Stealing beauty

Photography - Liam Kennedy on how Ground Zero has been captured by both the lens and the propagandis

"We send these chilling photographs out to the world as a remembrance and as a reminder, a remembrance of those who perished, and a reminder of our commitment to pursuing terrorists wherever they may try to hide." With these words, the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, launched one of the most ambitious initiatives in cultural diplomacy since the end of the cold war, the photographic exhibition "After September 11: images from Ground Zero".

Comprising 28 images by the respected American photographer Joel Meyerowitz (the only photographer who has had unimpeded access to Ground Zero), the exhibition opens in 30 cities across the world this year and will travel to more than 60 countries over the next three years. The first European opening was at the Museum of London in March, and the show will tour in the UK until 2003. Backed by the US State Department and promoted regionally by US embassies and consulates throughout the world, this exhibition marks a fascinating return to the heady days of cold-war propagandising.

A notable precedent is the "Family of Man" exhibition of photography, which travelled to 28 countries and was seen by more than nine million people between 1955 and 1959. This display contained 503 images by 273 photographers from 68 nations. Organised by Edward Steichen, the renowned photographer and director of photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the show posited humanity as a universal ideal and human empathy as a compensatory response to the threat of nuclear annihilation. Though not conceived as a programme of propaganda, the exhibition none the less functioned as an advertisement for American values and freedoms as it moved across Europe, supported on its journey by the recently established United States Information Agency, until it took up symbolic residence in Moscow as a backdrop to the "kitchen sink" debates between Nixon and Khrushchev. By this point in the exhibition's journey, its message was surrounded by cold-war rhetorics that blurred the boundaries of art, information and propaganda.

The boundaries have been blurred again with "After September 11", an initiative strongly supported by those advancing arguments for the diplomatic role of culture in the "war against terrorism". A prominent advocate is Patricia Harrison, who was sworn in as assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs a few weeks after 11 September. Harrison was instrumental in convincing initially sceptical State Department chiefs that a photography exhibition could be an effective diplomatic weapon in countering "misinformation" about the US, arguing that it was necessary to "convey to foreign audiences the physical and human dimensions of the recovery effort, images that are less well known overseas than those of the destruction of September 11".

Meyerowitz was a canny choice to convey such dimensions. Under the auspices of the Museum of the City of New York, he is constructing an archive that will eventually contain about 10,000 photographs "documenting the painful work of rescue, recovery, demolition and excavation" at Ground Zero. The 28 photographs chosen for the travelling exhibitions (the same 28 in each instance, which can be viewed on a State Department website at www.911exhibit.state.gov/index.cfm) depict the everyday nature of much of this work and indicate the magnitude of the task. Skilled in the aesthetics of both street and landscape photography, Meyerowitz conjoins them to produce some striking illustrations of life and work at Ground Zero. Using a 1944, 8x10, wooden box-view camera, he works not to capture a decisive moment, but to depict a scene suffused with detail which invites empathetic contemplation. What Meyerowitz photographs is not the event, but its aftermath, the scene of trauma. The gravitas imputed by the style is supported by the comments the photographer has made about the "spirituality" of Ground Zero, the act of "salvation" being carried out by the workers there, and his sense of it as a "Forbidden City", a space of primal sensations and sights. In Meyerowitz's words: "I've seen things down there that you can only see if you keep going."

In part, such statements underline the photographer's privileged perspective in terms of the horror only he can truly see (a trope of much war photography) and struggle to represent in his visual des-patches. But this perspective is thoughtfully reworked in Meyerowitz's images, which use scale, colour and frame to mani-pulate our viewing; our eyes move across the images - searching for what, we may not be sure, but mimicking the search going on in the images by the rescue workers and others at the scene. Every spot of colour emanating from the masses of twisted steel and debris catches our eye - we sense the moral ambiguity of looking. This camerawork takes some risks, acknowledging beauty in the scenes, and flirting with the elegiac elements inherent in photography. Meyerowitz may intend the workers at Ground Zero to appear heroic, and they do, but his images of human figures dwarfed by mountains of rubble also resemble the views of the ruins of Rome and its empire by the 18th-century engraver Piranesi.

"After September 11" is a richly encoded exhibit, the meanings of which cannot be securely tethered to the mnemonic functions asserted by Colin Powell. I doubt the exhibition can activate cultural memory across the world in a way that touches a universal chord of human empathy. It is questionable whether the "Family of Man" exhibition achieved this within a more controlled cold-war scenario in which "the Bomb" represented a universal threat of annihilation. Today, "terrorism" occupies that spectral role in a geopolitical environment in which horrors compete for media coverage, and in which an act of remembrance for one community is deemed an act of forgetting by another.

The implementation of "After September 11" has a retrograde quality to it, signifying its atavistic relationship to cold-war cultural diplomacy, yet this is an exhibition I encourage you to see. See it because it is moving. See it because it is the first exhibition in this country by one of the very best photographers in the US. See it because it distils not only the grief, but also the ideals and contradictions of a nation that still claims to believe in the family of man.

Liam Kennedy is senior lecturer in American studies at the University of Birmingham. He is the author of Race and Urban Space in Contemporary American Culture (Edinburgh University Press, £16.95)