Photography changes how we experience history

David Friend

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David Friend

David Friend, Vanity Fair's editor of creative development, served as Life magazine's director of photography during the 1990s. Friend, author of Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2006), has also won Emmy and Peabody Awards as an executive producer of the television documentary 9/11, which has aired in more than 140 countries.

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David Friend, Vanity Fair's editor of creative development, looks at photography’s central role in communicating and remembering the events of 9/11.

On September 8, 2001, Wolfgang Staehle, a German-born Internet artist, set up two cameras in an apartment window in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, both pointed at the skyline of Lower Manhattan. As part of an art project he called “2001,” Staehle had carefully calibrated the cameras’ shutters to trip at four-second intervals, hour after hour, day after day, automatically snapping postcard-style stills of the city. Staehle’s panoramas would then be transmitted over the Internet to twin film projectors, their beams directed at the wall of a West Side gallery. Gallery patrons would then view the changing electronic mural in virtual “real time,” as theatre-goers might view a wide-screen movie, twenty-four-by-nine-feet. Every four seconds, the scene would shift. A boat or a cloud would seem to twitch. The sun would meander across the cityscape and its apron of bridges. The webcams would capture the metropolis in a Zen-like state, subtly coming to life over the course of a morning.

That is, until 08:46:50, on September 11. At that instant, as evidenced by the time code in the lower right-hand corner of the frame, Staehle’s cameras happened to catch an aircraft approaching the north tower of the World Trade Center, then its impact, then the explosion. Unwittingly, he had documented the first salvo of the deadliest terrorist strike in American history, a series of attacks which would claim the lives of nearly 3,000 people in a coordinated assault by four teams of suicide hijackers from the extremist Islamist faction, al-Qaeda.

Staehle’s cameras, however, weren’t the only ones trained on the towers. The same moment was videotaped by Jules Naudet, a French-American filmmaker who was downtown making a documentary about firefighters. Also shooting, across the East River, was a Czech immigrant named Pavel Hlava, sitting in an SUV, recording tourist scenes with his camcorder.

Three men with cameras, it turned out, had chronicled The Event, even before they realized it was an event. And as the morning crept on, the city seemed alive with lenses. Men and women by the hundreds, then thousands—bystanders with point-and-shoots, TV news teams, photojournalists by the score—felt compelled to snap history, fiery and cruel against the blue. People photographed from windows and parapets and landings. They photographed as they fled: in cars, across bridges, up avenues blanketed in drifts of ash and dust. They even photographed the images on their TV sets.

What mesmerized each observer, surely, was the gravity of sudden death, in numbers of such magnitude. But they were also gripped by the pure visual spectacle—by the sense that this irreconcilably infernal scene was somehow meant to be seen. Skyscrapers, along with the hundreds and hundreds of lives within them, were being ravaged, with passenger planes, in order that the violence be witnessed. Terrorism, by definition, demanded frightened eyes. In turn, the horror literally had to be seen, and seen again, to be believed.

The attacks, in fact, were considered the most photographed breaking news event in human history, witnessed on television and the Internet that day by an estimated two billion people—a third of the human race. And if this abundance of imagery offered any sort of certainty, it was this: that in this camera-laden age, history’s revisionists would find it nearly impossible to erase the event from civilization’s conscience. We had the goods; we had the pictures. Photographs provided a baseline that would make it much more difficult for the public record to be challenged in years to come.

The images mattered—the historical record mattered—because even now, six years after the attacks, 9/11 conspiracy theories, bred of anger and desperation, and spread by the Internet, have begun to metastasize. People across the political spectrum are already using the pictures to provide a sort of phantom credence for dubious 9/11 narratives. Considered in this way, September 11 was arguably unique as a historical moment. It was not the typical Rashomon-like mist of evidence, misperception, legend, and propaganda that coalesces into an accepted myth. Instead, September 11, due to the multiplicity of subjective visual perspectives on the event, can be reconstructed in the aggregate in a manner approaching objectivity.

“Somebody put it very nicely,” says Staehle, who realized that on that day in September the real world ended up trumping his artistic vision. “History was coming on like a train. And I just walked onto the track, and history ran me over.”

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Excerpts, taken every four seconds, of American Airlines Flight 11 on the morning of September 11 by Wolfgang Staehle
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  • Excerpts, taken every four seconds, of American Airlines Flight 11 on the morning of September 11, 2001
  • Wolfgang Staehle
  • Read image description
Excerpts, taken every four seconds, of American Airlines Flight 11 on the morning of September 11 by Wolfgang Staehle
  • Excerpts, taken every four seconds, of American Airlines Flight 11 on the morning of September 11, 2001
  • Wolfgang Staehle
  • Read image description
Excerpts, taken every four seconds, of American Airlines Flight 11 on the morning of September 11 by Wolfgang Staehle
  • Excerpts, taken every four seconds, of American Airlines Flight 11 on the morning of September 11, 2001
  • Wolfgang Staehle
  • Read image description

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