Book Review

How 9/11 ushered in the digital age

CorrespondentSeptember 10, 2006 

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 fascinating 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, but it also marked the arrival of our digital age, which allows people around the world to not just experience events from Bangkok to Bangor, but to live through 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, tilting it more and more to the power of the image.

Friend is not overstating the case, here. As "Watching the World" amply proves, images were the medium of these attacks and its aftermath. Thanks to the timing of the strikes -- it was slightly before 9 a.m. in New York, and 9 p.m. in Tokyo -- an estimated 2 billion people across the globe watched on TV. 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 local Fox 5 news crew in New York who were downtown filing a story only to have the first plane streak right over them as they were off-air. They immediately went back on live with the story, followed by CNN, which had an image up at 8:49 a.m. In a remarkable show of cooperation, the networks agreed to share content and feeds for one day. 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, front and center. Not all of the eyes behind lenses had seen combat. Evan Fairbanks, who had been setting up a videoconference 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, of a photographer running before 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. 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 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 then a thump, and said to his wife, "we're under attack." He didn't even call a cameraman; he merely bicycled south and grabbed Eddie Remy, a Merrill Lynch audiovisual guy, and said, "I'm Tom Flynn, CBS, you're now working for us."

Reaching back into the near past, Friend reminds how far we've come since even Vietnam, when photos had to be shuttled to Hong Kong, then satellite-fed to New York, where they were syndicated. Today, thanks to digital photography and satellite phones, a reporter can file from just about anywhere. One of the most famous photographs taken of this day -- Thomas 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 catalogued them. A NASA astronaut orbiting the earth in a space station shot pictures of the smoke plume from 250 miles above the earth. An EMS memorial foundation used photos of workers in their last minutes to help obtain settlements for their bereaved families. 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 grim kind of ghostly memorial. "The photograph said: This being is no more," Friend writes. "Long live his image."

As Shield 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. Grieving widows have taken issue with the repetition of the images of the burning towers, which are replayed every September. Firefighters began to squabble with the Bergen County Record for control over Thomas Franklin's quintessential image.

In some ways, Friend's story about how the tussle over this iconic image -- which was later put on a U.S. stamp -- says a lot about how much photographs can say, but also the limit 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 remained two separate things, and no amount of media attention could collapse the two into one. The picture had to do the talking, but it didn't say all.

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