Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11
New York: FSG
It was a spectacle, a dream, a nightmare—and cameras were rolling from the moment it began to unfold. Indeed, by many accounts, the attacks of Sept. 11 were the most photographed event in the history of the world. “People photographed from windows and parapets and landings,” writes David Friend, in this gripping new book. “They photographed as they fled in cars ... They even photographed the images on their television sets as they watched the world changing, right there on screen.”
According to Friend, Sept. 11 didn’t just usher in a new post-Cold War era. It kicked off the digital age, which now allows people around the world to experience events happening everywhere from Bangkok to Bangor, and to live them in real time, too. This simultaneity has allowed us, as this book’s title suggests, to watch history happen before us—and if this book is any judge, this brave new world could alter the nature of human empathy, lending more power to the already all-powerful image.
Friend is not overstating the case here. Watching the World Change amply proves that images were the medium of these attacks, and deliberately so. They were timed—it was 9 a.m. in New York, and 9 p.m. in Tokyo—to ensure that the widest possible audience would see them. An estimated two billion people across the globe watched on TV. Osama Bin Laden is said to have listened in by radio.
A photo editor for Vanity Fair, Friend understands how these images travel, and he has done a massive amount of gumshoe work in tracking down the people who brought them to us—as well as the stories behind the images themselves. There are the professionals, like the New York Fox 5 news crew who were downtown filing a story only to have the first plane streak above them. They immediately went live with the story, followed by CNN, which had an image up at 8:49 a.m. Meanwhile, on the ground, armies of photographers went into motion.
To some degree, Watching the World Change reads like a book about war photography, as it takes the photo byline, so often overlooked, and places it front and center. Most of the eyes behind lenses that flocked to the WTC had never seen combat. Evan Fairbanks, who had been setting up a video conference for the Archbishop of Wales, shot some of the most striking footage. Grant Peterson was on assignment to do a still life of ice buckets for Brides magazine.
Kelly Price shot the book’s striking cover image, which depicts a photographer attempting to out-run a thunderhead of smoke debris, on a disposable camera she had bought at a corner bodega. The man in the picture is George Mannes, then a senior writer for thestreet.com, a Wall Street financial website. The events of the day had turned him into a combat photographer.
Watching the World Change shows how this scenario—of the amateur being deputized into the professional by virtue of proximity—happened over and over again. Tom Flynn, a CBS news producer with wartime experience heard a plane go over his West Village apartment and heard a thump, and said to his wife, “We’re under attack.” He didn’t even bother to call a cameraman. He just bicycled south and grabbed the first camera person he saw on-site, who turned out to be Eddie Remy, a Merrill Lynch audiovisual guy. He said, “I’m Tom Flynn, CBS, you’re now working for us.”
Reaching back into the near past, Friend reminds us how far we’ve come since even Vietnam, when photos had to be shuttled to Hong Kong, then satellite-fed to New York, where it was syndicated back around the world. Today, thanks to digital photography and satellite phones—a reporter can file from just about anywhere. One of the most famous photographs taken five years ago—Thomas E. Franklin’s photo of three firefighters raising an American flag over the rubble—was filed from the bar at the Secaucus Radisson in New Jersey.
Some of the most interesting sections of this book deal with photos we took for granted, or may not have seen at all. Forensic experts shot Polaroids of the remains and cataloged them. A NASA astronaut orbiting the Earth in a space station shot pictures of the smoke plume from 250 miles above the Earth. Months later, he photographed the bombs dropping in Afghanistan. An EMS memorial foundation used photos of workers in their last minutes to help obtain settlements for their bereaved families.
And then there are the heartbreaking stories, which Friend marshals in a manner that is always respectful, never exploitative. He reminds how on the day of the attacks, snapshots of the missing began appearing all over New York, first as pleas for help, then as days turned to weeks, as a kind of ghostly memorial. “The photograph said: This being is no more,” Friend writes. “Long live his image.”
As this book amply reveals, images are just as provocative as words, if not more so. Most American news agencies did not air images of the some 200 people who leapt from the towers, while the rest of the world saw them. George W. Bush caused a furor when he unabashedly used images of Sept. 11 in his 2004 campaign, which culminated in an even more exploitative 9/11-fest at Madison Square Garden, just a few subway stops from Ground Zero.
Fire fighters began to squabble with the Bergen County Record for control over Franklin’s quintessential image. In some ways, Friend’s story about the tussle over this iconic image—which was later put on a U.S. stamp—says a lot about how much photographs can say, and also the limits of what they can do. While 60,000 requests to license the image came flooding in, along with calls from Barbara Walters, the three men in the picture elected to remain silent. Their sacrifice had been writ large, and their response to it, too. Still, what they represented to the world and what they lost were two separate things, and no amount of media attention could collapse them into one. The picture had to do the talking, but the most important thing this book tells us is this: It didn’t say it all.