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Sep 27, 2010

Visual Memory and 9/11: It's deja vu all over again

A recent story in the New York Times following an accidental explosion in New York City began with this photo:


and these words: “It has instantly become the iconic image of Wednesday evening’s steam pipe explosion.”

Well, I’m confident this photo will not become an iconic image. And not for want of trying: the Times chronicles its immediate distribution, provides a long interview with the guy on the left, then a later interview with the woman in the center, as well as other links, including one that includes wry commentary on the promotion of the image. Like most of those images that are promoted as icons, however, this one will soon sink out of sight.

What interests me is why the reporter could think this rather banal image is so significant. Steam pipe explosions are not good candidates for historical significance. The photo could be of an auto accident, and the facial expressions do not suggest alarm, so why is this street scene thought to be iconic instead of business as usual for NYPD? One reason is the preoccupation with icons that is current today. (I know, I know, but as was said in the comic strip Zits recently, “nobody every died of irony.” I’ll post on the contemporary desire for icons another time.) I believe the answer is that the photograph resonates powerfully with a number of the images that were prominent during the coverage of 911. These all included women covered in dust or blood and often being helped as they walked, staggered, or were carried while emerging from the scene of the catastrophe. For example:



Thus, the reporter saw through the current photograph back into the many more distressing images of a far greater event. She was seeing not only with her eyes but also with her memory, which carried the powerful emotions associated with the many earlier images. Though not likely to be an icon, you might say it’s deja vu all over again.

First photo: Brendan McDermid/Reuters. Second photo: Lyle Owerko–Gamma. The crease is due to my inexpert scan from Time, September 11, 2001.


Visual Memory and 9/11: It's deja vu all over again


2 Responses

  1. Joe Correction says

    There is no interview with the photographer at the link. Why should anyone credit anything else you have to say?

  2. Hariman says

    Hey, Joe Correction, you’re right. I got mixed up but will fix the post. Attempts to promote or mine iconicity often involve interviewing the photographer and those in the picture. Because the guy interviewed worked in news media, and because I was reading too quickly and relying too much on my past experience, I made the mistake. Hope you come back to keep checking on us. As for your question, even surgeons are allowed more than one mistake. I’d be surprised if you can live by your standard.

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