Fear in New York

The events of September 11, 2001, with the destruction of the World Trade Center, The Pentagon, and the enormous number of casualties, produced some of the most dramatic pictures in the history of photography.

For the public, there seemed an endless succession of powerful images, a visual record of these heinous acts. In retrospect, with a few notable exceptions, such as Thomas Franklin's iconic image of firemen raising the stars and stripes amidst the rubble, most of the noteworthy photographs were taken at great personal risk in the first few hours of the disaster.

In our interviews with the photographers at Ground Zero, a common sentiment was expressed, "I could see the cops looking around, and I knew it was time to get out of here."

By mid-afternoon the NYPD had established firm perimeters around the scene. The orders coming down from the very top were "no press allowed." The media were contained many blocks to the north. While many people were allowed to make their way to the scene - whether rescue or construction personnel or ordinary citizens carrying cameras - anyone wearing a press pass, which states on it "the bearer is allowed to pass police and fire lines," was denied access.

A cat-and-mouse game started between the police and press trying to document the story. Accredited photojournalists were forced to resort to furtive missions down alleyways, moving as though in enemy territory. If spotted, they would be apprehended, their press passes taken away, and perhaps jailed.

Photojournalist Stephen Ferry tells his story:

"Wednesday night I snuck into the area. I wasn't stopped by police, but to avoid problems I chose a route, down alleys, and took my time, and I was never told not to be there. I made it to Ground Zero at midnight. I was discreetly taking pictures, with my small camera, of this tremendous scene of the wreckage and the rescue effort that was going on, and staying well out of the way. A police officer came over and asked me who I was, and I said I was an observer and he told me to beat it.

"So I started home. As I was walking a police chief stopped me and asked me for identification. Not having my current NYPD credentials - I had some old ones, official ones from the past. I had like five in my pocket and figured that I could at least show I was a professional photographer for a number of years, but he thought that was strange and cuffed me and took me in.

"What happened then is I was locked in. That was Wednesday night and I didn't get out until Sunday afternoon. They didn't allow me to use the phone. They didn't allow access to the phone to any prisoners, which struck me as cruel. Many of them were volunteers. Either they did something themselves or they didn't have correct identification. On television, they had been asking for volunteers (to come to the WTC scene) but there wasn't a place to report to. So people were effectively sneaking in and attaching themselves to some crew or another. But these people - all covered in soot and dust - they couldn't call their families either.

"In my case, I knew that by Saturday, my family would really be worried that I was dead or something. They were going to have to print flyers and hand them out in the community. Many of my friends, who are photographers, were very worried, taking time from what was a very busy week to try to locate me.

"I was arrested Wednesday night. The charge was obstruction of justice, and obstruction of government administration, which is another charge they always slap on. My camera and film have been taken from me as evidence. I hope it won't be difficult to get that material, but it's a process and the DA's office was overwhelmed, and the phones were down."

"Obstruction of Government Administration." For many working photographers in New York City, those words have created an environment of fear while trying to do their jobs.

David Handschuh, the past president of the National Press Photographers Association, and a staff photographer for the New York Daily News is one of the most street-wise photographers in New York. He commonly arrives on the scene of a fire or crime with the first wave of police. He credits the New York Police Department with helping to save his life after he was injured in the collapse of the World Trade Center. But he is very concerned over what he sees as a major deterioration in the relationship between police and the press. "Over the past eight years, we have seen an utter disdain for the first amendment." he claims.

He traces the pattern to the start of the Giuliani administration, which was intent on demonstrating to New Yorkers that their quality of life and safety was improving. "It's the tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it, did it happen argument." He relates responding to the scene of a man shot in a labor dispute near the entrance to Central Park, and being physically moved away by a police officer who was saying that he would be in trouble if a picture was to appear in the newspaper. Since then these incidents have grown steadily. "It's restraint of trade," says Handschuh. "It's like being a bad puppy - you get hit on the head with a newspaper. If they take your press cards you have to beg to get them back."

Handschuh hopes things will improve in a new administration, but he feels the damage has already been done. "The recruits who have been trained in the restraint of the press will become captains and supervisors."

In the crash of the American Airlines jet in Queens last month, press were constrained to an area blocks away which did not permit any view of the scene. Long lenses have the capability of allowing photojournalists to record an event from a distance, without interfering with rescue operations - but they can't see around corners, which is what the New York Police Department has become expert at finding.

There is fear among photographers that the NYPD will begin making a personal visit and interview necessary to get a press card, instead of issuing the passes to the news organizations, which have always vouched for their staff.

As we were interviewing photographers who had covered the events of September 11, several asked that we delete any remarks about the oppressive atmosphere created by the police, or the Mayor's office, for fear of loosing their press passes.

Carolina Salguero, who distinguished herself with her coverage of the World Trade Center disaster, managed to slip into the scene by arriving via boat. But she had to concentrate not only on taking great pictures, but avoiding the police.

"What made it the hardest was I really felt it was all coupled with this negative attitude towards the press. I have worked in countries where democracy is a question mark, and I have worked in countries that have experienced a lot of violence, and I have risked my life to do my job in those places, and maybe there were people who wanted to kill me for being a journalist, but there were many other people who really appreciated me for being a journalist. It was considered essential to the maintenance of their democracy, to get the information out.

"I can remember one village up in coca-growing territory in Peru that had been walloped by the Shining Path six times in six months. They had never seen a white person up there, let alone a foreigner. Everybody in this village got out to greet me, waving small flags. They got 300 people, including small infants, queued up for arrival of this information source, which was considered so significant, and here it isn't. I can't quite fathom that."

David Handschuh, still recovering from his injuries at his New Jersey home, reflects on the problem. "I appreciate the fact that the police saved my life on September 11, at the World Trade Center disaster, but they prevented other photographers from photographing it."

Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist