The Right to Be There

By Peter Howe

I have a friend who is French. I know that this is aberrant behavior for an Englishmen but the fact that we have both lived in the United States for many years probably explains a lot about this abnormality. Despite his long term residency here, however, he is still quintessentially French. He doesn't even genuflect at the altar of healthy living and accompanies each meal with several glasses of wine and seemingly endless numbers of foul smelling cigarettes. And as for his accent, he makes Maurice Chevalier sound like Yogi Berra. Even after all these years I can still only understand about a third of what he says, thereby disproving Noel Coward's theory that the French speak English behind our backs.

Oblivious to these linguistic handicaps he talks a lot, and one of his recurring topics is his two sons, Jules and Gideon, of whom he is appropriately proud. As they grew up I was kept appraised of their grades, their girlfriends and their career choice, which was that they both wanted to be filmmakers. Now if you live in Manhattan about sixty percent of the children of your friends will want to be filmmakers before they settle down to proper jobs such as lawyers or analysts, either financial or psycho. Because of this I didn't pay much heed to their ambitions, even though they were attending Columbia Film School at the time. It seems however that these two were serious, serious enough to have captured recently a 33 percent share of the national television viewing audience, according to CBS, the network that showed their documentary titled "9-11."

If one out of three television viewers in America saw this film then it's very likely that many of you reading this column were among them, and like me were held spellbound for two hours by their work. Today I doubt that it is much easier to be a documentary filmmaker than a documentary photographer, and the attitude of these two young men is an example to be followed. They think up their own projects and execute them with or without external support through sheer tenacity and determination. The endeavor upon which they were working on 9/11 was the study of the passage of a probationary firefighter from recruit to a full member of the FDNY. It can of course be said that they were lucky that their recruit was stationed at the closest firehouse to the World Trade Center, although it was the kind of luck for which Jules nearly gave his life. However the lesson here is that luck only happens to those who are prepared to put themselves in a position to receive it; it rarely happens to those sitting at home logged on to a chat room complaining about how difficult it is to make a living as a documentarian.

A few days after this film aired across the nation President Bush announced the issue of a new stamp. It was based on the photograph of firefighters raising the Stars and Stripes among the rubble of the Twin Towers that was taken by Thomas Franklin. Both of these events should serve as reminders to us all of the importance of the role of the professional witness in our society, especially at times of national shock and grief. It was the images that helped us to absorb the shock; it was through the sharing of experience that we were able to grieve. It is ironic then that these images came to us despite the best efforts of the authorities instead of as a result of their assistance. The only reason that Jules was able to get the extraordinary access that so captivated the nation was that he stuck like chewing gum to the boot of the Fire Chief that he was following. At one stage in the film he and Gideon are separated and Gideon returns to the Firehouse. Of course when he tries to return to the site, in part to see if he can find his brother, he is prevented from doing so by the police. When I interviewed Jim Nachtwey for the Digital Journalist about his experiences that day he described the "games of cat and mouse" that he had to play with the authorities in order to get the remarkable images that helped to sell out Time Magazine's special issue. The most disturbing aspect of this to me was his acknowledgement that this was the way things are, and that dodging the authorities is part and parcel of a photojournalist's life.

The justification for impeding the media in the execution of their duties is always that it is done for their own good. The police do not want to be accountable for the death and injury that may result from allowing our colleagues access to a news story the understanding of which is vital to the life of the country. Furthermore they will tell you that they do not want inexperienced people getting in the way of rescue efforts to save the lives of the trapped and injured. Both of these rationalizations overlook the fact that the presence of the much maligned "media" was vital to the nation that day and the days that followed; both of these rationalizations also ignore the fact that the heroism for which both the FDNY and the NYPD were justifiably praised was only known about through the efforts of "the media" who reported it, or at least those of its members who managed to evade the NYPD, the National Guard and all other personnel whose duty it was to prevent them from doing their duty. And a duty it is. The press not only has to the right to attend incidents such as this tragedy, it has the responsibility to be there as well. We are there for all those who cannot be there; we are the eyes and ears of the millions whose lives were affected by this event even though they were not present in lower Manhattan that day. It's the ultimate "pool" system.

As for the reasons most commonly given for our exclusion I would say this. A professional journalist accredited to a legitimate news organization does not need to be protected from him or herself; every journalist working on 9/11 was well aware of the risks that he or she was running and the dangers that are inherent in this work, just as every firefighter or police officer is aware of similar hazards that are a part of their chosen professions. If there is a legitimate concern that news coverage will imperil rescue efforts then make it a condition that each journalist covering those efforts has an accreditation that signifies that the wearer has passed a national disaster training course administered by their local police or fire departments. It is beyond time that the organizations that represent the interests of photojournalists, such as the ASMP or EP, make it their highest priority to ensure that their members are able to work in any situation free from the harassment that is all too common now.

One of the most touching moments in Jules and Gideon Naudets' film is when all of the firefighters miraculously return unharmed to the firehouse, including Jules, after his life was protected by his Fire Chief. One of the firefighters embraces him and says: "Yesterday you had one brother; today you have fifty." One hopes that it won't always take such dire circumstances to prove to the powers that influence our lives that we can indeed work together, and that there can be a brother and sisterhood between us and them. Until that happy day comes I will continue to take my French/English dictionary to lunch with Jules' and Gideon's father in the hope that I can accurately keep up with the developments in the careers of his two talented sons.

© 2002 Peter Howe

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