"[This book] embodies the Buddhist wisdom about change, life, and the
world more than anything written after the events of that day."
December 2006 Archives
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December 29, 2006
ON THE ROAD
I am in Barcelona now, away from the computer for the week. Thanks to everyone for the wonderful support this year. The book exceeded all of my expectations in terms of its critical success and its impact on the lives of readers. The Web site has been a rewarding way to keep those lines of connection open. My best wishes to everyone for a peaceful New Year.
December 18, 2006
JOE SHUTTERBUG AT HISTORY'S EPICENTER
In a front-page story in today's Washington Post, Kevin Sullivan, writing from London, explores the impact of so-called Citizen Journalism, concentrating on the prevalence of cameras in the hands of ordinary people.
In his piece, "Regular Folks, Shooting History," Sullivan mentions Watching the World Change:
"Governments have always controlled information, from the Nazis to South American dictators hiding evidence of their 'disappeared' enemies, said David Friend, an editor at Vanity Fair. 'But now the photograph has suddenly changed the equation -- the power is in the hands of the average citizen,' said Friend, whose 2006 book, Watching the World Change, explores the rising power of images. 'Whatever you do now, you will be held accountable. You will be seen.'
"Friend noted that camera-equipped cellphones were not common in the United States at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The historical record of events would have been richer if people in the twin towers or on the hijacked planes had been able to send out photos and video of their ordeal. 'We now have as close to an objective truth about an event as we've ever had in history,' he said."
...And in Time magazine's Person of the Year Issue, on newsstands today, James Poniewozik writes: "On the Web, anyone with a digital camera has the power to change history." He goes on to wonder (as "grassroots Web-watcher" Dan Gillmor did recently and as French journalist Alain Genestar imagined, in a slightly different way, in Watching the World Change): "The cell-phone messages from 9/11 victims were chilling enough; imagine the visuals, had the attacks happened in 2006."
December 17, 2006
All week long the news account filtered out of Iran: a ragtag gathering of "experts" had descended on Teheran, at the invitation of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the world's leading America-basher and Israel-baiter. The theme of the Iran conference: Was the Holocaust all hype? Was the wholesale extermination of six million European Jews a figment of the Western imagination -- an exaggerated genocide cooked up by nefarious forces in the aftermath of World War II so as to to establish a Jewish state (meaing: an American beachhead) smack in the center of the Arab world?
In one photo published in American newspapers this week, conference attendees could be seen milling in front of a Holocaust photo exhibition. [Go to the link and click on second photo to see the full, horizontal image.] The caption explained that some of the pictures showed concentration camp survivors actually smiling. The implication: Here, in black and white, was visual proof that Dachau wasn't such a drag after all.
The caption and the conference raised several questions that were explored at length in Watching the World Change: Do news picutres in the ever-skeptical Digital Age lose their validity as reliable measures of historical veracity? Have modern-day techniques such as Photoshop placed dangerous manipulative tools in the hands of revisionists, giving Holocaust deniers and 9/11 conspiracy theorists the means and the license to cherry-pick photo "evidence" from Web sites to help bloster their tenuous theses? Have news pictues--long considered relatively objective artifacts by many historians--been rendered moot?
The short answer is "No." News photos are no different than other eyewitness accounts. News photos are biased, influenced by the vagaries of film speed, shutter speed, cropping, elements left out of the frame; by the photojournalist's own aesthetics and politics; by editors' culling and writers' captions; by newcasters' and historians' and viewers' (mis)interpretations. News photos, by their very nature, are subjective records of past events. As such, they have always been misappropriated by revisionists or distorted by propagandists.
It is my firm belief, however, that whatever the news photo's limitations, the fact that there are more and more professional photojournalists roaming the planet, and more and more digital cameras and picture phones in the hands of more and more citizens, world-wide, only increases the chances of our having an historical baseline for future generations to more clearly comprehend atrocities (from the Holoocaust to September 11 to the abuses at Abu Ghraib to the London transit bombings) and therefore better ensure the eventual accountability and punishment of the perpetrators of such actions. News pictures offer a backstop, a safety net, a grounding.
Which brings us back to imagery and the Holocaust. One could argue that if real-time photography and 24/7 newsgathering had been available in the 1930s and 40s, they might have contributed to Adolf Hitler's rise. (Nazi architect Albert Speer once told art critic Robert Hughes, "If Hitler had had television, there would have been no stopping him." The Germans, in fact, had perfected the propaganda film [epitomized by the work of photographer-filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl] and the portable camera, which allowed scores of photographers to cover combat firsthand.)
On the other hand, better cameras in the Allies' hands might have provided here-and-now evidence--objective proof of concentration camps and widespread genocide--that might have forced America and Britain and France and Russia to act more quickly. Cameras during World War II too often recorded not the atrocity itself, but slaughter's aftermath. And Western leaders, even though they had amassed actual evidence of the camps--in the form of aerial photos--were too skeptical, too myopic or too unwilling to respond.
One wishes they had had more news pictures to help them understand the bigger picture.
December 15, 2006
EYE ON GROUND ZERO
Mark Brender, of GeoEye, which specializes in the high-resolution satellite imagery, sent me this little-known image, taken on Septmeber 12, 2001, by the company's IKONOS spacecraft. The satellite was orbiting 423 miles above the planet, sweeping across the Eastern seaboard at 17,000 miles an hour.
PHOTO COURTESY OF GEOEYE
A subsidiary of his firm, Space Imaging, is mentioned in the book, in describing how the Internet proved unmatched as a receptacle for posting and archiving stores of 9/11-related information, much of it visual. "Space Imaging company, for instance, which maintains what it calls the only 'high-resolution commercial imaging satellites...in orbit on that fateful day,' created a month-by-month photochronology of the Pentagon and Ground Zero sites as viewed from beyond our atmosphere."
December 11, 2006
DICK CHENEY'S GOOGLE SEARCHES
In Watching the World Change, I quote the Times's columnist Maureen Dowd, who helped bring attention to the fact that Google, despite offering satellite and aerial pictures of countless American homes on its GoogleEarth geographical-search function, has deliberately obscured its photo of the residence of Vice President Dick Cheney, whom Dowd is fond of referring to as Vice and the Grim Peeper. "Vice," writes Dowd, "has [already] turned America into a camera obscura, a dark chamber with a lens that turns things upside down." (page 126)
Apropos of Dick Cheney and Google, Vanity Fair, late last week, posted a short satiric piece of mine (from the new issue of the magazine) on VanityFair.com. It's called "Dick Cheney's Google Searches," and the article has gotten brisk pickup across the Web.
The piece has received nice play on places like the Imus blog and Kottke.com and The Huffington Post, but has also been gracing such Internet mainstays as Gecko & Fly, Swedish Meatball Confidential, and the inimitable Dublin Opinion, which noted:
“With the advent of Jon Stewart, Steve Colbert and a host of others it’s clear (to pinko-liberals like me) that US satire is going through a golden period. Now I wonder why that is? Vanity Fair is not the most radical of publications, but it’s Dick Cheney Google searches is a small but worthy contribution."
Joe Wikert is writing about the book on his book blog:
“David's book, which I just received this weekend and am starting to read tonight, takes a different approach: he tells the stories behind many of the images of 9/11 that we've all grown too accustomed to seeing on TV and in print. I'll post a full review of the book when I finish reading it. As I'm reading this one I plan to catch up on David's blog which features additional photos and stories not included in the book.”
And Cuppa Joad, the Alibris book blog, weighs in on both Watching the World Change and this very blog:
"[R]ecent [cinematic and literary] journeys back to September 11 remind me how deep within myself those events still resonate. I am not alone, and neither are you, in our uniquely individual emotional and psychological snapshots of September 11. That is the essential message of the Web site Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11.
"An outcome of Watching the World Change, the book of the same name, this companion Web site was created by author David Friend as a way to accommodate the outpouring of reactions to a book focused on the powerful imagery and lasting impressions of September 11.
"'I’m finding that no matter where I go, the same thing happens whenever I mention the book, even in passing. Friends, colleagues, complete strangers—everyone stops what they’re doing and feels compelled to tell me their September 11 story. They can go on for about 20 minutes, without a break, reliving those moments again. And without exception, each tale is insightful and heart-wrenching in its own way.'
"Friend’s site is a detailed and in-depth study in how our global community continues to react to September 11. It is also a good example of how a single book can inspire and motivate its readers, fostering a Web site that has become a community of its own."
December 10, 2006
THE WEB IS "PANDORA-EXPULSIVE"
Today's New York Times Magazine presents its annual "Issue of Ideas": concepts and trends, inventions and advances that blipped across the cultural radar in 2006--from the notion of "Digital Maoism" (computer luminary Jaron Lanier's thesis about the oppressiveness of online collectivism that can foster errors, suppress individual creation, and trigger electronic witch-hunts) to the folly of "Tushology" (an effort to "scientifically calculate...the perfect behind").
From the pages of Watching the World Change, I'd like to nominate a worthy Emergent Concept:
The Internet as "Pandora-expulsive" (page 292):
"Visually, then, the Internet is Pandora-expulsive. All photographed actions--deeds and misdeed alike--are potentially consigned to permanent public memory. Once an image or videoclip barnstorms across the Net, there's no way to return old Flicker to the paddock and shut the door: Web pages persist. Even if they are deactivated, they can be retrieved if someone has retained a link or has electronically bookmarked that page. This propulsion into the public domain, irrevocable ad universal and unfungible, is one of the positive and negative features of the medium.
"The positives have much to do with the truths that come from transparency. In 2004, for example, Internet editor Russ Kick (of TheMemoryHole.org) was able to publish an online archive of long-suppressed images of the coffins of deceased U.S. soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq, when he persisted in acquiring the pictures through a Freedom of Information Act request. 'The Pentagon,' according to the industry publication Photo District News, 'quickly said the granting of Kick's FOIA request was a mistake, but the images were out there and there was no taking them back.'
"The downside of Pandora expulsivity is sheer and steep. With a leer and a shrug, pirated pictures are often thrown up on a Web site--ownership, libel, and privacy considerations be damned. Pictures appear, quite frequently, without credits or accurate captions. They appear, as the culture critic George W. S. Trow coined the phrase, 'within the context of no context'--free-floating story fragments that lack rational connections with a bigger picture."
. . . .
Alas, George Trow's obituary appeared in the Times last week. (He died in Italy, of natural causes, at age 63.) And there is no taking back that fact, that life, that page.
As Margalit Fox would write so engagingly:
"Associated with The New Yorker for nearly 30 years, Mr. Trow...was best known for his provocative  essay 'Within the Context of No Context,' [which later became a book]. As a result of Mr. Trow's work, ''the context of no context'' -- his pithy indictment of the emptiness of modern discourse -- became an enduring catchphrase in intellectual circles.
"....In mourning the passing of American discourse, Mr. Trow was not so much a conservative as a wistful curmudgeon. As he passionately believed, the shimmering Manhattan of Champagne, dinner jackets and meaningful conversation had been devoured, in the decades after World War II, by a culture of celebrity-driven bombast. 'A landscape rather like history with the tide out,' he once called it.
"To Mr. Trow, the culprit could be named in one word: television.
"'The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no-context and to chronicle it,' he wrote....
"He left [The New Yorker], incensed, in 1994. For Mr. Trow, the provocation must have seemed like his most dire cultural prophecy come true: Tina Brown, then the editor, had invited the comedian Roseanne Barr to edit a special issue about women. In his note of resignation, Mr. Trow likened Ms. Brown to someone selling her soul 'to get close to the Hapsburgs -- 1913.'
"Ms. Brown shot back, in a note of her own: 'I am distraught at your defection, but since you never actually write anything, I should say I am notionally distraught.'
"...[Said Rory Nugent, a writer and longtime friend,] 'George was tireless at the oars in pulling toward what he thought was valuable.... His world was that of Mr. Shawn and The New Yorker; of Diana Vreeland, who could be his companion at dinner. And the rest of the world was onto something new.''
Like Trow's life and death and even his obituary, this Web entry, as all Web entries, all energy and matter, for that matter, all actions good or ill, all lives and deaths, is, itself, Pandora-Expulsive.
3 TAKE THE TEXT TO HEART
Suzanne O., of California, writes in an e-mail...
I'm not quite sure how to put this...
I was visiting from LA.
I am a New Yorker - it's my true home.
Amber, from Georgia, writes...
Hey there. i was actually writing you to say, That I was in school that day, and I was celebrating my birthday. I turned 14 that year. I have family in new york, thank goodness they were not hurt.
I have condoliences for the familys that lost their loved ones that day. I will never forget that day, and now everytime I tell someone when my birthday is, they
Main point of this email is that people need to pay for what they did NOW, not 10 or 20 years down the road. Like I always say "If you take a life, then your
Thanks to all the firefighters, and policemen and brave patriots that helped out on the 9/11 attack. Thanks for keeping us safe.
Adam, a Minnesota reader, says on his blog:
Ah, fate is forcing me to put down Watching the World Change, at least for the moment. My library time is over, and I must relinquist to the next reader, who has placed a hold. Worry not: I shall request it again immediately and continue this harrowing path. . . .
It means something to read that [the author] cried. What I earlier felt -- the sorrow that must be performed -- is in him too. To extend his thesis (that we mediate crises through controllable snapshots), I'd say that we also perform our reactions, to mediate our crises. As watching the effigy is now equivalent to watching the event, so it seems natural that we must act as if it were occurring before our eyes. That's why the image of the Falling Man still makes me tear; that's what makes David Friend seem so close to me as he watches the tragedy played out as a music video on a grieving father's computer screen.
Dear Friend, thank you for performing your reaction so explicitly. It wipes away worries of ambiguity and false distance. My earlier-voiced concerns -- about the dearth of photographs and the pornographic aspect of the photos -- have also been addressed as I've continued to read. I admit ignorance regarding the number of 9/11 photo books in circulation. Perhaps I was purposely ignorant, or perhaps this is my first 9/11 through sheer chance. Regardless, it's only logical that this book is not a place to compile endless photography but to instead devote words to the effect these have had and will continue to have.
December 7, 2006
FROM ANDY TO ZAPRUDER
Strangers' pictures ping into my in-box at a steady rate. The photos, long buried in drawers or on hard drives, still bring about an ache, even five years after the attacks. Most of the images, the strangers explain, are previously unpublished. Almost all of them are remarkable in their own way.
A reader named Scott Bigletti was kind enough to write:
"The intertwining stories in your book are fasinating. Just like it says in your book...
Batallions of citizen journalists like Bigletti covered the events and their aftermath like a wall-to-wall Photo Op. They did the same during the Asian tsunami and the London transit bombings. And that impulse to record and then share that documentation--from the most extraordinary occurence to the decidedly trivial--is now a global obsession. Tonight, amateur astronomers are training their lenses on the heavens -- the moon was huge and auburn tonight -- then posting the pictures on their personal Web pages. Night prowlers are uploading images right now, on celebrity and gossip blogs, from their nocturnal scampers. Soldiers in Iraq are zapping home actual combat footage that will soon be airing on YouTube.
When I make the rounds talking about Citizen Journalists and 9/11, I often discuss the day in 1963 when Abraham Zapruder, an amateur with a movie camera, caught 22 seconds of a passing parade and, inadvertently, captured the split second that President John F. Kennedy, on a visit to Dallas, was shot by an assassin. Back then, it took three to four days (considered almost lightning speed at the time) for his footage to see the light of day, first appearing as freeze frames in the pages of Life magazine. Today, I read an essay by Dan Gillmor, one of the earliest of Internet sages, conferring upon Zapruder the title of "Citizen journalist." Amen, Mr. Gillmor.
Once upon a time, Uncle Andy predicted we'd all have our 15 minutes of fame. Little did he expect that in our age digital cameras would not only make each of us Edies, but, sooner or later, we'd all be Warhols.
December 4, 2006
HEAVY METAL WITH THAT MP3 PLAYER?
Photographer Lyle Owerko, back from Shanghai, sent along this presumably current graphic from a Chinese-language ad campaign for an MP3 player, which incorporates an image of the fractured outer shell of the World Trade Center. He pulled this item off an industry blog. (Owerko, as described in Watching the World Change, photographed horrific scenes on September 11 while standing directly under the south tower.)
We tend to think that much of the the world understands what America went through on September 11. In truth, global empathy and compassion are much-overrated commodities.
December 2, 2006
5 YEARS GONE MISSING; THIS SEASON'S BEST PHOTO BOOKS
Yesterday marked a milestone. It was five years ago, on December 1, 2001 -- as American and coalition troops were fighting in Afghanistan -- that photographer Harry Benson hovered over the Arabian Sea to take a group portrait of the crew of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt. For Benson's shot, taken on assignment for Vanity Fair, the crew brandished a banner which they believed to be the famous flag that had been raised by three firemen at Ground Zero.
PHOTO (c) COPYRIGHT HARRY BENSON
No such luck. As my book points out -- and as Editor & Publisher observed yesterday in a tantalizing online feature -- the flag, in fact, was a different flag entirely. (Please read the E&P link and the last chapter of Watching the World Change.)
Meanwhile, a blogger named Adam, based in Minnesota, continues to write, in "real time," about his reactions to reading Watching the World Change. It's not all favorable, I must say. Admittedly, it can be bracing to get into the mind of one's reader as he/she reads.
Speaking of books with visual appeal, if there are fans of photography on your holiday gift list, I would recommend perusing the following new titles:
-- the smart and sumptuous Georgia O'Keefe & John Loengard: Paintings and Photographs, which seems to have been not only masterfully designed and printed but actually curated by photo-sage Loengard and publishing mandarin Lothar Schirmer
--the new Annie Leibovitz tome (which is a companion to her exhibition, now up at the Brooklyn Museum of Art), A Photographer's Life, which weaves intimate images of her private life with her photo-icons of key figures in our culture
-- the sepia-toned 1920s peek-a-boo mystique that shimmers from Jazz Age Beauties: The Lost Collection of Ziegfeld Photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston (showcasing the haunting work Johnston -- a photographer for the vintage Vanity Fair, whose relative obscurity will hopefully be remedied by this volume from Robert Hudovernik)
--My America, by acclaimed photojournalist and Time's presidential chronicler Christopher Morris, which looks at the curious stasis and Potemkin artifice surrounding George W. Bush and the White House press corps as they navigate a Red State dystopia
-- Thin by Lauren Greenfield, published in concert with Greenfield's riveting H.B.O. documentary on anorexia
-- Idols + Believers, the ultimate party-photo smorgasbord, by Jocelyn Bain Hogg
-- and the incomparable Elvis at 21: New York to Memphis, lovingly organized by Chris Murray (the John Szarkowski-meets-P.T. Barnum of rock photography), containing classic and previoulsy unpublished photographs by Al Wertheimer, the godfather of candid Elvis imagery.
For photojournalists-in-the-making I'd suggest Dirck Halstead's Moments In Time: Photos and Stories from One of America's Top Photojournalists. (I'm currently working my way through Alicia Shepard's double-biography, Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate as well as Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. Both authors have synthesized details from myriad sources to come up with truly compelling narratives.)