On Wednesday evening, I was watching a mindless dramedy (drama-comedy) called Wild Child on television. I was tired of following the dragedy (drama-tragedy) of the Delhi high court bomb blast that had taken place in the morning, the climactic point of which was the Congress’ Renuka Chowdhury coming on TV to say with great authority, “CCTVs won’t stop terrorists”. (Yes, throw security cameras at terrorists and they will just bounce off them.) So I wanted nothing of the Delhi blast in my head.
And yet, there was something odd about not following the incident that had taken place 15 minutes away from my house and had claimed 13 lives. Watching a movie about an American girl in an English boarding school on Wednesday felt from time to time like smiling at a funeral.
Which reminded me of the photograph that Thomas Hoepker took on September 11, 2001. Unlike the usual photos depicting the tragedy of 9/11, this picture has the foreground of the actual horror pushed into the background. You can see the smoke billowing out of the World Trade Centre site, so the context is unmistakable.
But the main subject of Hoepker’s photo is that of five New Yorkers hanging out under what seems like a nice, autumn afternoon sun. There’s a bike in the middle of the picture suggesting outdoor activity (and warm sunshine). The woman behind the bike is semi-sprawled giving the impression that she is soaking up the sun, with the four others listening to her with rapt attention. The two individuals on the left wearing short shirts seem as if they are waiting their turn to speak about the latest exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
Hoepker did not publish this photograph for four years as he read the scene before him as that of a bunch of Americans “totally relaxed like any normal afternoon”. When the photo was published in 2006 (republished last week in the book, Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11), commentator Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times: “This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American. In the five years since the attacks, the ability of Americans to dust themselves off and keep going explains both what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong on our path to the divided and dispirited state the nation finds itself in today.” Essentially, this was a ‘taboo 9/11 photo’.
Except that two of the people in the photo got back saying that the picture doesn’t depict friends hanging out like the folks in Edouard Manet’s painting Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass). One of the two (the man on the extreme right) pointed out that he and his girlfriend were talking to strangers “who would not have spoken two words to each other were [and were] suddenly bound together... in the aftermath of a catastrophe”. The picture, till now pointing to a disturbing anomaly, settles back into a ‘normal’ zone of ‘9/11 properness’.
Unlike what Franz Kafka wrote in his diary as World War 1 broke out in 1914: “2 August. Germany has declared war on Russia — Swimming in the afternoon.” Should we be shocked?