By Thomas Stubblefield, adapted from 9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster
As the first year that digital cameras outsold their analog counterparts, 2001 marked a tipping point in the digital turn, one that would forge a new relation between the medium and the spectacle of disaster.1 With its dematerialization into code and capacity for instant transmission, the digital format allowed photography, perhaps for the first time in its history, to satiate the desire for "live" images. As a result of this sudden acceleration of the still image, the cultural position and function of film photography would endure an equally profound redefinition. In an attempt to retain legitimacy in the face of what John Roberts calls the "intrusion" of digital technologies and a "defeated documentary culture," film photography in the twenty-first century appeared to relinquish its hold on the now in favor of more reflective and distanced role.2 As David Campany explains, in ceding "the representation of events in progress . . . to other media," the postdigital identity of the medium became bound to the role of the "undertaker," that shadowy figure who "turns up late, wanders through the places where things have happened" in order to document "the aftermath of the event" rather than the event itself.3
However, the experience of photographers "on the ground" on 9/11 suggests that this familiar narrative of digitization was momentarily compromised by the disaster. Within minutes of the collision, gift shops that surrounded the World Trade Center reported selling out of disposable film cameras. The manager of a Duane Reade drugstore in the vicinity of the towers even claimed to have sold between sixty and one hundred film cameras in the first hour of the attacks.4 These accounts, along with the numerous exhibitions of amateur photography from that day, confirm that the most photographed disaster in history was just as often captured on celluloid as in binary code. While one is tempted to diagnosis this phenomenon as a nostalgic return to a more familiar mode of seeing in the face of uncertainty, framing the issue in these oppositional terms tends to overlook the unique circumstances of this resurgence. As the rivalry between these formats was momentarily eclipsed by a larger desire for visibility, photography in the context of the disaster was no longer simply in a transitional state as of 9/11, but was rather a hybrid medium.
As analog and digital platforms coalesced at the level of practice, new modes of vision were momentarily made possible which would challenge reigning assumptions regarding disaster photography. Under the influence of trauma studies, the camera's presence at the scene of the catastrophic events is typically read in terms of a defense mechanism which safely removes the subject from a scene that is too great. Manifesting as a kind of blindness within the operator's field of vision, this phenomenon is understood in terms of a failure to fully comprehend let alone experience the reality before the lens. However, as a result of the convergence of a series of conflicting forces which center on the delayed temporality of the analog medium and the disaster's demand for instant images, the non-seeing of analog practice was taken to such an extreme that it pushed what is under normal circumstances a deferral of vision into an indefinite suspension. As a result, the model of "looking away" which has characterized the relation of trauma to the camera came to disclose the possibility of what I will call non-seeing, a blindness in which the traumatic experience does not return in a newly encoded symbolic image, but rather remains within this absence as an unfathomable event. This overwhelming of the capacities of the film camera recalibrates familiar models of the sublime according to a new techno-imaginary where enduring metaphysical or transcendental associations are jettisoned in favor of a more immediate redistribution of the senses.
Given the evocative power of the photographs that came out of that day, it is on some level understandable that the operator's experience would take a back seat to the image in the scholarship on 9/11. However, subordinating the act of taking pictures to the lure of images not only threatens to naturalize the interventions of both operator and apparatus, but also reinforces certain elisions within photographic theory more broadly. (It is telling in this respect that the two dominant figures of the field in the last half-century, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, both attest to a dislike for taking pictures.) For these reasons, this inquiry will begin before the image, or rather at a moment when the image exists in latent form, clouding the vision of the operator as a virtual presence. This broadened configuration of practice, which I will call the "photographic situation," understands the immediate phenomenological experience of the camera as a simultaneously futural event in which the present is roped to an impending image. Approaching the act of photography as the creation of an interval within experience serves to draw out the critical relationship between practice and image and in turn bring into view the larger transformations of the medium that were under way at the time of the disaster.
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Thomas Stubblefield is Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. He is the author of 9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster, winner of the NEPCA Rollins Book Award.
- Jeffrey Melnick, 9/11 Culture: America under Construction (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 66.
- John Roberts, “Photography and the Photograph: Event, Archive and the Non-Symbolic,” Oxford Art Journal 32, no. 2 (2009), 289–290.
- David Campany, “Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on Problems of Late Photography,” in The Cinematic (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 185–194.
- Dana Heller, The Selling of 9/11: How a National Tragedy Became a Commodity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 8.