Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Making Medicine of Our Grief

The website of On the Media (a WNYC radio podcast) featured a fascinating photo (see lower left) taken on the infamous morning of 9/11/01 by Melanie Einzig. The background of the picture shows some familiar sights: the perfectly blue sky, smoke billowing from the Twin Towers. The middle of the photograph shows some horrified spectators, presumably looking on with incredulity and awe. But it is the foreground that really makes this photograph unique. There, a UPS man is delivering a parcel, apparently oblivious to the horrifying spectacle behind him. That he is walking toward the camera, and that the narrow street seems to corral him in an alley of shadow (is he literally in the dark?) offer competing details to the all-too hideous  scene behind him.




I think it would be a mistake to read this man as unfeeling. It seems to me he is simply doing his job (and doing his job simply): he is not paid to gawk. His uniform is striking — a contrast to the casual clothes of the people behind him — reminding me of Paul Fussell's book Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear. Is he merely a company man, a victim of institutionalization? Remember Thoreau: "If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell whistles, why should we run?"  This man lets nothing deter him from his task. He is a mail carrier and, while on duty, he will [only] think of the mail, which he cradles in his right hand.

The photographer, Ms. Einzig, felt it would be unfair to release this photograph too soon after 9/11. Its narrative is hard to read, and similar "life-goes-on" photos led to stormy controversy. But to what extent might this photograph be useful in capturing the day's events? What images are clearest in your mind? Why are those images so clear? Who chose to feature those pictures and how do they frame the story of that day's events?

10 comments:

Jayce T said...

To me, this picture is very "American". As Americans, we are proud of our ability to overcome whatever comes our way, from the Revolutionary war to shootings in schools. This man exemplifies that trait, in that he continues to do his job even in the face of adversity. He keeps moving even when the nation is wounded, because as Americans, it is ingrained in us that we should never stop, because to stop moving/ working/ helping would mean putting our country in danger. Countries are like machines, and if one piece of that machine stops functioning, the whole unit is jeopardized. Also, just like the firemen and military personnel who are doing their duty at the towers, he is doing his duty, because that is what Americans do: we keep going, even when the times are hard.
What stands out to me most in the photo is how the man is framed by the buildings on either side of him, and it almost appears as if the cloud of smoke is creating a shield and protecting him. To me, the smoke seems to represent our country, and that even though he is in danger, the country will protect him and the other people in the photo.

Josh Sussman said...

I agree with Jayce, the photo strikes me as something that represents many morals by which we as Americans are told to live by such as integrity and pride. I found the photo of the UPS worker to be patriotic in nature and show a resilient America; an America in which the "Average Joe" is the hero. A nation that does not retaliate in the face of danger. The UPS man takes pride in his job, just as we all do in being part of the great US of A.

Callie Walsh said...
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Charlie B said...

I'm gonna have to disagree with you Jayce because I don't at all see the smoke protecting this man. I also don't see patriotism in the way he walks away from the twin towers falling down. This horrible atrocity is going on and this man is selfishly walking away like nothing is happening. America will continue on and get back to work, but there needs to be a period of grief. This man seems so emotionally detached from the event that I am actually getting mad just looking at him. I think if he was really american he would turn and face, feel sympathy for those people affected by 9/11.

Sara H. said...

I think a lot of people might assume the UPS guy does not care about what is going on behind him, but I think he is aware and he probably does care. Just because the photographer caught him in this one moment does not mean that he hadn't been watching earlier or later. He just may have been preoccupied. He still had a job to do, because he is carrying a parcel and he clearly is delivering it. He may have wanted to get this one delivery out of the way so he could go back and watch/observe. I don't necessarily think it is fair for any person to look at this picture and think that he does not care about what is going on behind him.

Alex Wyse said...

I agree with Sara in that it is unfair to assume that this man is indifferent about the terrorist attacks. In fact, he actually may care a great deal. Everybody has different ways of coping with tragedy; some people cry and are very open about their feelings while others don't show much emotion at all. This man may just be continuing on with his job as a way to cope with the horror of the situation. Perhaps he wants to be distracted because it is too hard for him to watch the towers collapse.

Carolyn D. said...

I agree with both Sara and Alex. This photo reminds me of the image of the President, George W. Bush reading to children at the time of the attack. People criticized him for "not caring" but what was he supposed to do. He like many other Americans were in a great shock at this time, and I believe this is true with the UPS man in the photo. They unprecidented situation occuring behind them was not going to be solved with a quick glare, personally I feel like the UPS man is just trying to quickly finish up his route so he can get home to the safety of his family.

Luke I said...
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Luke I said...

I think Thoreau’s quote brings up a rather good point. “If the bell whistles, why should we run?”

It’s pretty clear that 9/11 stunned America. Not only did it lead to a Middle Eastern assault, but in its aftermath it literally ‘froze’ the nation. We went over in class that President Bush told the public to ‘Get out on the streets and shop’, and he did so because he did not want America’s economy to slow down and ultimately crash. We were not only in a state of shock on the economic level, but at the social level as well. Mr. Bolos and my parents both described a very different ‘atmosphere’ following 9/11. My mother even told me she refused to fly for years following the attack. Who would?

Certainly this guy. Some believe he is uncaring or even ‘un-American’. But I think otherwise. Carolyn put it perfectly when she mentioned that all this man is trying to do is “finish up his route so he can get home to the safety of his family”. He’s just doing his job, and even though it might be as simple as delivering a package, he’s progressing, and as Thoreau put it, not being “thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on its rails”.

So all in all, this picture did a pretty good job capturing the days, if not the years, events. This photograph shows a devastated nation and its citizens, all ‘frozen’ in shock. But in order to move on and look ahead, maybe all we really have to do is turn away and deliver the next package.

Jack K said...

i wanted to look back at the thought that George Bush told Americans to shop, after 9/11. By shop i feel that he meant to continue buying, and continue on in daily routines. In some respects couldn't you say that this man was doing exactly what president Bush wanted him to do? this man is doing this subconsciously obviously, because the attack is still happening, but does that make what he is doing wrong?