Twin Towers
“Tribute in Lights” in New York, on the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the Twin Towers. Photo: Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office, available at Public Photos

O September 11, the date that became known and recognized as the day of the terrorist attack on the United States, is immortalized in the image of the attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, in New York.

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the attack, the same images appear and, repeated, remind us of the horror of what we saw live, not through social networks - which did not yet exist - but through the repetition of the planes that hit the Twin Towers. Incredulous, we needed text that would make sense of what we were watching. Over the past few weeks, social media has bombarded us (pardon the pun) asking:
“Where were we on the day September 11?”. I know where it was. But why is it so necessary to remember this moment? By the strength of an image, which is neither the best nor the most significant, but which was chosen to remember the astonishment of the unexpected. What matters is that it remained as the mark of social transformation, the change in the historical context. A change that had consequences that we pay for to this day (Iraq War, Afghanistan, etc.).

Many contemporary thinkers, Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), for example, decreed September 11, 2001 as the entry into the 21st century and, through the drama of the images, a new era of imagery representation. The images would no longer be the same. They would no longer follow the impact of reality so dear to the last century, but would turn to the suggestion of staging that was gradually introduced into the 21st century. We have entered, perhaps, the age of images. A media attack mounted as a true spectacle. The news was not wanted, it reached us. We watched live (who was aged in 2001) what the French philosopher, Marie-José Mondzain, wrote in her book Can the image kill?: “The enemy had organized a terrifying spectacle. In a certain sense, by massacring so many men, by bringing down the towers, [it presented to us] the first historical spectacle of the death of the image in the image of death”. But does the image have this power? After all, the image, the photograph is a representation, full of symbols and codes to be unveiled, it is true, but its reception is much more decisive. "At  photographs continue to be interpreted long after they are taken”, recalls Boris Kossoy. With each new visual, it changes before our eyes, always allowing new and innumerable interpretations. The symbol-image of the attack neither affirms nor denies anything. It is the record of a set scenario. Some newspapers at the time even claimed that the time between the crash of the planes had been inspired by Hollywood films: “Here is the image in the dock”, reports Marie-José. A way, as common sense says, to kill the messenger and not the cause of the attack.

Twin Towers
Flight 175 crashes into the south tower of the WTC on September 11, 2001. Photo: Robert J. Fisch / Wikimedia Commons

But we cannot deny that, in the “Western” world, centuries and centuries of idolatry have led us to a visual alienation. We accept the image, we do not question it. We forget that there are no innocent looks, but intentions behind those who produce or select a photograph and choose it as the only possible representation of a fact. Its repetition leads us to believe that there is only one way of seeing. Today we judge and are judged by images.

On the occasion, lights took the place of the Twin Towers, another dramatic image that reminds us of the indelible original. Perhaps now is the time – or has already passed – to start decoding the images, forgetting the iconographic description and paying more attention to iconology, the not so evident meaning of the image.

As French image researcher Martine Joly (1943-2016) reminds us, “an image can be everything and its opposite – visual and immaterial, fabricated and natural, real and virtual, mobile and immobile, sacred and profane, ancient and contemporary, linked to life and death, analogical, comparative, conventional, expressive, communicative, constructive, destructive, beneficial and threatening”.

Its reception needs interpretation codes, codes these  that widen or narrow over time. The image that resignifies itself because of a look that only exists because a subject decided to look at it. As Kossoy reminds us, “along its trajectory, its meaning changes, oscillating meanings according to the ideology of each moment and the mentality of its users”.

After 20 years, the photography that intended to change the perception of the world is still there, static and silent. Only remembered when someone takes it out of the drawer and re-proposes it before our eyes.

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