The Digital Journalist
Watching The World Change

by David Friend

September 2006

[From WATCHING THE WORLD CHANGE: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 by David Friend. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright (c) 2006. All rights reserved. VISIT:]


Kelly Price/Polaris
The attacks of September 11 were the most visually documented breaking-news event in human history. Tens of thousands of observers committed millions of moments to film, to digital stills, to videotape. Photojournalists and TV news crews, amateurs with point-and-shoots and tourists with camcorders saw the horror before them and impulsively pointed their lenses skyward. The result was a step-by-step chronicle of an unprecedented terrorist act, photographed from an unprecedented multiplicity of perspectives.

Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 examines a week's photo trove, from September 11 to September 17, 2001. The book, released to coincide with the fifth anniversary of 9/11, reveals the untold tales behind dozens of images, from the point of view of photographers and the unknown citizens in their pictures, from firefighters and politicians, from first responders and the relatives of the deceased who have used photographs to help them mourn, to heal, and to understand the unimaginable.

There is the story of Jean Coleman, a Connecticut realtor, who recognized her two sons, Keith and Scott, in a news photo, gasping for air in the windows of the 104th floor of Tower One. And the story of Frank Culbertson, the astronaut who videotaped the World Trade Center's smoke plumes from 250 miles up in space. There is the story of Lisa Palazzo, who turned her house into something of a photo shrine to her husband, Tommy. And the story of Bill Biggart and Glen Pettit, two photographers who got too close, perishing as the north tower plummeted above them.

The book, a patchwork of such narratives, also focuses on two breakthroughs that came of age in 2001: the ascendancy of digital photography and the proliferation of 24-7 satellite newsgathering (each accelerated by the rise of their hand-maiden, the Internet). The result was that on 9/11, more than two billion people, roughly a third of the human race, were able to witness a single event as it unfolded.

Watching the World Change, of course, exists because of a horrific national tragedy. I am grateful to the scores of individuals who opened up to me, nonetheless, sharing some of the most painful stories of their lives. And even though it might seem odd to discuss photos in the context of this unparalleled loss of life, we now have gained some perspective. The months have turned to seasons, to years. Photographs, for most of us, have become the most reliable vessels we have for retaining the experience of that day. For many people, photographs are their memory. And if we do not make an effort to recall how truly ghastly the events were, we will lost our collective memory and, with it, the nerve to keep such an act from happening again.


The world had been able to tune in to a single sight because of a relatively new breakthrough that occurred in the years leading up to 2001: the ability to capture, transmit, and broadcast visual information, whether in moving or still pictures, by digital means.

The implications of this transformation were among the most revolutionary in the history of photography. And the revolution transpired so quickly, and by now has come to seem so commonplace, that we often forget how it all works or came to be.

First, some background, beginning with the still picture.

In the mid- to late-1990s, photojournalists (and much of the consumer photography market) began to migrate to the digital format. Legions of professional shooters—from sports to combat to wedding photographers—started to wean themselves off of traditional film cameras. To obtain pictures with a roll-film apparatus, an image is exposed in a positive or negative format (onto strips, whose emulsion is altered by incoming light when the rolls are spooled past an open aperture), then developed in a darkroom, then either viewed with the aid of a light source (a projector or light box, typically) or reproduced on light-sensitive paper. This process requires time, the tactile handling of materials by trained technicians or artisans, and the consumption of chemicals and other resources.

Around the year 2000, however, digital cameras came into their own. They make pictures electronically rather than chemically. By interacting with light, their sensors cause pixels—groups of transistors—to pick up an electrical charge. Those charges are then processed through the computer brain of the camera and ultimately stored as digital photographic files on memory-storage cards. Digital cameras allow for immediate assessment of a shot (because a picture appears right on the camera back), easy correction of exposure and color, and easy storage in (and retrieval from) the camera's or the computer's memory. Digital photography can be cheaper, too, since there are no developing costs, and because every reproduction is a virtual clone of the original image.

9/11/2001. View of the World Trade Center terrorist attack from a photographer's living room

Most critical of all—for photojournalists working on a tight deadline—is the facility and speed with which images can be sent to, and from, any location. Digital photographs are as unfettered as e-mail, downloaded from a camera's memory card (or from a camera-equipped cell phone or handheld device) to a computer's desktop, then transmittable over the Internet. Photographers can take, edit, and archive a photograph in less than a minute, then send it to a potential publishing source in seconds. For a breaking news story, such as 9/11, shot in a dicey or dangerous environment such as downtown Manhattan during a terrorist attack, visual velocity was critical—and largely unavailable in the decade before.

To get breaking stories into print in the 1970s, explains photojournalist Mark Greenberg, "you either went to a news bureau to use their souped-up machines or you developed film in your hotel bathroom sink, creating a darkroom by placing duct-tape over the perimeter of the door and black plastic over the windows to prevent light leaks. Then, to transmit one color news picture to the wires, you had to have 30 uninterrupted minutes on your phone line to transmit three black-and-white facsimiles of the same image, each with a different density in its gray tones representing cyan, magenta, and yellow."

By the 1980s, photographers began to work from suitcase-sized devices that scanned and stored the negatives. By the 1990s, the age of the satellite photo-from-the-field had arrived. Derek Hudson, shooting for Life and the Paris-based Sygma photo agency during the Gulf War in 1991, created a traveling photo lab (just as those shooting battlefield daguerreotypes had done in the 1800s). Hudson's portable lab doubled as a ground station from which he could process, print, scan, and transmit his images. Since Hudson was not assigned to a press "pool" slot (embedded with a military unit), he decided to create what he called an FTP operation (as in "Fuck the Pool"), directly transmitting film from the field—and circumventing the military censors.

With a colleague, Hudson bought a Land Rover in Riyadh and outfitted it with camouflage netting and fake antennae to make it look like a British military officer's vehicle. He brought along a 77-pound satellite phone (with a three-to-four-foot dish), a bulky Hasselblad scanner, and a generator to power the equipment. At the end of a day's shooting in the Kuwaiti desert, he would develop his C-41 color-negative film in the vehicle in a stainless-steel fish cooker in which he had placed several tanks (two developers, one stop bath, one fixer), using a makeshift refrigeration system, thanks to the generator, to keep the developer cool in the heat of the desert. "Then I had to wash [the film]," he says, "and dry the damn thing using the car heater. There was sand everywhere."


He would then struggle to place a satellite phone call to a Hasselblad facility on the outskirts of Paris. "The process took 45 minutes for one frame,” he recalls. "It seemed interminable." That was only the first leg. In this era before JPEGs, the image-transmission system used by Hasselblad, in France, was incompatible with Life’s, in New York. So finished pictures had to be printed, handed to a courier, and flown by Concorde across the Atlantic, adding almost a day to the process.

Nonetheless, the first image that Hudson sent—of a famished crowd of Kurdish POWs being tossed meal-ration packs by a U.S. Marine—arrived with such relative dispatch from the war zone (in color, no less) that it sold to Paris Match, Life, and elsewhere, recouping about $50,000, the cost of all the equipment.

The procedure seems quaint by 21st-century standards. "Today," says Greenberg, "modern bureaus are generally spelled S-T-A-R-B-U-C-K-S. The photographer is the bureau. All he needs is a camera, a computer, and either a cell phone, sat [satellite] phone, or access to a land line. A photographer, in essence, can be anywhere on earth—the top of Mt. Everest or down at Ice Station Zebra—and send his photos anywhere at any time."

On the morning of September 11, this speed and ease of transmission perfectly aligned the photojournalist's needs for swift image dissemination with the public's desire for instantaneous and accurate news and information. That day, Vin Alabiso, then-executive photo editor of The Associated Press, had scores of photographers out in the field. His AP staffers and freelancers downloaded their images to their laptops, captioned them, and used cell phones to transmit them to a central desk in midtown New York where editors chose the selects, cropped and toned each image, checked them for caption accuracy, and then sent those photos on again—a process that took roughly 15 minutes—before the shots were "broadcast" or "pushed"—not "pulled" from the Internet, as is commonly done today—"by a transmission system called PhotoStream," Alabiso explains, providing almost simultaneous "satellite delivery of digital images [to] more than a thousand newspapers in the U.S. and thousands more overseas." When photographers couldn't obtain a mobile phone connection, they ran or biked to the AP's midtown offices, downloaded their caches, then turned around and headed back into the breach.

AP realized, however, that for a story like this one, a 15-minute lag time wouldn't do. So they went directly to their television sets and downloaded stills. "That immediacy on 9/11 clearly illustrated an important paradigm shift in photojournalism," Alabiso believes. "The very first images we transmitted that morning were not from traditional film or digital stills but, in fact, were 'frame-grabs' from video—in virtual 'live time' of the attack precisely as it happened."

Like most top-flight newsrooms, AP had a wall of televisions playing around the clock; they also had VHS tape recorders through which they could "lift" key shots and convert them into JPEGs. Instead of "standing there waiting for digital images to come through the system," says Alabiso, picture editors switched digital streams entirely, swiping freeze frames from a sister medium—television—to supply stop-action shots to newspapers, magazines, and Web sites. In this caffeinated, must-see-now news world, TV and the Internet could provide real-time access to events, an attribute not yet available to the still camera, which wouldn't become incorporated into the Net-linked cell phone for three years. (" 'Frame-grabbing,' " says Alabiso, had been perfected "during the Clinton impeachment hearings of 1999, when still photographers were not given access to the proceedings. But TV cameras did record the hearings and at AP we monitored three or four televisions simultaneously. We'd capture a 'video-still' right from the screen, process it through PhotoShop, and then transmit it on the uplink.")

On September 11, says Alabiso, "we had dozens shooting that day—staff and amateurs—because of the advent of consumers' digital cameras. It was Carmen Taylor, an Arkansas tourist visiting New York, who captured one of the most dramatic images of the hijacked airliner a split second before it slammed into the second tower. Taylor sent the image to a local TV station in Arkansas, which quickly aired her photo. With bureaus in every state, AP's local staff spotted Taylor's picture. She quickly agreed to let AP send it around the world." Taylor's serendipitous snaps, in Alabiso's estimation, were evidence that "almost overnight, the power of spot news photography [had] slipped from the hands of the skilled, passionate photojournalist and into the handbags and pockets of consumers everywhere . . . The amateur who is on the scene becomes the first eye on history."

Transformations like these, obviously, had a profound impact on newsgathering. "On 9/11 we could not have met our deadline and done our best-selling issue in three years," says Regis Le Sommier of the French newsmagazine Paris Match, "if there hadn't been digital photography. We had nine hours to do the whole magazine. Keep your Leicas in the closet!" But the new technology had an even more significant impact on our concept of what we can see, and therefore know, in these voyeuristic times.

By 2001, digital images—etched electronically onto what the manufacturer has marvelously dubbed a Memory Stick—had done away with the need for the finished print. The process now is the picture. Our ability to witness an occurrence that had been previously observed through a viewfinder is no longer a function of lazy, cryptic chemistry. Instead, the pixel, minutely and immediately, encodes the essential lightning flash of an event for virtually spontaneous reconstitution. Today the eye of the photographer is hardly separated by more than a few blinks from the eye of the beholder.

In fact, the digital picture itself has ceased to be a picture in a traditional sense—a representation of a three-dimensional space, real or imagined, on a flat surface. Now the image, reduced to electronic particles, is largely virtual, more photo than graph. It exists more like a vapor or a dapple of sunlight. While so-called true lovers of photography continue to cherish the tactile experience of "taking in" a picture (discerning the meaning and wonder of a given image by experiencing its confluence of light and shadow in three dimensions—in one's grasp or on a page or on a museum wall), consumption of digital photography, in fairness, cannot yet do without the observational surface. Memory-based images are not absorbed intravenously; they must still be transferred to a camera back, a cell phone, a computer desktop, a laser print. But little by little, just as the electronic book already threatens to replace the printed page—leaving us with only the wonderful story underneath—photography is becoming progressively less physical.

Einstein is instructive here. In 1905, the physicist altered humanity's sense of time and space when he first envisioned light as a particle and not just a wave. Digital photography, a hundred years later, has altered our sense of time and space by channeling and then recording light as a pixel. This new incarnation of an old medium has expanded our potential visual universe while collapsing the time frame between action and audience. By altering how and how quickly we can remotely witness an event, the medium exponentially increases what we think we can see and understand. It has endowed humanity (even in this age of photo manipulators, image handlers, and spinmeisters) with expectations, realistic or not, of a here-and-now, around-the-clock omniscience.

Digital photography has also recast our framework for understanding how to quantify information within space. In the digital realm of the Internet, where pictures travel between transmitters and viewers, all space has become virtual. Quite often, many observers cannot separate a news event from its visual representation. This paradox has persisted for ages: we remember that the Hindenburg dirigible collided with a mooring tower and exploded in Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937, killing 36, in large part because Sam Share was there to record it with his camera and because WLS correspondent Herb Morrison transmitted his alarm—"Oh, the humanity!"—over the radio. Likewise, when remembering September 11, 2001, there is no distinction for two billion–plus people between the observed occurrence and the rewitnessed enactment. Many of us equate the event with the pictures of it, and it is pictures that we most readily retain, the medium becoming our memory.


Amid all the horror and ruin and death, why all this talk of pictures?

David Turnley
I am drawn to this subject—this week, of all weeks—because so many of us are at the mercy of images when it comes to understanding the events of September 11. I am also drawn to pictures because I believe that photography is a medium that gives us the illusion of immortality. We somehow feel that once we leave this domain, slices of us will live on in pictures, like cell samples on a microscope slide.

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 takes snapshots through a viewfinder on its flip-back (I walk around with 60 images of family and friends and favorite landscapes and one clandestine video taken at a Rolling Stones concert in Toronto). My wallet contains pictures of my kids and my nephews, along with my driver's license—a photo ID that allows state and federal agencies to keep tabs on me. When my wife began to have early contractions seven months into her pregnancy, a sonogram (an image created with sound waves) revealed we were going to have twins.

For the typical modern man or woman, the mural of daily life is a sweeping photomosaic. An urbanite absorbs several dozen publicly displayed pictures every 24 hours. At the turn of the millennium, Life magazine noted that every day some 46,575,343 photos were generated in the United States alone—on digital equipment and traditional SLRs and throwaway cameras. But in only five or six years, with the cell phone snapshot explosion and the proliferation of photo-sharing Web sites, that number seemed paltry. By the spring of 2006, the buzz among some of the Web developers at Microsoft's MIX conference in Las Vegas was that the picture-rich was experiencing traffic surges of 1.5 billion page views every day. (A 2003 study by the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California at Berkeley estimated that there are 900 billion photographs in existence, 150 billion of them created in the two years leading up to the 9/11 attacks.) Still images are the lingua franca of billboards and posters, magazines and catalogs, diagnostic files and police dossiers. They comprise the graphic bedrock of film and video, newspapers and Web sites.

In the larger scheme, photographs are shared documents, sometimes globally so. Our validation of world events often comes from news photographs, a common currency of information exchange. Our understanding of microbiology and subatomic physics owes to the beckoning eyepieces of electron microscopes. Our understanding of universal forces, on the grandest of scales, is derived from observations that astronomers have made through the star-drenched lenses of their telescopes, tracking events suggested by signatures of light that have left their distant sources eons ago, back near the first stirrings of time itself.

One sign of the medium's vigor is that the picture business is thriving. Despite widespread tales of woe (photographers forced to reinvent themselves in the digital age; photo labs and traditional picture firms closing by the score; photo jobs and budgets being slashed everywhere), there has been an explosion elsewhere in the industry due to the mass migration to digital. "Photography has never been healthier in its history," says my friend Jean-Jacques Naudet. "The need for pictures and the reference to photographs are now absolutely everywhere. [Prices at photo] auctions escalate and escalate. Collections are selling for millions. The celebrity, paparazzi, and party-and-event photographers work every night. There are now 100 photographic galleries in New York [alone]. In London, Milan, Paris, Madrid, Moscow, and Rio de Janeiro they have photography galleries in every block in some neighborhoods, and festivals [too]. My friend [recently] lost everything, and now he's making a fortune selling pictures for your cellular phone."

Fashion photography has become a cultural engine, fueling social and consumer trends and, in the process, blurring the lines between celebrity, style, and public image. Fine-art photographers have become as celebrated as painters. Photographs hold increasing sway through advertising and product packaging, and across the pop-porn-shop-and-gossip Google-monger called the Internet. Teenagers celebrate themselves and contemplate their belly rings by posting digital self-portraits online, updating their profiles and archives nightly. And now anyone with access to a mobile phone can become, with a few swipes of the thumb, an amateur shutterbug. (Nextel peddled one of its recent models with an intriguing promise to turn its owner into one of the "pocket paparazzi.")

The New York Times' culture critic Frank Rich has gone so far as to assert that media has now usurped nature as "America's backdrop." (The average American, in fact, spends 95 percent of his day indoors.) As media creatures in this dense thicket, we consume a hearty daily diet of news, information, and entertainment that is largely parsed out in pictures. As a society we've spent countless eye-years absorbing ads, flipping through photographically plenteous publications, and surfing or clicking through screens.* And we are doing all of this, of course, as we blithely multitask: a recent study of the habits of American teens showed that they take in, on average, 8.5 hours of media a day—in 6.5 hours!

*(The average U.S. household has 2.4 TVs. Fifty percent of Americans live in homes with a digital camera. Seventy-three percent live in homes with one computer or more, and the typical Internet user in those homes devotes the equivalent of four full days every month to online pursuits. As of 2006, 50 million working cell phones in the United States had cameras in them; 125 million were able to access the Web. Smartphones, handhelds, and iPods (which in 2006 sold at a rate of one per second, worldwide) also allow consumers to surf the Net or view videos. All told, there are 1 billion PCs, 1.5 billion televisions, and 2 billion mobile devices on the planet.)

Some believe that today's photo deluge has served to devalue each individual image, espousing the mantra that "nothing shocks us anymore" (an argument successfully presented, and later amended, by Susan Sontag). But one can also argue that such oversaturation has also made us graphically astute and therefore better able to gauge the subtle messages inherent in the images that parade before us. Clicking our electronic magic wands—or, as they've been called, our digitalia (the mouse, the joystick, the remote control, the miniaturized keypad, the Treo, the digital camera's shutter release), leafing through the pages of our dog-eared stacks of analog catalogs-mags-and-papers, snapping and scanning and e-mailing our latest Priceless Moments, we have emerged as an army of casual photo connoisseurs—armchair photo editors, part-time scanners, compulsive printmakers, family archivists, and, yes, empowered, self-published photographers, who also happen to be rather savvy judges of what makes one picture more inherently engaging than another.

Just as everyone's a critic in this age of the blog—Everyman is now a cameraman. And it has ever been thus. The photographic pioneer Alfred Stieglitz, in 1899, wrote that the sheer ease of taking pictures was "a fatal facility" requiring "little labor and . . . less knowledge [that] has of necessity been followed by the production of millions of photographs [each of which has] invariably some measure of attraction . . . even extremely poor ones." The medium, in the words of anthropologist Robert Dannin, is "the most democratic art form since charcoal and ocher were applied to limestone caves about 20,000 years ago."

We are vain (overly concerned with our own appearance) and voyeuristic (stimulated by visual input, often sexual in nature). We are hedonists (who enjoy the immediate gratification that pictures provide) and skeptics, wary and demanding of evidence. As such, we sometimes require visual certification of reality: in many cases we need to see an actual image of an event before we will accept as truth an assertion or innuendo by a politician or a news anchor, a scandalmonger or a movie star.

The pictures that matter most, to most of us, are innocent snapshots. Quite frequently they become our only tangible links to those spaces and faces we have loved and lost. Their appeal partly resides in the perceptible breath of spontaneity within them, "the tiny spark of accident, the here and now," as Walter Benjamin put it in 1931. "That spark has, as it were, burned through the person in the image with reality," Benjamin observed, "finding the indiscernible place in the condition of that long past minute where the future is nesting, even today." It is as if trace elements of yesterday had been bottled in the camera, like port, to be siphoned, once matured, from the vintage print. "Even our simplest snapshots," says Tom Bentkowski, Life's former art director, "are complex documents. They are records of the present, made for the purpose of showing, sometime in the future, what the past looked like."

For many of us, photos are the glue we use to hold in place the disjointed bits of fiction and fact that make up the stories of our lives. They are also receptacles of secret fantasies, aspirations, myth, and love that can become the most cherished or powerful objects in our possession. When I was falling in love with the woman who would become my wife, it was a black-and-white portrait that her sister had taken that I returned to again and again, to glimpse the gaze that had smitten me: Nancy, the mischievous sprite, wearing a playful bowler and a seductive, sidelong glance. Her picture, for me, became a confirmation of what I took to be her essence.

Our most private images of all are those that we record through the mechanics of memory—at times a pictorial process. While memories, of course, can be nonvisual (the ability to recollect words or sequences; to retain and retrieve complex concepts; to sense, as Proust did, the swoon induced by the scent of madeleines), a good many memories have some visual component. They come individually, customized and embedded in our psyches. They come en masse, seeping into the culture's collective unconscious (a mushroom cloud over a desert testing ground; earthrise over a moonscape). These remembered scenes are actually symbolic mental "stand-ins" for long-ago moments. They can be mundane or historic, real or imagined. They can seem vivid, as are many short-term memories, or vaporous, fading in detail the longer they remain with us. They become soured or sweetened in our minds by how they have been witnessed and then encoded in the cerebral equivalent of the freeze-frame. "Watch her carefully, every moment, every gesture," says Gar O'Donnell in Brian Friel's play "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" O'Donnell is thinking aloud as he takes one last gander at his housemaid, Madge, on the eve of his departure for America: "Keep the camera whirring; for this is a film you'll run over and over again—Madge Going to Bed on My Last Night At Home . . . That's all you have now—just the memory; and even now, even so soon, it's being distilled of all its coarseness; and what's left is going to be precious, precious gold."

We gain access to these golden, visualized experiences through the most fragile of membranes: a pinholed lattice called memory that tends to flutter across the brain not as a smooth scrim of moving pictures—not as Madge scurrying about the house—but as a flicker of discrete, still images. These virtual snatches of past events, actual or fanciful, reside in the lightning-swift firings of neural systems, electric nerve impulses traded between nerve cells in the brain. Our memory banks, full of faded smidgens of ocular experience, are filed away as a vast, cross-indexed picture archive, whose frames are ready to be called up at an instant. The act of recollecting scenes or encounters or individuals that were first experienced visually is the act of tripping the mind's shutter to set the search engine in motion. Many of our memories, then, are retrievable as stills. Even the word—"stills"—implies that our perceived relation to a time and space somehow remains, if only in the infinitesimal span of a synapse.

"It makes evolutionary sense that our visual memories seem to be encoded as still and somewhat faded images, rather than moving ones," says the psychiatrist Jeffrey Claman, a professor at the University of British Columbia. He believes that biology may explain why "the still photograph resonates with our subjective experience of visual memory." Our brains, he says, have "a system of neurons that inhibits the activation of the vividness of memory (that is itself inhibited during REM sleep). It would be maladaptive if the waking memory of a perception were as vivid and real as the actual perception. We would be unable to distinguish between them. Remembering a perception would be akin to hallucinating that perception."

We trust pictures. We are neurologically comfortable with what we can see. Even in this era of computer-manipulated imagery, in which we are duped every day by the transmogrification afforded by Photoshop, even as we wholeheartedly acknowledge that pictures are subjective representations—biased by the particularities of film stock, camera type, lens length, and shutter speed; by the method of printing or displaying the finished image; by the aesthetic or journalistic "perspective" of the photographer—we tend to trust what we see within the boundaries of the photographic frame, appearances notwithstanding. Photographers, though famously crafty spinners of myth, are often called impartial observers. Pictures, although often deliberately untruthful or misleading—and almost always electronically enhanced, airbrushed, or tidied and tarted up—are nonetheless considered reality's proof positive, a sort of indelible fingerprint of past experience.

© David Friend

David Friend, an editor at Vanity Fair, was the director of photography of LIFE. He is a contributing editor to The Digital Journalist and won an Emmy and Peabody for the CBS documentary "9/11," which aired in over 140 countries.