Friday, September 10, 2010

Did Photos Transform 9/11 From Fact Into Symbol?

9/11 by Steve McCurry
This morning, 9/10, I was looking at photographer Steve McCurry's wonderful blog, where he posted a number of the pictures he shot in downtown New York on September 11, 2001. Accompanying the shot above, Steve wrote, "I had just returned from Tibet the night before. I had not unpacked my luggage or camera bag. Shortly after nine o'clock when I heard of the attack, I went up on the roof of my apartment building and watched both towers billowing smoke."

I looked at Steve's photos with a sense of uneasiness—not because of the memories they activated, but because I knew I was going to be seeing quite a lot of 9/11 over the next couple of days. The ninth anniversary will bring with it plenty of archival imagery, and I'm fairly certain much of it will be used as symbol, not history.

I'd be interested in hearing from people whether they are eager (or not eager) to review the imagery of 9/11 now, and why.

Here why I'm wary: A few weeks ago I saw a FOX News story about the controversy over the proposed mosque "at Ground Zero," as the anchorperson intoned with aggrievement. Behind her big hair was a cartoon graphic illustrating the crumbled facade of the twin towers--the smoking structure that looked so much like a cathedral. (James Nachtwey's memorable photo below captured the actual facade shortly after the buildings collapsed.)

Twin Towers by James Nachtwey
The choice of emblems by FOX framed the debate without much subtlety: This is Holy Land. Decisions as to what should reside in its general vicinity should be made accordingly.

On 9/11—the real one, not the one in infographics—it wasn't a holy place at all. It was a horror. It was something that New Yorkers lived (and died) with--the ultimate live news story. And it was a local story, that morning. You could watch on TV, or you could look out your window and see the smoke blowing toward Brooklyn. You tried to phone your family, and you tried to get home.

Very quickly, it all changed. The local New York story became the local story in every city and town in the U.S. People said, "We are all New Yorkers today," and they meant it. Residents of Missouri and Montana claimed a heartfelt citizenship of the big city, each taking ownership of a piece of the 9/11 story. They sent money, they sent help. And today, not surprisingly, they want a say in what 9/11 meant.

It was pictures that brought that sudden change: pictures by McCurry and Nachtwey, Richard Drew, Angel Franco, David Handschuh, and many others who weren't watching it on TV but up close. In the weeks after 9/11, the photo magazine I worked for joined with Dirck Halsted and the Digital Journalist to put together an oral history of that day, as remembered by those photographers. We called the piece "The Facts on the Ground," because that is what we felt those journalists were capturing.

Pictures are not just facts, however. They don't work that way. People everywhere took emotional ownership of the images, as they had the city. By the time Thomas Franklin's photo of three firemen raising an American flag on the Ground Zero rubble appeared on the cover of Newsweek—an image compared repeatedly to Joe Rosenthal's picture of the flag raising on Iwo Jima—the facts were becoming legend. So print the legend.

Evoking Religion and WWII
 As others have noted, New Yorkers seemed to move on from 9/11 in a way that people in other parts of the country did not. Some said it was because New Yorkers are tough survivors. But I think it was because 9/11 was a fact for New Yorkers, not pictures in magazines and on TV. It was part of daily life that clear blue morning when we walked to work and looked down the street and saw the smoke.

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