| home   authors | new | about | newsfeed | print |  
volume 12
november 2009

The lingering afterimages of 9/11


  Review of:
  • David Friend (2007), Watching the world change. The stories behind the images of 9/11. New York: Picador (464 pages; ISBN: 978-0312426767)
by Hans Durrer
  The World Trade Center disaster at that fatal date of September 11th, 2001, probably was the most photographed event of our time. A number of those photo's now have been collected in a book by David Friend who added his insightful comments. Hans Durrer reviews and reflects on the results.
1 Left: Cover of David Friend's "Watching the world change" (jacket photo by Patrick Witty)

Disasters in the age of digital photography. Like probably quite some others, I feel somewhat overfed when it comes to 9/11. So why then would I read yet another text about it? Well, I'm interested in photographs, and in photojournalism, and especially in the stories behind the photographs, and when I came across reviews of David Friend's "Watching the World Change" I became curious and remained so page after page of this truly fascinating work.

The author, David Friend, formerly Life's director of photography, is Vanity Fair's editor of creative development. Moreover, he is a good writer, a tireless journalist, and, very probably, a workaholic — the research alone that went into this book is immense and impressive.

Remember the image of George W. Bush at Ground Zero? The one where "... he stood in a windbreaker on the smoking heap at Ground Zero, flag pin on his lapel and bullhorn in his mitt. He embraced Bob Beckwith, a sixty-nine-year old firefighter from Queens ..."? One of Bush's longtime media advisors opined that this image "will be the most lasting and iconic image of [his] presidency," the editor in chief of the New York Daily News believed this scene to be unscripted, a strategist, who worked on John Kerry's campaign, thought it calculated, and Luc Sante, the culture critic and photo historian, also believed it to be scripted for "with Bush you never get a moment that is not stage-managed."

  "Compelling ... Surely the most original treatment so far of the cultural impact of the day," Frank Rich of the New York Times is quoted on the back cover and, yes, that is most probably true, but, what's more, this is absolutely singular journalism (well-told, detailed, and with a keen sense for narrative flow) that not only demonstrates how we — by taking, looking at, distributing, and sharing pictures — are trying to give significance to what surrounds us but also proves that it is not the (dramatically structured and enhanced) story that makes good journalism but the accurate and sympathetic rendering of how people deal with what happens.
  9/11 was probably the most photographed event of our time. This is one of the impressions that you get when spending time with this book. I know, we live in a world of pictures, yet it would have never occurred to me that so many people took pictures — videos and stills — on that day. "A French documentary filmmaker, a Czech immigrant, and a German artist — New Yorkers all — each happened to have cameras rolling and focused on the World Trade Center when it was attacked. Moments later, artist Lawrence Heller, who had heard the first jet slam into Tower One (the north tower), picked up his digital video camera ... People photographed from windows and parapets and landings. They photographed as they fled: in cars, across bridges, up avenues blanketed in drifts of ash and dust. They even photographed the images on their television sets as they watched the world changing, right there on the screen." And there was, for example, Patricia McDonough, a professional photographer, who, after taking quite some pics that would later appear in Esquire and other magazines, thought that photography "suddenly seemed superfluous," loaded her bike bag with disposable gloves and water bottles — "I had a lot of Red Cross training, CPR classes, I have preternatural calm in disasters" — and rushed to help.
2 Holding back on publication. "Astoundingly," Friend comments, "dozens of photographers continued to shoot even as they sensed that their own lives were at risk — when clouds of debris, from the falling towers, mushroomed up and down the streets." But what did people compel to take photographs in such a situation? Sure, answers may vary but quite some people probably "had to photograph it and then look at it in order to validate that it actually happened," as curator and writer Michael Shulan opines. Yet despite the many pictures that were shot on 9/11 and the following days (by TV-cameras, tourists, workers, passersby), it was by no means easy for professional photographers to go about their work. Christopher Morris, for instance, says: "I got on the scene, got past the barricades, and was immediately seized upon by the police. It was impossible to shoot. Everybody hated photographers. We were like pariahs."
  One of the reasons that so many pictures were taken on that day is that it was possible: 50% of Americans live in homes with a digital camera; up to 2006, 50 million working cell phones in the US had cameras in them, I learned. David Friend thinks that the week of 9/11 was the beginning of the digital age, part of which is digital newsgathering. In the words of Nigel Pritchard of CNN: "You were no longer tied to a piece of cable and a satellite truck. We could go anywhere and broadcast with a battery pack." Modern technology (digital cameras, phone lines, fiber-optic cables, the internet, satellites) has made it possible that "in a matter of minutes, everyone with a monitor, almost anywhere in the world, was able to access similar footage shot only moments before," as Friend explains.
  In the days following 9/11, there were hardly any pictures published (in the US) that showed body parts, blood covered survivors or people jumping from the windows of the World Trade Center. This self-censorship, as Friend elaborates, might have occurred because "editors, to some degree, might have felt protective of their own, beholden to people they considered members of nothing less than an extended family — vast, grieving, and interconnected (...) In short, they just couldn't bear to have anyone see them this way." Another reason surely was, as Time's director of photography, Michele Stephenson, says, that "there was not a lot left of them."
  But what about photos of jumpers, why didn't we get to see these? Joe Scurto, for instance, saw "at least a hundred people jumping. The were coming down like rain." Well, there is one that has come to be known as The Falling Man, taken by veteran Associated Press photographer Richard Drew; "the most famous picture nobody's ever seen," as Drew says. As Friend sees it: "Nowadays ... news organizations tend to play it safe, having been subsumed by media conglomerates that give less credence to exposing harsh realities than to turning a profit, entertaining mass audiences, and satisfying skittish advertisers."
3 A personal book. There are also bizarre things to be learnt from this great book, for instance, that the Stars and Stripes flag that the firemen raised at Ground Zero has disappeared. Or the story of an ad agency copywriter and a photographer who were flipping through Time magazine (the cover photo was shot by the photographer), when a man came running towards them, grabbed the magazine and, landing on a double-page spread, announced that these were his images. And, when the ad guy pointed out that his friend had shot the cover, said: "Ahh, you're the one who beat me out of the cover."
  Not bizarre at all, but very interesting (and wonderfully instructive) I've found this: After the attacks on the Twin Towers, all commercial flights across American airspace had been immediately suspended. All of a sudden, the air was clear of contrails (thin stripes of condensation the many jets that cross the continent leave behind) and visual and meterological data produced over the three days the planes were grounded indicated "that North America's temperature swing (the range between the average daytime high and the average nighttime low) widened by an appreciable three to five degrees Fahrenheit ... this suggested ... that contrails, over the years, have tended to tamp down temperatures (a phenomenon called global dimming), possibly hiding what could be even more severe ramifications of global warming."
  Above all, this tome impressively demonstrates what it means to live in a world dominated by pictures. Friend writes: "Most of us hardly realize how pictures serve as a nourishing undergrowth in the recesses of our lives. The weather forecast that helped me choose what I would wear today was created by meteorologists interpreting sequences of still photographs. The security cameras in my office building, my local bank, the various public spaces I traverse each day, are recording me in a steady stream of surveillance shots. My computer stores images and exchanges them with other electronic devices. My cellular picture phone ..."
  Finally, taking pictures and looking at pictures is personal. And thankfully, this is a personal book. Not in the sense that David Friend is pouring out his soul but in the sense that he tells you how he goes about his work: "I phoned a friend in London to see how he was coping, to offer support ... On September 11, my friend, an executive at eSpeed [a Cantor subsidiary in London] hand been on a conference call with his counterparts on the 103rd floor of Tower One. Over the course of his call, he had listened to what he remembers as the 'turmoil over the squawk box,' as colleagues spoke about some sort of explosion. Later came sounds that he now claims are too nightmarish to describe."
  In the same vein he writes about how his then thirteen-year-old daughter Molly reacted to the news that John Doherty, the father of her friend Maureen, had not returned from the World Trade Center: "Over the week that followed, Molly would periodically go to the dining room sideboard, open the left-hand drawer, and take out a framed photo she kept there of nineteen sixth-grade girls from the Ursuline School, including Maureen and Molly, posing in their finest dresses." And about how he himself attempted to come to grips with post 9/11 reality: "I stared at the framed photo beside the prayer book. It showed my sister, Janet, brown eyes twinkling, her young life gone in a single stroke, in a car crash, in 1997. Yet I felt through the photograph that her absence was somehow a presence, and that she must be busy. This nurse, who used to work on a children's bone marrow yard in Seattle, would have been swamped that week. Watching her smile on the nightstand, I thought Janet must be ministering and offering guidance and compassion, now that heaven was packed."
  2009 © Hans Durrer / Soundscapes