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When the Camera Lies

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Thomas Hoepker's photo "Brooklyn, New York, September 11, 2001" has achieved a kind of notoriety. It shows five young New Yorkers on that vividly beautiful late summer day, seemingly sunning themselves on the Brooklyn waterfront as the collapsed World Trade Center smolders in the background. The photo appears to catch the five chatting, ignoring the horror on the other side of the river. It has been interpreted as yet another example of indifference or the compulsion to return to normal even though, as anyone can see, there is nothing normal about what is happening. It is the emblematic photo of our times.

Photography, of course, is often a lie, and this photo is no exception. It captured a moment, a second or less, when one of the subjects said something and the other four turned toward him and away from the plumes of smoke, so they seemed not to care. This photo, like all photos, lacked context -- what went before and what went after -- and the interpretation of insouciance has been challenged by no less than some of the people in it. They insist they were intensely aware and horrified by what happened.

The complaints of the people in the photo struck me as similar to what I heard from Israel's foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, twice in the past week. Both at a briefing in Washington and a dinner in New York, she mentioned how stunned she and her colleagues in the Israeli cabinet had been at how fast world opinion turned on Israel after it recently invaded Lebanon. At first the world understood that Israel's borders had been violated, three soldiers killed and two more kidnapped. Everyone agreed: Retaliation was in order.

A day later, Israel did just that. It began a bombing campaign designed to cripple the Lebanese infrastructure -- bridges, roads, the Beirut airport -- so that Hezbollah could not be rearmed. At the same time, it hit residential areas of Beirut where Hezbollah ran the show, supposedly targeting the leadership but inevitably killing civilians, including children. It was these pictures that horrified world opinion. For some reason, Israel expected that the accidental killing of children would be seen in context. But there is no context for the death of a child. The eye does not permit it -- never mind what the mind knows.

Why Israel's leaders were surprised by this turn of events is beyond me. After all, it has happened before and even has a name: the CNN effect. But the complaint can be taken deeper still when, as has clearly happened, the historical basis for the state is forgotten, ignored or not even known. It is, after all, impossible to know Israel without knowing the Holocaust, which is not some historical abstraction -- the murder of 6 million -- but the ferocious killing of person after person.

Ron Rosenbaum makes this point in his New York Times review of Daniel Mendelsohn's new book about the Holocaust, "The Lost." He cites, for instance, Mendelsohn's description of the murder of a single woman. "The Ukrainians and the Germans who had broken into her house found her giving birth. . . . When the birth pangs started she was dragged onto a dumpster in the yard of the town hall with a crowd . . . who cracked jokes and jeered and watched the pain of childbirth. . . . The child was immediately torn from her arms along with its umbilical cord and thrown. . . ." I stop here. The rest is more than you can bear.

History is nothing but context put down on the page. The Holocaust is history. The abduction of two soldiers is history. The pictures from Lebanon were history, too, but they soon overwhelmed everything else. Now Hezbollah insists it will not be disarmed. The captured soldiers have yet to be returned. The war can resume with the next rocket attack, and again history will be hostage to photos -- no before, no after, just now.

Thomas Hoepker's photo ought to hang in every school and in the halls of the United Nations. It is both a picture of truth and of falsity, and the photographer himself has wondered if it is not "the devious lie of a snapshot." It is more iconic of our times than Robert Capa's famous "Fallen Soldier" from the Spanish Civil War or, for sure, Joe Rosenthal's flag-raising over Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi. Those, at least, represented what they showed -- the instant of death, the glory of triumph -- while Hoepker's is about a lie posing as truth.

cohenr@washpost.com


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