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Images of human suffering in the midst of war appear to show the photographer’s bias towards a humanitarian viewpoint (see fig. 1.). This image (from The Palm Beach Post) appears as an objective record of an event, however, (and taking this image as an example only) it’s not clear from the image how widespread such tragedies were in the conflict. The photographer may have wished the image to be used to show the inhumanity of an enemy in targeting civilians and ignoring their plight; the image itself makes no statement about the truth of this ‘message’ or the humanitarian or otherwise motive of the photographer.

Photographer Thomas Hoepker’s image Young people on the Brooklyn waterfront on Sept. 11 (see fig. 2.) illustrates just how ambiguous images of tragic events can be. This image was though too controversial by the photographer to publish in 2001 (Hoepker, 2006) and was still being discussed 10 years after the events it depicted had occurred (Jones, 2011). In 2001 in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack Thomas Hoepker (2006) felt that the picture:

was ambiguous and confusing: Publishing it might distort the reality as we had felt it on that historic day. I had seen and read about the outpouring of compassion of New Yorkers toward the stricken families, the acts of heroism by firefighters, police, and anonymous helpers. This shot didn’t “feel right” at this moment …

Another image from the 9/11 attack on New York in 2001 was Raising the Flag at Ground Zero by Thomas E. Franklin (see fig. 3.). The photographer has in mind to produce a photograph that spoke of patriotism in a time of national emergency. His motive is obvious because of the image’s resonance with Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, (see fig. 4.) an iconic photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal during World War II. The similarity between the two compositions cannot have been lost on Franklin — invoking the earlier photograph lent impact to his image which because of its framing and composition became much more that an objective photograph of firefighters at the scene of the attack.

Are These Pictures Objective?

Are the pictures above (fig.1, fig.2 and fig.3) objective? From one point of view the level of their objectivity is equal in that they all show what was in front of the camera lens at the moment of exposure — no posing or manipulation was involved. Nevertheless, it is possible to place these images on an ‘objectivity scale’:

most objective (fig.1.) because of the absence of ambiguity — the photographer’s intention was to record the scene and any ambiguities that emerged had to be added later with for example a caption or publishing context

next on the scale is Figure 2 because the photographer did not want to only record the fire in the twin towers nor only people relaxing by the bay, in choosing the juxtaposition he was leaving the picture open to subjective interpretation i.e. the question “what is happening here?”, the answer is not obvious.

last on the scale (least objective) is Figure 3 because the objective interpretation is swamped by the obvious or ‘heavy handed’ invitation to make a subjective interpretation.

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. Untitled (2013) At: http://theobservers.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/00beirut0311-950×602.jpg (Accessed on 22.08.14)

Figure 2. Hoepker, T (2011) Young people on the Brooklyn waterfront on Sept. 11 At: http://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/2010/06/17/911-thomas-hoepker/ (Accessed on 22.08.14)

Figure 3. Franklin, Thomas E (2001) Raising the Flag at Ground Zero At: http://www.bostonglobe.com/2012/05/30/day-gallery-gallery/vRir0J0rgCEuIiupkNHzjK/story.html?pic=43 (Accessed on 22.08.14)

Figure 4. Rosenthal, J (1945) Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima At: http://www.nationalww2museum.org/focus-on/iwo-jima.html (Accessed on 22.08.14)


Hoepker, T (2006) I Took That 9/11 Photo [Online]. Slate.com website. Available from: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2006/09/i_took_that_911_photo.html [Accessed 22 August 2014]

Jones, J (2011) The meaning of 9/11’s most controversial photo [Online]. Guardian website. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/sep/02/911-photo-thomas-hoepker-meaning [Accessed 22 August 2014]