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Watching the World Change:
The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11
In David Friend's new book, Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2006), "watching" is the operative word. On 9/11, I watched, you watched, he watched, and they watched as it happened. More than a staggering two billion people around the world, it is estimated, witnessed the attack on the World Trade Center in real time or saw television news reports of it. That day people all over the world watched the same thing -- together.
Friend's book is riveting. Full of names, numbers, times, and places, it could have had a mind-numbing, Russian-novel quality to it. But it has neither. Instead, the hard facts are part of the story context and embellish more general statements. Research and long interviews with photographers, other media sources, first responders, and victims' families allow Friend to draw the reader into the story and become part of it. It is an oddly personal book.
He takes us back through that horrible day, step by step. Then he lays out all the implications (and I do mean all) of imagery intersecting reality, memory and understanding. Friend's writing is sharp, incisive, and also quite visual. Phrases like "an act of global theater" and "sabotage as spectacle" embrace the whole event and characterize the new era we entered that day.
On September 11, 2001, the new digital imaging, electronic newsgathering, satellite broadcasting, and the Internet were put to the test. Television networks like CBS and cable's FOX and CNN opened the media gates and let the whole event play out. CNN was on the story within three minutes. Soon they decided to run the real-time story on CNN International. CNN's domestic coverage, broadcast worldwide, was available to 170 million households in 200 countries.
The words "real time" come out of computer technology; they are also the title of a television show and a magazine, among other things. In regard to transmissions on 9/11, "real time" means "seen as it happens." Dirck Halstead, publisher of The Digital Journalist, carries the idea further: Video made during an event and then shown in continuous time with no editing is also said to be in real time.
Happenstance and split-second thinking also provided the media with images. Three different people shooting films and advertising videos caught the planes as they crashed into each building. Other photographers around town rushed to the scene; people ran into stores to buy disposable cameras and one store owner gave them away. Photographers are quoted as saying that they had to take pictures and then look at them in the camera to make sure they weren't hallucinating. The day taxed the media to the fullest and amateur "citizen journalists" emerged from the dust and smoke.
Photographs of the missing were plastered all over walls, doors and cars. They evolved with the tragedy to become part of memorial rituals. Candles were gathered together on the ground; lighted candles on ledges dripped wax like tears over the images. Firehouses set up their own shrines to the fallen. Family pictures were blown out of the falling towers and mixed with the debris. Medical x-rays, scans and portraits were used to identify the dead; sometimes only a hand would be found, if you were lucky enough to have that much. The New York Times began publishing "Portraits of Grief," short obits with photographs. And, to add insult to unfathomable pain, Osama bin Laden turned up on videotape. These uses of photography and a hundred others are thoughtfully covered in Friend's book.
Some images disappeared. Television shows such as Law and Order: SVU, ads on television and print media erased pictures showing the twin towers. Soon advertising was pulling any reproductions out of their ads. Television stations concentrated on the attack and canceled their usual advertisements. The vast archive of President Kennedy's official photographer, Jacques Lowe, housed in one of the towers, was incinerated.
David Friend is uniquely qualified to take on, as he says, "a week in the life of the photograph." His life and career encompass contemporary journalism and photojournalism. He was a correspondent who traveled to hot spots like Afghanistan and Lebanon and became Life's director of photography, founding Life's Web site and creating the coveted Alfred Eisenstaedt Awards. He is now the editor of creative development at Vanity Fair.
Watching the World Change explores the Thomas Franklin image of the three firefighters hoisting a flag on the day of the attack. Various controversies surround the picture of the spontaneous moment. Friend compares the many points the photograph has in common with Joe Rosenthal's "Old Glory oes up on Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima." It seems to me that one way they differ is that while both pictures are about hope amidst struggle, Franklin's image is one of many extraordinary images on September 11. Rosenthal's photograph recalls the bloody Pacific campaign against the Japanese and is the reason we know about the battle on Iwo Jima. Had the photograph been made on Peleliu, that island would be part of our collective memory instead of Iwo Jima.
Friend adds a haunting insight, listing how others have characterized the change we were watching that day as we all watched the world change:
"The images of planes, of towers tumbling, of
© Marianne Fulton
[NOTE: This article also appeared in the August issue of NPPA's News Photographer magazine.]
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