The Wall street journal
9/11 and the arts: A decade of responses
Cameras Defining the Chaos and Its Aftermath
Wednesday September 7, 2011
Written by Richard B. Woodward
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark


Above Mary Ellen Mark's Portrait of a fireman at Ground Zero; at right, the exhibit 'Here Is New York', which opened on Oct. 20, 2001.

The destruction of the World Trade Center towers was the first time in history an act ofmass murder was broadcasted live around the world. An audience og millions became inadvertent, helpless, second-by-second participants in an annihilating event that beggered comprehension.

This spectacle was no accident. Photography, television, computers and the Internet are technological marvels of the West that the jihadi terrorists hijacked, no less than they did our jet aircraft, in order to turn them againsted their inventors.

The leaders of al Qaeda knew we could not help ourselves. We would have to watch. What Osama bin Laden may not have eras would remain not only tools for spreading fear but for making sense of what happened, too. Ten years later, images from that day are a source of lingering trauma. Almost any one of them can provoke instant, sickening recall. At the same time, these same photographs and video clips offer the solace of memory and help to ground a historic catastrophe that many go not want to forget.

Sept. 11, 2001, has been called photojournalism's finest hour. Along with local and national TV crews that trained their lenses on the smoke rising from lower Manhattan, dozens of photographers (including a group of Magnum)arrived on the scene before the towers crumbled. Their more composed still images of the chaos and the aftermath-published online, in newspapers and magazines, and finally in books and exhibitions-did not have the immediacy of the live feed. But their sloweddown verison of events soon began to look like a blessing. After days of around-the-clock network coverage, they gave a meditative pave to an adrenalized story.

Amateurs were even more plentiful that day and after. Abraham Zapruder had proved in 1963 that one didn't have to be a newsman to take newsworthy pictures. Events in the 1990s further accelerated this trend. In the ruins of Oklamhoma City bombing in 1995, two nonprofessionals-credit specialist Charles Porter IV and safety coordinator Lester LaRue-made nearly identical photographs of a firefighter cradling a dying one-year-old baby, an image that for many came to symbolize that disaster. Mr. Porter's snapshot earned him a Pulitzer Prize.

On the morning of September 11, everyone in New York seemed to be walking around with a camcorder or point-and-shoot camera. Tourists at the World Trader Center and communters on their way to work on Wall Street captured the unfolding panic around themn with a street-level intimacy that the higher-mounted network cameras further uptown could not. In the weeks that followed, countless citizens throughout the river in New Jersey documented with unusual purpose what they were seeing and feeling.

This outpouring of emotion found an outlet on personal websites (more of a novelity in the pre-Facebook era), as well as in the landmark exhbition and book "Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs." Nearly 5,000 photographs by some 3,000 photographers were submitted. Four curators and dozens of volunteers constantly rotated the selection. Pictures by vaunted figures and the utterly inexperienced shared walls in the Prince Street Gallery. Many of these images can still be found on the nonprofit website (, their poignacy undiminshed by time.

Camers have been no less instrumental in the post-9/11 climate of terror alerts and jittery nerves. Photography helps to manage the unforseen. It almost never prevents crimes; it can only record them and offer clues for their possible solution.

Security-camera images of the hijackers strolling through Logan Airport in Boston were enough to prompt governments aroudn the world to install armies of these devices to stand guard over palces believed to be potential targets. The detective value of suveillance technology had been established in the Oklahoma City bombing. Timothy McVeigh was identifed in part from a fleeting image of him and his can captured by a video camera in front of the federal office building. Suspects in the London subway attacks were arrested even more quickly, only days after their photographs, taken by the cameras mounted on a train platform, were shown on TV and printed in newpapers.

The British government has erected over the last 25 years that world's most elaborate system of securtiy cameras. New York and Washington are no less girded by closed-circuit TV networks. If nothing else, the public in Europe and the U.S has clearly decided that officials should err on the side of more surveillance, not less.

But while citizens now take comfort from the spreading presence of these mechanical one-eyed setinels, cameras seen in the hands of strangers have made everyone jumpy as never beofre. In the weeks and months after 9/11, photography was a suspicious activity in every major U.S. city. San Franciscans were urged to contact the police if they saw anyone taking pictures "of things not of interest to the general public." New Yorkers were harassed and, in some cases, locked up for aiming cameras at skyscrapers, airports, garages or within the subways. Subjects commemorated by Berenice Abbott, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans were now off-limits or laden with terrible meaning.

To portray Manhattan's buildings is no longer the perceived threat it was in 2002. The sight of someone under the Brooklyn Bridge photographing surreptitiously can, neverless, produce an alarmist reflex in some of us. Videotaping the police way still result in arrest, as a woman in Rochester, N.Y., and a man on Long Island hve in recent months discovered.

The response to the attacks, both on Sept. 11, 2001, and on the every anniersary since, can only be called a mdeia victory of sorts for al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden may not have expected the towers to fall. But by flying airplanes into the tallest buildings in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia, the hijackers were undoubtly staging their homicidal suicides for the cameras. Journalists had to report the event-if this wasn't news, what was?-and to give the tragedy of almost 3,000 dead massive coverage.

Dispassionate witness, instrument of healing, surveillance tool and terrorist's best friend.

One unexpected result is that those with aspirations toward infamy are now more eager to document their own crimes and to broadcast their defiance. Massacres now routinely have a photographic or video component, with web links. Before Cho Seung-hui killed 32 people (along with himself) and wounded 25 others at Virginia Tech in 2007, he posed with his guns and posted the images online. Anders Breivik's manifesto was accompanied by photos of himself armed to the teeth. Ted Kaczynski will likely be the last person to try to justify murder by relying solely on words written with a manual typewriter.

Photographs perform many functions, however, and one of them is to preserve what is fone. By seeming to stop time, they can even appear to be independent of it. Mary Ellen Mark's pictorical catalog of the handmade tributes to the dead and missing that sprang up along chainlink fences and in front of firehouses after 9/11 have outlasted almost all the memorials themselves.

By now, the image archive from Sept. 11, 2--1, dwarfs in size that of any day in U.S history. It's scope has only expanded with each anniversary, while the number of eyewitnesses to the events has continued to shrink. With the opening this weekend of architect Michael Arad's "Reflecting Absence" on the site of the former World Trade Center, there will at last be a dignified, physical plave to remember the missing, one to complement our immense graveyard of digitized ghosts.