As the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001 approaches images of the event are being recycled and recirculated. Many of them are familiar, and the meaning of the event now seems fixed. But anniversaries are part of the process of fixing memory, and as they are repeated they can obscure the uncertainty that prevailed at the moment they now memorialise. They also render a general date as a singular moment, obscuring other historical events of great significance that occurred in previous years on September 11.
A couple of weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington, I wrote an essay for The Information Technology, War and Peace Project at Brown University on how we struggled to comprehend ‘9/11’ and the role photography played in that process. I am re-posting it here, ten years on, as both an act of commemoration, and a reminder about the interpretative work required to render something as a world historical event.
“The images were just reality, in every bit of its full-color unmediated ugliness.” At first glance, who could disagree? A tower of the World Trade Center on fire. Frightened workers hanging from the windows. An aircraft flashing across the sky and slamming into the second tower. A fireball. The collapse. The screams of the on-lookers, the dust, the rubble, the darkness, and then the silence. As ugly a reality as anyone would never wish to see again.
But we did see it again. And again, and again. Over and over. Television went to live coverage, and as word spread through homes and offices connected to global news networks, hundreds of millions of people distant from the epicenter of disaster became eyewitnesses to the previously unimaginable. We sat with mouths open and heads in hands, aghast at the events unfolding before our own eyes. Real events, in real time, offered up to us through the reality of television. Which then looped the video of those extraordinary one hundred minutes in which some 6,000 people were killed [a number later reduced to 2,977 civilians], and repeated it, and reused it, and recycled it endlessly, searing those images into the public mind.
And yet those images stubbornly defy comprehension. For all that we were there even when we lived elsewhere, for all that we could re-witness them on subsequent news bulletins, and for all that we can still access them on various web sites, the video footage of September 11, 2001 does not seem real. That is why the fictional realm of the disaster movie became for so many the referent of the domain of fact we observed that day.
The morning after brought the newspapers. Across the world, there was a remarkable unanimity of image and headline, with the exploding towers as a sign of attack, war, apocalypse, and terror. My own daily paper in England was no different. On the front page of The Guardian was the fireball produced at the moment the second aircraft flew into the north tower. Inside, however, was something quite different. Text and advertisements were evacuated from pages two and three, and replaced with a single black and white photograph stretching all the way across the double spread. It was southern Manhattan, enveloped in the dust and smoke of the now destroyed World Trade Center. One of the paper’s staff explained that the newsroom’s initial reaction to the catastrophe was stunned silence, and that the use of the opening photographs the following day was designed to make the paper begin “speechlessly.” It worked, and you lingered over the image, reflecting on the events that had produced it, still struggling to come to terms with the event. Television later employed a similar strategy. On the Friday after the attack two news programs in England concluded their broadcasts with a series of still images, each static on the screen for much longer than usual, to the accompaniment of somber music.
The capacity of a photograph to prompt reflection, particularly after a day of non-stop video, recalls Susan Sontag’s argument that “photographs may be more memorable than moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow. Television is a stream of underselected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.” Indeed, one consequence for the media of September 11 has been something of a reinvigoration of photojournalism. Many newspapers have published remarkable images captured by photographers who were at or near the World Trade Center as soon as they learnt of the disaster. With Manhattan being one of the world’s most media rich environments, some of the world’s best-known photojournalists have found the biggest story of recent time taking place in their backyard. And with the web sites of well known media outlets offering a cost effective capacity for publishing the work of these photojournalists, we have been able to see the powerful images of James Nachtway, Anthony Suau (Photoessays @ Time), Susan Meiselas and Gilles Peress (Portfolio @ The New Yorker) faster than was previously possible.
The use of photojournalism simultaneously in both print and electronic form highlights an important feature of photography. In and of themselves, photographs do not convey a particular narrative that gives meaning to an event. Photographs rely on headings, captions, and accompanying articles for the creation of meaning. Nachtwey’s photo essay “Shattered” [now updated with some outtakes] comprises fourteen images, [originally] displayed without captions. The lack of framing that results from the absence of text allows the viewer to read them in a number of ways. But when five of those photographs are taken from the series and, along with the work of others, resituated in the special print issue of Time in a section entitled “Day of Infamy,” they function differently. The cumulative effect of associating the pictures with text in a particular way is that they act as an affidavit supporting “the case for rage and retribution” angrily proclaimed by Lance Morrow in the magazine’s final essay. However, the creation of photographic meaning through intertextual location is not restricted to the presence of immediate referents. It also includes the way in which contemporary images are situated through visual citations to established historical narratives. For example, Thomas Franklin’s shot of three fireman raising the Stars and Stripes on a pole amid the ruins invokes the (staged) image of five marines raising the flag at Mt Surabachi, Iwo Jima, in early 1945, thereby further connecting September 11 to World War II.
It is ironic that in an age where real time video has proliferated, the very ubiquity of the stream of images has revivified the power of photojournalism. All the more so given that the attacks on the World Trade Center were said to herald the end of the age of irony. Writing in Time [in one of those proclamations that looks grossly overstated ten years on], Roger Rosenblatt saw the carnage as a chance to chastise the chattering classes who he says claim nothing is real, while other commentators have seized the opportunity to deride those intellectuals they cast as propagators of postmodern and/or postcolonial themes about representation and power. Such polemics minimize the interpretive work a catastrophe demands. One photograph from a picture essay concerned with the aftermath of September 11 [above] reveals the extent to which the reality of a disaster is neither instantly nor easily apprehended. Focusing on “the media blitz,” Anthony Suau’s image centers on a reporter going live to air with an interview for a television station, “Ground Zero” a long way off in the background, while the street is lined with the banks of electronic equipment necessary for the broadcast. As the caption to the image observes, “on nearly every street corner in New York there was a photographer or a television crew looking for an angle.” We are all looking for angles, all trying for comprehension, all struggling to understand.
Far from sidelining issues of representation and power, September 11 has foregrounded them. While the hijackings, the crashing of the aircraft into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the collapse of the buildings, and the massive loss of life are all too real and all too shocking as events, what they mean is anything but clear. Allan Feldman once observed, “the event is not that which happens. The event is that which can be narrated.” The hours, days, and weeks since the attacks have seen a deluge of different narratives. The outpouring of words, from the personal reflections of those involved to the political recommendations of those at a distance (most of which Susan Sontag has condemned for “reality-concealing rhetoric” designed to “infantilize the public”), all accompanied by a multitude of images, represents the impossibility of an instant and agreed narrativization of an event, even when we have all witnessed its occurrence live.
The act of witnessing made possible by real time video and twenty-four hour news channels has, despite the impression of being beyond mediation, some real limitations. Indeed, what we saw on television on September 11 wasn’t what the event was like. The event was much more horrific than the impression conveyed by the television pictures. Remarkably for an event that saw more people die on US soil than any other single day in American history, the television coverage was marked by the absence of death. Viewing the World Trade Center on fire and collapsing through footage shot from helicopters and the higher reaches of Manhattan (and pooled by the various networks, thereby creating a uniform image across the various outlets) were an oddly dehumanizing experience. Both geographic distance and compressed temporality strangely sanitized even the rarely used footage of people plunging from the World Trade Center to their deaths. We saw these tragic victims, small specks against the vast towers, leap from their offices, and then disappear into the realm of imagination. People spoke of appalling sights, but we did not see them. Witnesses revealed the presence of many body parts in the rubble, but television did not show them. Reports referred to “streets slick with blood,” but the video did not disclose it. Photographers followed suit – John Albanese, a volunteer fireman and amateur photographer who spent twelve hours working and photographing amid the devastation, wrote in one of his captions that “we were looking for bodies, we were finding body parts, we were waiting for a body bag to take away a leg,” but he did not record this pictorially. In all of Time’s photo essays (whether in print or on the web) we see only one body, carried on a stretcher by rescuers, a limp arm protruding from under the blue sheet. In this absence, the vast sea of personal photographs – family snaps, holiday shots, wedding images – circulating on notices for the missing victims, are what brings us face to face with the human loss.
For both television producers and picture editors, the cleansing of the disaster coverage so as to remove graphic images of death was a conscious decision not to reveal the full extent of reality. Moreover, this decision to exclude occurred at more than one level. The picture agencies and pool sources removed many of the most disturbing (and most realistic) images from those they distributed to their media customers. In turn, the editors at those media outlets made further choices to weed out graphic portrayals of the slaughter. In London, The Guardian’s picture desk received more than 1,200 images on the Tuesday of the attack, choosing but a fraction for publication in the paper or on the web site. Criteria for such selection, which is unavoidable given the extent of choice, is far from clear. One picture editor recently described to me how his standards involved imagining what the victim’s family would say if shown the picture and being guided by their reaction. This is testament to the fact that, despite the conventional perception of a media pack with a bloodlust for the unvarnished portrayal of death and destruction, journalistic practice is governed by a social economy of taste and system of self-censorship which severely restricts what we see, especially when the disaster is close to home and anything but foreign. This may or may not be a good thing. We can readily understand that a voyeurism of violence should be avoided. But one conclusion cannot be ignored: the resultant coverage is anything but wholly realistic.
One striking feature of September 11 is the way in which photography has served a personal desire to find an alibi for the real in a moment of great uncertainty. John Albanese produced his photo essay because his time searching the debris for survivors seemed unreal: “It was so quiet – I had the strangest feeling looking out at the devastation – but I couldn’t cry. Because it didn’t seem real. I thought, I’m going to reach out, and it’s going to be a picture. It can’t be real.” Individuals have sought an image that can be their own “certificate of presence” (in Roland Barthes’ terms) for the unimaginable. Thus the writer A. M. Homes described how reaching for the camera was the first response to witnessing from an apartment window the planes’ flying into the twin towers. Likewise, the title image in Anthony Suau’s photo essay “Aftershock” [no longer online] shows a crowd of onlookers gazing at the event, with three of them raising cameras to the site/sight. It’s as if our own eyes, even when viewing the event directly and personally, even when we see it repeatedly on television, requires the silent confirmation that a still image provides. But not even that confirmation confers meaning upon the event. Far from it. The search for this event’s meaning is something with which we will continue to struggle for some time yet.
Photo: “The media blitz was constant from the moment of the first crash. Viewers could watch the situation develop minute by minute and rarely leave “”ground zero”” no matter where in the country they were. On nearly every other street corner in New York there was a photographer or a television crew looking for an angle.” Copyright Anthony Suau/Time, September 2001.
September 11, 2001 is regarded by many as ‘the day the world changed’. But different historical periods don’t end one day and begin the next. In my assessment the initial political and military response to the attacks were in fact a ‘return of the past’, in which cold war logic was revived. I make this case in a 2002 article “Time Is Broken: The Return of the Past In the Response to September 11.”