by Peter Howe

Enter The New York 
Times' Photo Gallery
Newsrooms have certainly changed since I came into the world of photojournalism. They used to be one of the noisiest and, at least on the surface, most chaotic work environments that you could imagine. Nothing was done quietly. Take the noise of a manual Royal typewriter spitting out copy, then multiply that by ten or twenty machines and there was the base level of pandemonium. Nobody spoke quietly. Everybody yelled, whether it was editors yelling copy, the constant ringing of telephones (no discreet headsets then), the printers in the composing room, or just somebody asking if anyone wanted coffee. If the newsroom was located above the presses, as was often the case, then all bets on accurate verbal communication were off as they rumbled into action.

Nowadays newsrooms are remarkably quiet, their calm being rippled only by the whisper of computer keyboards or the discreet chirrup of modern telephones. This is certainly the case of the New York Times photo department that is located on the fourth floor of the famous building on 43rd Street in Manhattan. It is not a complacent, or even peaceful hush, but rather one of quiet determination. There is a feeling of condensed energy ready to be released on whichever project comes up next. For the last three weeks that project has been the remarkable coverage of the World Trade Center disaster provided by the newspaper’s staff and free-lance photographers.

The two people most responsible for directing that coverage are Mike Smith, the Deputy Picture Editor, and Jim Wilson, Chief Picture Assignment Editor, along with Picture Editor Margaret O'Connor . They spoke to the Digital Journalist about the way that they had organized a complex and difficult operation. According to Jim Wilson, the first that he heard of the attack was shortly before nine o’clock on the morning of September 11th. His source was the Times’ police department reporter Will Rashbaum. He told Wilson that, in his words, “a large multi-engined airplane” had flown into 1 World Trade Center. Wilson had just driven in from New Jersey on what was a crystal clear day, and had seen the Twin Towers on his commute to Times Square. His initial reaction was that this had to be some sort of a joke, but turned on the Picture Department television where Rashbaum’s information was confirmed by the pictures of smoke pouring out of the tower.

Along with Jeremiah Bogert, the Deputy Assignment Editor, he began to deploy his photographers, as well as handle the volume of phone calls from people making sure that they knew about the incident. As luck would have it, September 11 was Primary Election Day in New York, and so an unusually large number of photographers had been assigned to various locations around the city and in the other boroughs. One of the locations that had to be covered was the Board of Elections Headquarters at 32 Broadway, within close proximity to the World Trade Center. Ruby Washington had been assigned to photograph the activity there, and as a result of her position was at the Towers within ten minutes of the first plane hitting its target. 

Wilson’s quick thinking also enabled the paper to capture pictures of the second plane’s approach and fiery impact into 2 World Trade Center shortly after 9:00am. Without knowing that this plane was on its deadly course he realized that he needed an overall shot of the scene, and contacted Brooklyn stringer Kelly Guenther. Within minutes of the call she was in a position to get this important picture.

One of the biggest problems for both Wilson and Smith was that even with all the experience of their long careers neither had encountered anything of this magnitude. The closest that Wilson can think of is when as a photographer he covered the volcanic eruption and subsequent mudslide in Armero in Columbia that buried 25,000 people in 1985. The parallel with the World Trade Center that he saw was that upon his arrival in Armero there was rubble everywhere, and no visible bodies. This similarity was reinforced by the initial report from the Mayor’s Office estimating the number of dead to possibly be as high as 11,000. 

For Smith the closest comparison in terms of the effect on readers was the shuttle explosion, but the magnitude of this attack and its audacity makes every other story fade in importance. “The Democratic Revolution [in Eastern Europe], the fall of the Berlin Wall, those were hugely significant stories, and yet in terms of the way Americans feel about it I think they all pale in comparison to this one, and I don’t see this one ending any time soon, I don’t see the effects of it ending any time soon.”

There were two big problems facing these two editors on the first day of the story. The most obvious was the logistical problem of communicating with and organizing the photographers that they had available to them. The more difficult was to motivate them to overcome their fears. As Wilson says:

“As a journalist you know that in many instances we have to go into places in the same sense that a firefighter or a police officer goes into a very dangerous situation not really knowing what it is that we’re dealing with.”

This was further complicated by rumors of other aircraft still in the air, of biological hazards possibly being a part of the attack, of bomb threats plus the confusion and uncertainty of cell phones and pagers not working, and a complete breakdown of public transportation systems. Also with the news of the attack on the Pentagon and the crash of the fourth plane in Pennsylvania the editors were not sure how they might have to cover the development of events outside of New York City.

The chaos was not confined to Ground Zero. Within the New York Times all the various people on all the different desks who were involved in the coverage were scrambling as fast as they could. As Smith says:

“When a story like this happens you really fall back on your individual journalistic instincts and you just go. There really isn’t a lot of time to coordinate. Once you’ve sent people where you think they ought to be there comes a time when you have to step back a little bit and say: ‘OK, who do we talk to?’ and the top editors began to call meetings, and we began to have little huddles all around the newsroom all day long.”

Although the first day was constant extemporization, a routine developed in the days that followed. Complicating the first day was the volume of calls received from amateur and unknown photographers offering images. On a normal day in the database the Time’s Picture Desk uses to keep track of such submissions there would be between fifty and sixty records. On September 11th it was around one hundred and fifty. In fact because of the nature of the attack some of the most dramatic pictures of the explosions that they ran were from freelance and amateur photographers.

The New York Times staffers were shooting almost exclusively on digital cameras, and this proved to be an enormous advantage. Traffic in New York is terrible at the best of times, and these were the very worst of times. Although Times photographers are supplied with cars to facilitate getting them and their equipment to a story, in this particular instance they were more of a hindrance that an asset. All streets below 14th Street were quickly closed off. This meant that even if the photographer had managed to get his or her car closer to the site before the closure, any messengers would have had to walk the extremely hazardous mile and a half from there to pick up film from those working at Ground Zero. Even if the messenger had made it, to then locate the photographer would have been impossible under the circumstances that were prevailing. Digital allowed for the instant transmission on site of the images, and in some cases there were photographers that neither Wilson nor Smith saw for the first couple of days.

The initial pandemonium during and after the collapse of the two towers meant that the photographers’ access was relative uninterrupted by the authorities, but as Smith expresses it:

“Those responsible for trying to keep order tend sometimes to misplace their duties by keeping us away as if we’re somehow a threat. We’ve had to fight that and it seems to be getting worse. It’s hard for our people to get down there, it’s hard for them to get to where they need to be to work.”

At the moment they’ve only had one arrest, a stringer who spent the night in jail for trespassing. Now there are notices at the site at Ground Zero informing of the possibility of arrest for those photographing the scene, with the threat of confiscation of equipment. Although these are intended to apply to amateurs their interpretation by the various law enforcement agencies involved has also affected the ability of news photographers to work. The irony of this situation is that the picture desk has received numerous calls from firefighters and police officers to thank the Times for their photographic coverage and to request copies of the photographs, in some cases to be used as part of the memorials and tributes to those fallen.

Smith however thinks that this is a natural reaction on the part of law enforcement:

“They feel responsible for protecting the scene, the mourning relatives, and they think somehow that we’re a threat to that. But that sort of thing happens at a lot of news events, and I don’t think that it’ll be a permanent erosion of our rights.”

Many of the photographs supplied to the paper by the photo desk have appeared in the special section “A Nation Challenged”. This advertising free section has enabled the reader to get in one place all the information that the various departments of the Times can provide. As Wilson says:

“It really makes sense to put everything in one place so that people don’t have to go hunting around throughout the paper to try and find the stories about Wall Street, for instance, or the stories about what’s going to happen with the buildings, what has happened with the subway, the stories about what’s happening in Afghanistan.”

The significant role that still images have played in the coverage of this tragic event have caused many people to hope that this might signify the rebirth of photojournalism. Smith, who never really thought photojournalism was dead anyway, says:

“I do think that a story like this certainly underscores the importance of the visual report. It’s a shockingly, disturbingly visual story. It was on the first day and it still is. As brilliant as our [written] stories have been, and they have been outstanding, the thing that people remember, and the way the way they will remember this tragedy, is through the visuals, the pictures.”

Wilson, however, has a sobering counterpoint to this.

“Most people when they talk about what they’ve seen [in the photographs] they describe it as a scene in a movie. And I think that it’s now settling in on them the same way it’s settling in on us, that it’s not like watching a movie …this is real…these people are not coming back…you don’t have actors who will move on to another production. This is finality.”

This finality also takes its toll on the photographers covering the story day after day. As Smith observes:

“They’re all hurting, like the rest of us. You can’t cover funeral after funeral and see people walking down the street in tears, which they’ve all seen. You can’t go down there and look at that destruction and not be moved. They’ve gone through a lot, they’ve gone through more than we probably realize…and they will continue to, and we will continue to do our job, for many months and helping them deal with what they’ve seen and what they’ve done.”

In order to help them cope with the stress of the past three weeks the Times has offered professional counseling to the photographers. 

“There is not a person on this staff that has not been impacted in some way by this,” says Wilson, “even those who were not in the area. It’s such a huge magnitude. We have postings around the newsroom, we’ve sent emails, and made people quite aware that we do offer services here, counseling, or if they need to talk with any of us. Some of us in the various departments have had quite a lot of experience with disasters that we understand how you might feel. I’ve talked to people about some of the things I’ve covered and how it’s impacted me…that there are times when they may see something or are sitting someplace that might take them by surprise…an overwhelming feeling of sadness.”

Both Jim Wilson and Mike Smith believe that the attack on the World Trade Center is a defining moment for this generation in the same way that Pearl Harbor was for a previous one. Wilson talks about his mother: “I guess that…this is an event that will clearly define this generation. I thought about this in a conversation I had with my mother the very first day, she was quite concerned for the photographer in me, because I would want to get down there…but for her, the defining moment in her life was what happened at Pearl Harbor. This is the same sort of defining moment for us. It will stay with us for a very, very long time.”

Smith agrees: “I agree with Jim, it feels that way to me. It feels like it will be the one event that will be our Pearl Harbor. And as a lot of people have said, we really hope we recover from this tragedy. As good a job as our staff has done, there is not a person here that wouldn’t turn back the clock.”

But the clock ticks forward and for Wilson and Smith and the picture departments of the New York Times and every other newspaper the challenge will be to keep the coverage as compelling as the story moves into its next phase. The freezing of bank accounts and covert operations in Afghanistan and other locations are a lot harder to make visually interesting than exploding buildings.

© 2001 Peter Howe 

Enter The New York Times' Photo Gallery

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