September 5, 2002

One year later: September 11 and the Internet

Part 7. Images of September 11th on the Web

Key Findings

By Meghan Dougherty
University of Washington, Department of Communication

A “Webscape” of examples for this section can be found at:
http://september11.archive.org/webscape/dou/

A substantial proportion of the Web sites ran pictures and drawings related to the 9/11 terror attacks and their aftermath. It is likely that no event in the era of the Web has so dominated the visual imagery of the online world. The abundance, variety, and power of these images helped shape global reaction to the event.  Images provided Internet users a means to navigate through 9/11-related Web sites – many with strong emotional responses – that developed in the aftermath of the tragedy.

A sampling of 187 Web sites of all kinds – search engines, portals, sites focused on news, those run by government agencies, those that serve civic and community groups, those built by individuals, those devoted to spiritual and religious content, those created for scholarly pursuits, those of multinational corporations, and those created by schools – shows that 38% ran images of 9/11 events in the days and weeks after the attacks.

Six distinct types of images dominated the online environment:

  • Informative images – many of which were first captured in news of the attacks
  • Memorial images – which were often used to acknowledge the tragedy and show support for victims and rescuers
  • Signpost images – which were images placed on all kinds of Web sites to show recognition of the importance of 9/11 events even though the function of those Web sites was unrelated to news or memorials (such as e-commerce sites)
  • Storytelling images – which often were bunched together to show how certain elements of the 9/11 story were unfolding
  • Supplemental images – which often accompanied heartfelt written commentary about the meaning of the attacks or the appropriate way to respond to them
  • Logos – which were designed to capture some emotional aspect of a Web designer’s response to the ongoing story.

Background: Images on the Web

Web producers use images to convey ideas and highlight features of their sites.  After 9/11, people sought out places to grieve, to argue, and to memorialize, as well as to obtain news and information.  And many Web sites added images related to 9/11 events in a way that established a global symbol system that helped Web surfers understand the events in a more meaningful way. The Internet had joined the ranks of television, and become a place where people could participate in a shared experience.  The common imagery of this symbol system allowed surfers to cope with their emotions together.

Walter Benjamin wrote of the history of photography: “It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography.… [T]he aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face.  This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty.”72  Images have long been cherished as reminders of those past. However, they are not replacements.  An image is a record of a fleeting moment that recalls memories of a past existence.  In the weeks following September 11th, Web sites and their images captured the fleeting expressions of Web surfers and site producers as they grieved and memorialized those lost in the attacks. 

Portraits comprised a large number of the images that could be found online after 9/11. But that was not the only photographic form that was being used. Images of changed landmarks, and even drawn graphics of patriotic symbols were also widely used.  In the weeks following the attacks people felt the need to act.  Many wanted to be directly involved, but not all could participate on such a tangible level. The Web provided a forum for these people to share their personal creative remembrances in the form of drawings and stories.

Benjamin also notes that images have political significance.73  “[Pictures] begin to put up signposts for [the viewer], right ones or wrong ones; no matter…captions have become obligatory.  And it is clear that they have an altogether different character than the title of a painting.”  Images call up ideas in viewers regardless of the intention of the image creator.  To be clear signposts of specific content, images must be clearly defined or be accompanied by captions to guide the viewer.  

The images of 9/11 events and their aftermath were obviously posted to convey important symbols and meanings to viewers.  The images used were largely images of Ground Zero at the pile debris at the site of the collapsed World Trade Center towers, rescue workers, victims, and patriotic graphics.  These images had plain meanings that were used as “signposts,” or directional cues for Internet surfers.  The images on the Web sometimes stood alone, but they were often accompanied by some text, or referent helping to guide the viewer. 

Research design

Sites chosen for this study enabled users to post and/or read other people’s postings about 9/11. They included features such as message boards, Web-site polls, or Web-logs. The sample ultimately contained Web sites that represented a wide range of site producers, including religious, community, individual, portal, etc.  Digital images were defined broadly to include photographs digitized for display on the Web, and graphics that have been drawn, or photographs that have been manipulated to reflect a 9/11 theme for display on the Web. Examples of images with a 9/11 theme included but were not limited to an American flag, an eagle, a hand-drawn graphic of the New York City skyline, and related objects.

The use of visual language

Of the 187 sites included in the sample, 38% contained images with some sort of 9/11 theme.  Of the sites that included images, the most widely used were representations of the buildings damaged in the attacks, snapshots of memorials around the world, and portraits of those lost and of those helping in the recovery efforts.  Web memorials were most frequently associated with images of people; most often memorials appeared on the Web as digital photograph galleries or a collection of images with little or no explanation or textual references.

The images found in the analysis fell into six different categories. They were meant to provide information, to memorialize, to act as “signposts” for 9/11-related content, to tell stories, to supplement textual expression, or to reflect organizations’ acknowledgement of the tragedy. 

Informative

Images were used to convey information in a format that was readily accessible and easily understood.  Informative images enabled Web surfers to understand the what, when, and where of the attacks.  Images provided a quick glance at the most basic information.

Many sites posted screenshots from international and national news organizations’ television broadcasts and Webcasts.  The Eötvös University Media Department offered a site, “America Under Attack – Live,” archiving live news broadcasts, Web pages, and printed press front pages (http://web1.archive.org/web/20011001120200/emc.elte.hu/~hargitai/wtcmemorial/)

Scroll down through the page to see still images of broadcast news reports, and printed press front pages.  The story of September 11th can be seen through these informative images from major news organizations.  Recognizable images were used to tell the story visually.

Memorials

Many Web sites were posted as memorial pages using images as stamps of acknowledgement and support.  Like yellow ribbons to support the troops, and pink ribbons to support the fight against breast cancer, red, white, and blue ribbons were created as a reminder and a memorial of the September 11th events.  Some Web pages were posted as a repository for memorial images to be downloaded by other site producers for display on Web sites.  Remember.worldatwar.org developed an “Internet Remembrance Campaign” dedicating part of the Web site as an image repository for site producers to find and take memorializing 9/11-themed images for display on their own Web sites: http://web.archive.org/web/20011101183348/remember.worldatwar.org/main.mhtml/images. Site visitors were encouraged to add to the collection with their own commemorative, or memorial images.

As a centerpiece, the Internet Remembrance Campaign site offered commemorative graphic images ready for download by Web site producers.  As explained on the site, these images were created as an invitation to “…place one of the ribbon images on your site, and consider the fragility of life and give thought to the merits of understanding and compassion.”  Commemorative graphics integrated the date, yellow ribbons, and photographs from Ground Zero.

Similar Web sites used text as memorials, recalling personal stories accompanied by graphics created for Web display.  Many of these images combined a number of representations of patriotic and memorial imagery digitally to convey a sense of remembrance through image. Display of memorial images necessarily associated a site producer with a desire to remember and memorialize those lost on September 11th

Signposts

Various post 9/11 sites did not dedicate entire sites or pages to 9/11 information or memorial, but rather offered limited information along with previously posted, and unrelated content.  Images were used on these Web sites as “signposts” to set this material off from unrelated content.  These images served as quick reference points for users, guiding them to and through 9/11-related content. One such site offered a variety of news and information in the weeks following September 11th.  Simple graphics of an American flag were used to set 9/11-related information off from the rest of the unrelated content on the site:

http://web.archive.org/web/20011001194031/lawandeverythingelse.com/

Similar sites used this kind of  “signpost” imagery to set the page off from other non-9/11 themed sites on the Internet.  For example, several news sites were created in the weeks following September 11th.  These sites were dedicated to displaying only 9/11-related news stories.  Many of these sites used imagery to set themselves apart from other general news sites.

Storytelling

Photographic essays were a popular type of expression on the post-9/11 Web.  Images tend to verify circumstances; seeing is believing.  Many sites in the post-9/11 Web displayed images to confirm the details that were hard to believe.  The ThankYou Photo Gallery site producers posted a message of apology for the lack of photo credit information: http://web.archive.org/web/20010922005926/thankyou.fast-networks.net/. Users were submitting photographs to the site faster than could be displayed or verified for authorship.  This site displayed primarily images of memorial vigils that developed around the world.  This collection of memorial themed images told a story of remembrance rituals shared worldwide. The ThankYou Image Gallery is a collection of photographs submitted to the site producer by site users.  Most, if not all of the four pages of images are memorial images from around the world.      

Other sites posted images to show the outpouring of shared sympathy and support.  Some of these sites featured only images.  Site producers posted images without captions or explanation, allowing the images to speak for themselves.  Digital photograph galleries appeared on the Web following themes of event sequence, memorial, critique and commentary, etc. 

Supplemental

Individuals used the Internet as a place to express themselves in the wake of the attacks.  Many users who had created Web-logs prior to September 11th to post everyday quips used their sites as a place for remembering, grieving, and supporting or arguing.  “A Day in the Life” is a personal Web-log site where the producer posts journal entries on a regular basis: http://web.archive.org/web/20011001193811/geocities.com/freddie72/911.html.

On September 11th, this site featured a page dedicated to those lost in the attacks.  The site producer presents a letter to users recalling his memories of New York City before September 11th and reflects on his feeling about the tragedy.  Embedded in his text is a now well-known image of firefighters raising an American flag at Ground Zero. 

This image reinforces the message that the content on the page is dedicated as a memorial to those who lost their lives, as well as those helping in the recovery efforts.  The image itself refers back to the historic photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima, calling up notions of patriotism and strength and stamina.  Many site producers used these types of resonant images to solidify and strengthen their textual expressions on the Web.

Logos

Site producers developed new logos and changed old logos to incorporate a 9/11 theme to signify their acknowledgement of the tragedy. A community Web site called “afterchaos” featured a page titled, “Give Life, Give Love, Give Blood – take a stand against world terrorism!” in the weeks following the attacks: http://web.archive.org/web/20010925191400/afterchaos.com/. This page is introduced by an image that incorporated the Red Cross logo with a digital photograph of the falling towers.  Other producers created and displayed image logos specifically for their pages, to identify their sites as 9/11-themed.  Logos were also altered to show organizations that had strong ties to the effects of the attacks or the subsequent recovery efforts.

Site producers took this time of redefinition following September 11th to have new meaning connected to their images by rearranging logos.  Site producers attempted to distinguish their sites as featuring 9/11 content from the rest of the Internet by using graphical logos with some 9/11 themes. 

  1. Arendt, H. (Ed.). (1968). Illuminations; Walter Benjamin. New York: Schocken Books, p. 226.
  2. Ibid.