Of the senses, it is the one that most often betrays us—yet most often, too, the one that gives us hope.
We are, it turns out, generally poor eyewitnesses. How many times have we been sure of our visual memory, only to see that, after all, there were four cars in the parking lot, not two? Any cop or detective will tell you that a witness’s recollection often is faulty or plain wrong.
The gift of sight is precious and flawed. Yet what is more precious than sight, to see one’s beloved or to view the dawn?
Or, now, to bear witness.
The Collective Eye
In the year since the horror, we have seen many images. Too many, in fact, or perhaps more accurately too many of the same images too often. How many times did we need to see the planes crashing into the Towers?
Yet in the year since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and the one that was thwarted over a lonely field in Pennsylvania, photography, both still and video, has helped us deal with this tragedy and, if not achieve a kind of closure, at least put parameters and faces to what has befallen us.
Inevitably, there were critics on both sides, each with legitimate claims. Why did the media play up ad nauseum the horrific images of riot and death? When will we look deeply into ourselves and others to understand the causes of such malignant hatred?
Or, on the other hand: Given the horrible nature of these crimes (as crimes they surely were) why was there not more coverage of the actual bloody carnage, to bring home how god-awful was this infamous, cowardly attack? (The New York Daily News, in a gutsy, if also graphic, display of what happened that day, ran in its late edition, and briefly on its Web site, a horribly beautiful picture of a cleanly severed hand lying in the street near the collapsed Trade Center Towers. The picture prompted howls from some that this was not suitable for a mass-circulation newspaper. The tabloid’s editors replied with characteristic and welcome bluntness: “This isn’t high school. It’s the real world and we shouldn’t shield our readers from it.”)
This view flew in the face of one theory put forward over the past 12 months that truly graphic picture coverage of a tragedy like 9/11 might best be left to the Internet, where a viewer might be warned in advance (i.e.: before accessing the photos) that the content might be distasteful.
Philip Brookman, curator of photography and media arts at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, was driving to work on September 11 when the third plane plowed into the Pentagon. “Watching the Pentagon go up in flames from across the river” so seared his memory, Brookman recalled, that “I didn’t look at a lot of pictures after 9/11. I couldn’t watch it replayed on TV…. It was enough—too much—to witness it as I did ….”
And yet Brookman knew instinctively photography’s power to move immediately from the cerebral to the visceral. He knew what my friend and former teacher Neil Selkirk knew long before any of this happened. “The process of looking is more akin to smelling or tasting than it is to reading,” Neil wrote me years ago. “One’s response is immediate and instinctual, more like a reflex, which dispenses with the conscious brain as being too cluttered and lacking in spontaneity ….”
Largely for that reason Philip Brookman has brought to his museum “Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs.” It is a huge, unconventional, uncredited and controversial collection of images from 9/11, hung in the gallery on wires and with binder clips—hung like laundry, in fact—to best let viewers share a welter of imagery in a comparatively small space and thereby renew the collective experience of that terrible day as “a cathartic rather than a journalistic experience.”
“Here is New York” began as a storefront exhibition in SoHo shortly after the terrorist attacks. Photographers of all stripes were asked to submit work that best showed their own personal reaction to the tragedies. The understanding was that no one’s name would accompany a photograph—the pictures would stand on their own and speak for themselves.
The response, from shooters great and unknown, professional and amateur, was overwhelming. When the show moves to the Corcoran this month with upwards of 2,000 digital inkjet images, it will be the largest photographic exhibition ever mounted at the museum. The show is slated to travel widely and internationally.
“This is not … about good photography or technique,” Brookman told me over the summer as the show was being mounted. “Certainly some of the professional pictures stand out graphically but there are … unique images from amateurs that personalize the exhibition [and] bring it home to everyone ….”
That is because, arguably, the largest number of people in all of history now view what happened on September 11, 2001, as an epochal, “where were you when it happened?” event. Just as Americans of a certain age will remember where they were on Pearl Harbor day, or on the day JFK was shot, or on the day we landed on the moon, so too will people the world over, friend and foe, recall what they were doing just before 19 young men, fueled by hate and armed with box cutters, made us realize with pathetically late-blooming clarity how precious—and vulnerable—is our democracy and our homeland.
“The subtlest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about,” one writer says in an essay that is excerpted at the photography show. “The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”
The writer of those words is Andy White—E.B. White, of “Charlotte’s Web,” and “Stuart Little” fame, and author of countless flawless essays and articles in The New Yorker and other magazines.
But White died in 1985. He wrote his somber warning more than a half century ago, in 1948, near the end of an otherwise lyrical paean to the city that appeared in the old Holiday magazine, when war was just a fading memory of victory and when New York was a vibrant symbol of a better postwar world. The following year, White’s 7,500-word piece was published as a small book that remains in print today. The book was entitled “Here is New York.”
“We certainly took the title from White’s essay,” said writer Michael Shulan, one of the photography show’s organizers, along with photojournalist Gilles Peress.
It astounds people to read that passage, Shulan added, when they near the end of the photography show and see it posted on a wall.
Shocked, perhaps, but not surprised. Or at least they should not be. After all, we played this same game in reverse, at Hiroshima, and none but the foolish ever would think our invulnerability to sneak attack was permanent.
The Invisible Dead: Covering Shadows
The enormity of the deed was in the paucity of the dead and the injured.
Perhaps that is why the images made after the attacks have resonated so strongly over these months. They are pictures from the heart, of devastated buildings and of devastated people. They are images of us—the living—trying to mourn our invisible dead.
Within hours of the attacks, people raced to hospitals to give blood, only to be told that there was no pressing need. Doctors and nurses at St. Vincent’s, the nearest hospital to the twin towers, waited on the sidewalk with gurneys and wheelchairs for the ambulances that never came.
“By now ambulances were pouring in from the suburbs and were being staged in front of the Chelsea Piers at the end of our block,” photographer Neil Selkirk said in an e-mail last September 16. He and his wife, Susan Spiller, live in lower Manhattan, south of the first quarantine line, below which no civilian vehicular traffic was allowed. Selkirk said he’d never seen so many ambulances. “The line was endless and they were being given ID’s which were being taped crudely onto their windshields …. That evening we went back to St. Vincent’s and again we were told that no blood was needed there. Again there stood the waiting medics and still no ambulances came ….”
Even after two or three days, Neil said, the ambulances hadn’t moved. “But a little further south on the West Side Highway there was now a long double line of huge refrigerated container-trailers, presumably awaiting the dead.”
“It is now Sunday,” Neil’s e-mail went on, “and most, if not all, of the containers are still there, their refrigeration units not yet turned on ….”
You cannot bury those whom you cannot see, those whom you cannot touch. So many of the dead simply had been obliterated—erased—leaving behind only fragments: a pair of glasses, a ring—or a disembodied hand. It was the absence of bodies that may have been hardest on the rescuers.
The police, fire and other aid people knew that there were victims in there, thousands of them. Only in the ruin of the just-crumbled towers, they knew as well that the number now included hundreds of their own colleagues, their “family,” who had run toward the danger as others had fled it. And there was no way in hell to get most of them out.
It is an axiom of journalism under fire that you are no good to your editors or your audience arrested or dead, and that became the critical distinction between police and fire personnel heroically risking their lives in an inferno and journalists trying to do their jobs without being jailed or bodybagged.
(In fact, the physical [as opposed to emotional] toll on journalists was minimal. David Handschuh of the (New York) Daily News suffered broken legs from falling debris. Many others suffered lesser injuries. One photographer, Bill Biggart of the Sipa picture agency, died in the collapse of Tower Two, his final images retrieved from his demolished Canon D30 and published around the world.)
It created intense tension, especially in the early days, as officials in New York hastily banned all photography of the “crime scene” and literally confiscated film and cameras from those unlucky enough to be caught. As often happens, having a press credential actually became a hindrance—an easy way to single you out—and journalists, especially photographers, wound up sneaking into Ground Zero like thieves in the night, hiding cameras under clothing, so they could work.
To veterans in the business, this censorship by police and government officials was nothing new—just more overt. It was motivated in part by anger, by fear, by frustration. And also, I believe, by shame.
Shame that this happened here. Shame that it happened on their watch.
Shame that the dead were ours.
Photojournalist Peter Turnley, one of the few photographers able to penetrate the perimeter at Ground Zero the night of 9/11, hiding his cameras and sneaking in, was unapologetic for his stealth. “The reason I would justify that cameramen and photographers and journalists be present at these situations is not because they’re making money or because they’re parasites,” he told a seminar of Nieman Fellows at Harvard last winter, “it’s because 50 years from now, it’s important that people contemplate the decency that so many people demonstrated in trying to do the right thing in a situation that was difficult. I don’t know how that can be communicated without images, without words, without film.”
“The first thing I noticed at Ground Zero was the reverence people had for each other,” Boston Globe photographer Stan Grossfeld wrote last winter in Nieman Reports, echoing Turnley. “This is sacred ground, where innocent people lost their lives, and you can feel that. The massive movie klieg lights and lack of unnecessary chatter give this place a surreal feeling. It is devoid of laughter and [is] one of the few places in the world where you can feel the energy and the horror and a sense of history washing over you at once. The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is like this, as is Gettysburg and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”
Which also is why a 64-year-old fine art photographer like Joel Meyerowitz became the unlikely chronicler of the chaos, nervily yet respectfully muscling his way into the site with his huge view camera, to create the historical record in large format. He began his project risking arrest; he ended it as the personal photographic representative of the mayor.
“To me, no photography meant no history,” the wiry Meyerowitz recalled. And to a New Yorker whose city had been raped, that was unacceptable.
Turnley, Grossfeld, and so many other print and photojournalists who were there at the beginning spoke of paying tribute to the men and women who worked the wreckage, both at Ground Zero and at the Pentagon. There always will be those who view journalists as voyeurs or parasites, but these two shooters give powerful voice to the compelling need of journalists, not only to do their jobs, and thereby bring an important story to the world, but also to offer up at a terrible time what skills they have—as reporters of words and pictures—in the collective and somber effort of rebuilding.
The camera is an unseeing, yet also all-seeing, eye. It is the photographer behind the lens who gives it humanity. “You can most definitely show someone in your eyes and in your face and in the way you look at them that you want to honor them,” Peter Turnley noted. “A lot of people are surprised that people all over the world, in situations of suffering, want other people to know and to feel and to think about their suffering …. Very often in fact [they are] honored by the presence of a camera, if it’s wielded in the right way ….”
This is exactly what Turnley, Grossfeld, Meyerowitz, Handschuh, Biggart and so many others did in the days and weeks after September 11, as we and millions like us struggled with our grief.
That is why, one year later, we are, and will be forever, in their debt.
Photography columnist Frank Van Riper is a photographer, author, and former Washington correspondent and editor for the (New York) Daily News. He is a 1979 Nieman Fellow.
© 2002 Frank Van Riper. All rights reserved.This article first appeared on the Web site Washingtonpost.com.