors around the world. The amateur filmmaker has since apologised to the family of the police officer, but pictures like these cannot be undone once they have been released. They burn themselves into our memory as horrific icons of terror and symbols of a fundamental loss of human dignity. 

The new role of amateur images within acts of terror first became apparent two years earlier, when on 22 May 2013 one of the radical Islamist assassins of a British soldier in London asked a passer-by to film him after his deed. While the victim lay unaided behind him in the street, the bloodstained killer, still holding his brutal murder weapon, a cleaver, used this moment to claim responsibility for the killing and to declare himself a Jihadist acting in the name of God. The video, taken neither under threat of death nor in response to the suffering of the victim, fulfilled only one aim: the self-aggrandisement of the perpetrator, which is a powerful element of the logic of terror. At the same time, it confirmed the stereotype of a wild fanatic behaving barbarically. The video later appeared as an exclusive in an ITV news broadcast, so that we can even assume that money changed hands.

In the face of these new developments, it seems paramount that we return with renewed vigour to a discourse on the ethical implications of photographs. Although the circulation and consumption of images of terror has always born the danger of serving the interests of the perpetrators, today we are no mere consumers: we produce these images, circulate and interconnect them. In short, we are fully active participants in image operations where life and death is at stake, and we thereby potentially collaborate in, reiterate and prolong the pain of others at a most abject moment in their life. It is therefore important that we realise the full extent of our actions in advance of an event, so that, if necessary, we are able to refuse to collaborate in image operations that function as an important incentive in a violent battle that knows no winners. Today it will not suffice to react to the production, consumption and circulation of images on mere impulse. We must understand in advance the frames in which they operate, recognise ourselves as participants, and consider the ethical implications that our actions might have for the lives and deaths of others. Only thus will we be prepared for situations that otherwise might propel us into actions that we might later deeply regret.


Charlotte Klonk is Professor of Art History and New Media at the Institute of Art and Visual History, Humboldt-Universität Berlin. Previously, she was a Research Fellow at Christ Church Oxford and lecturer in the History of Art Department at the University of Warwick. She has been a Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, the Institute of Advanced Studies in Berlin and the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA. Her publications include, among others, Science and the Perception of Nature (Yale University Press, 1998), Spaces of Experience: Art Gallery Interiors from 1800–2000 (Yale University Press, 2009) and, with Michael Hatt, Art History: A Critical Introduction to its Methods (Manchester University Press, 2005). Most recently, she co-edited with Jens Eder Image Operations: Still and Moving Pictures in Political Conflicts (forthcoming).