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Photojournalism and Representation Essay

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Stuart Hall (1978) stated that ‘the media define for the majority of the population what significant events are taking place, but, also, they offer powerful interpretations of how to understand these events. ‘ This quote is relevant to this photograph as it both reflects and challenges Hall’s claim in regards to the power of media representation, and can be applied to this example of photojournalism. This photograph was taken on the eleventh of September 2001 by Magnum Photos’ photojournalist Thomas Hoepker.

It was published in the English newspaper ‘The Guardian’ in 2011 to mark the ten year anniversary of the 9/11 bombing on the Twin Towers in New York, America.

It is now regarded as “one of the most controversial images of 9/11” (Jones, 2011). This example of photojournalism uses photographic codes and techniques in the image. It is photographed using a low angle long shot to show the people perhaps sitting leisurely in the sun. In comparison to the burning Twin Towers, this small group of people may be seen as inferior to the dominant image of the towers in the background, and perhaps as though they are unaware of the catastrophe at hand.

However, if this media image had been photographed from a different angle, for example a high angle shot from the women wearing an orange shirt’s perspective, the level of concern from the group may have been more evident to viewers, and not so blaze towards the situation in the distance. The aforementioned quotation by Hall (1978) can be interpreted as that the media has high influential power over what news in the world is actually newsworthy, and how their viewers might interpret events, images and footage portrayed by media organisations.

In turn, perhaps, the media can also influence the way that people respond to such events, images and footage. This relates to the concept of representation, which is a common practice in the media. O’Shaugnessy & Stadler (2012) define the concept of representation with three meanings: ‘to look like or to resemble; to stand in for something or someone; and to present a second time — to re-present’. The media uses representation in order to define and present important news to their viewers and the world. These concepts are reflected in Hoepker’s image.

Media organisations worldwide portrayed the 9/11 bombing event as a catastrophe, the dawn of a new era, and potentially one of the hardest events that modern American citizens would ever have to overcome in their lifetimes. Because this information and media figure’s thoughts, opinions and interpretations of this event were so widespread through mass media in 2001, the viewers of the media were highly influenced by other people’s thoughts, opinions and interpretations, and were possibly impartial to interpret it for themselves, and perhaps just saw this image as ‘just another 9/11 impact photograph’.

However, Hoepker’s media representation also challenges Hall’s aforementioned statement regarding the power of the media and representation. This can be seen through the implied narrative. The man sitting to the far right of the media image, Walter Sipser, stated in an interview about the photograph with Slate Magazine that: ‘ A snapshot can make mourners attending a funeral look like they’re having a party’. He also stated in the interview, ‘A more honest conclusion might start by acknowledging just how easily a photograph can be manipulated, especially in the advancement of one’s own biases or in the service of one’s own career’.

These quotes demonstrate to us as viewers just how contradictory photojournalism and the news media portray such catastrophes and events such as 9/11 which is being portrayed here by Hoepker. This event may have been deemed as significant by Hoepker, and crucially important for him to photograph and document as it was such an impactful occurrence. This may have been influenced by the news value that controversial images such as this one hold.

Galtung & Ruge (1965) identify many characteristics that constitute for events classed as newsworthy. In relation to this example of photojournalism, some of these characteristics that may have been considered by Hoepker while taking the photograph, or by The Guardian whilst considering to publish this media representation ten years subsequent to the event may have included, but are not limited to: immediacy, timelessness, magnitude, unexpectedness, affecting elite nations or people, and is of human interest.

Hoepker’s photographic portrayal of the Twin Towers billowing black smoke across Manhattan’s glistening harbour, and the group of people sitting in the foreground of the photo is connected to this particular groups’ cultural identities. In the image, the viewer can see two men, and three women, perhaps strangers, perhaps friends, sitting on the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan. This group of people look as they are in deep discussion, but about what?

The members of the group are all Caucasian, are all relatively well dressed, suggesting the connotation that they are all perhaps middle-class in society. At least three members of the group are wearing jeans, which according to Fiske (1989) suggests the connotation of ‘freedom, youthfulness and equality’, which in turn also reflects the fact that this event took place in America, which is commonly known as the leading nation of the free world. The viewer may assume that the people pictured in this image are all of American descent, and are perhaps local born and bred Manhattaners.

Walter Sipser, the man on the right of the image, as well as the four other members of the group, were branded as ‘callous’ and ‘youthful’ by the media. However, Sipser stated in the Slate Magazine interview, ‘ Still, it was nice being described as a young person. I was forty at the time the photograph was taken. ‘ This quote demonstrates the way in which the photojournalist and the media in general automatically stereotyped the members of the group as being youthful.

This in turn may be an explanation for these Manhattan dwellers being branded as callous or insensitive, because a common trait of being youthful could perhaps relate to being unsympathetic to such impactful events. Some of the historical and political backgrounds prior to the 9/11 bombing of the Twin Towers in New York City may include: the declaration of Holy War upon America by Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda; the Iraqi oil crisis; and the killings of many innocent peoples by American troops in Iraq.

Some of the events subsequent to the events of the 9/11 bombing of the Twin Towers may include: America officially declaring War on Iraq after the catastrophic attacks and the thousands of lives being lost; the promise to American citizens of Bin Laden’s capture; the actual hunt, capture and assassination of Osama Bin Laden ten years after the attacks on the American Military, Government and civilians of The United States of America.

As you can now see, Thomas Hoepker’s photographical media representation both reflects and challenges Hall’s (1978) claim regarding the power of media representation. The attacks on the Twin Towers of New York City on September 11th 2001 was a significant event, which many journalists, professional or amateur, thought needed to be documented on film. This event was shown worldwide through mass media coverage, and may have influenced people of many cultures, religions, genders and ethnicities to react and interpret the magnitude of the media coverage.

The group of five people, both female and male, that Hoepker photographed in this media representation could be interpreted as a representation of all the people that were perhaps not immediately affected by the loss of thousands of people, but were still possibly traumatised by the photographical representations depicted by the media at this epic time of loss. The media do offer a powerful interpretation of how to understand such events as 9/11, but it depends on the individual, and how they personally process and interpret the information being portrayed.

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