"[This book] embodies the Buddhist wisdom about change, life, and the
world more than anything written after the events of that day."
Robert Stone

January 2007 Archives

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January 31, 2007


This provocative story by John Hopkins's David Bell in the Los Angeles Times--and reaction elsewhere in the press--is worth a read: "Was 9/11 Really That Bad?" I agree with the Huffington Post's assessment that, in fact, the "mere" body count of 3,000 on September 11 doesn't take into account the thousands who have since perished in the ongoing war on terror, the first-responders who are now dying at an alarming rate, etc. Comparisons of war crimes, holocausts, terror death tolls are academic parlor games, at best; at worst, an invitation for diminishing the significance of the attacks of September 11.

UPDATE: After a hubbub earlier this week, the L.A. Times has changed its headline. "As we mentioned on Tuesday," writes HufPost's Eat the Press column this morning, "the L.A. Times stirred up a ruckus this weekend when its website posted an op-ed from the Sunday paper titled, 'Was 9/11 Really That Bad?' The incendiary headline drew an instant and furious response (including from commenters on HuffPo's main page) and as of this morning it had been changed to 'Putting 9/11 In Perspective.'"

January 30, 2007


In modern history's mosaic, photographs are vital tile pieces, providing concise imprints: here is what personalities, celebrities, world leaders, pop-culture watersheds, breaking news events actually looked like. All an Internet user needs is a powerful search engine and, voila, There's Joseph Stalin on the cover of Life, right there on one's desktop.

It was only a matter of time, then, before one of the crown jewels of archival imagery--the Life picture collection--would fall into the hands of the Google goliath. Yesterday, according to a report from media reporter Staci Kramer (a one-time St. Louis stringer for Life), Time Inc. announced that it was finalizing a deal with Google to scan 12 million pictures from Life's storied archives. The purpose? Revenue. Ease-of-access to imagery. Broad exposure for the Life brand.

The downside risk, however, is that once Google gets its grip on these pictures--long protected and cherished by the editors at Time Inc. so that these seminal images would not be misused--the photos may soon belong to all of us. They'll be there for the clicking, there for the taking, there for the Net's new legions of PhotoShopaholics.

January 28, 2007


From Jim Colligan, a Catholic priest, Maryknoll missioner, and journalist, in L.A….

"When the Los Angeles Central Library put two copies of your book, listed on its site, into circulation last month I was first to get a copy. I thoroughly appreciated the work you put into it, an informative, engrossing read…. I was in Tokyo, Japan last week, much of my five days spent at the Foreign Correspondents Club renewing acquaintances among correspondents and staff. I recommended your book as a 'must-have' for club library shelves to head librarian Hanako Nakayama. She is efficient and cooperative and will consult the Library Committee as required…. Keep up the good work on your watchingtheworldchange.com site. Always of
interest." [In November sent in an unsolicited photo of some 9/11-conspiracy protestors, which I wrote about on the blog.]

From Carky Rubens, of Scarsdale, N.Y. (upon discovering this blog)...

"Is this the next true medium? Is this convergence? Is this how the 'masses' will get their news in the future? Is this 'Fragmentation' or 'Augmentation?' Are you a creator or merely content? Whatever, am I too old to be wandering around this new cyberworld?"

And, last but not least, from L. Raphael, of Kilmarnock, in the United Kingdom...

"The photograph on the cover of your book Watching the World Change [see top of this Web site's left-hand column] sums up how I feel about 9/11: that it was a meaningless spectacle. The picture makes no sense: if this man is running for his life, why isn't the photographer doing likewise? Is she [photographer Kelly Price] standing next to a convenient manhole, or bunker, or does she have a death wish? Was the picture taken with a telephoto lens, or was the photographer also running for her life, but somehow managing to take a perfectly focused, balanced picture? The photograph is as fake as the image of two towers engulfed in flames....

"You are a fraud, Mr. Friend. 9/11 was also a fraud, from start to finish. [Many of the photographers in your book] are frauds who are complicit in 9/11: the shot of Flight 11 in that film [by the Naudet brothers] was obviously staged, like many other scenes, and it's only a matter of time before the real guilty parties from that day face some kind of justice, if not in Bush's America -- but that won't be with us much longer. When it happens, watch the world change -- for the better. No more USS Maine, no more Pearl Harbor, no more Dallas, no more Tonkin Gulf: this time, the crap ends and the bastards get what's coming to them -- Cheney, Myers, Wolfowitz, Chevron, Tenet, Perle, Raytheon, all of them. The bigger they are ...."

Dear Mr. Raphael: Millions of New Yorkers, including yours truly, saw these sights with their own eyes. This was no mass hallucination. This was no conspiracy to justify an invasion of Iraq (as you insist, elsewhere in your letter). This was an act of terrorism that claimed 3,000 lives. It might be convenient to think otherwise in your tidy, faraway world of Kilmarnock, but you are delusional, as are all too many armchair 9/11-conspiracy dreamers. Or, as columnist Maureen Dowd says of Dick Cheney in yesterday's Times: "Delusional is far too mild a word.... Delusional doesn't begin to capture the profound, transcendental, one-flew-over daftness of the man. Has anyone in the history of the United States ever been so singularly wrong and misguided about such phenomenally important events and continued to insist he's right in the fact of overwhelming evidencde to the contrary?"

January 25, 2007


How numb have we become? Yesterday, one of the morning shows ran an ad with this tag line: "When the fever is high enough to be a Code Orange.... Children's Motrin."

So Madison Avenue and pharmaceutical companies are now using Post-9/11 Terror Jargon (a) to push products, (b) to play upon the fears of worried parents, and (c) to re-calibrate the otherwise grim terror-alert color code so that it is somehow palatable, even cutesy and kid-friendly.

In case of a dirty bomb attack in your neighborhood, Buy Motrin--in the bright orange box.

Speaking of grim, here's a cartoon by yours truly...


...and for interested parties, I posted two political items on VanityFair.com this week, both humor pieces:

"Oscar-in-Chief" (about how President Bush, during his State of the Union Address, seemed to channel this year's Academy Award nominees)

and "Angelina & Oprah Set to Announce Exploratory Committees?" (on the ever-growing field of presidential candidates--21 months before the general election).

January 23, 2007


This morning the Chicago Tribune ran an Op-Ed piece, by yours truly, on the Iraq War's new nomenclature. It begins:

surge--troop infusion to secure Baghdad and bolster Iraqi forces before an eventual U.S. withdrawal

scourge--typical Iraqi citizen's view of the U.S. military

stooge--typical Iraqi citizen's view of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

splurge--typical American taxpayers' view of new surge plan

insurgency--what surge is meant to purge

purge--what typical Iraqi citizens would like to do with U.S. military and the insurgency

For the full text, click here.

January 21, 2007


Wayne Hill, of Highland Springs, Virginia, wrote on Thursday...

"For those of us who love New York but (thank God!) weren't there to witness the perdition in the flesh, Mr. Friend's book probably gives the reader the closest possible approximation of what it feels like to have lost a loved one that day. He manages to 'put a face' on many of the victims. They come to seem like friends.

"I love and hate this book. It's a 'magic telescope' which 'brings it all back' so effectively that it almost seems to stretch time backwards to that horrid day. It is masterfully done. Americans must never forget what was done to Americans that day. Mr. Friend's book should make the 'Day of Infamy' comprehensible, almost immediate, to future Americans. Well Done!"


On occasion, we hear the slurs: "They're savages. Let's pull out of Iraq and let 'em at each other." The evidence of savagery? Hostage-beheading videos. Cheers and jeers during primitve hangings, recorded on cell-phone snuff films. Sunni and Shiite militias attacking and counterattacking innocent civilians, even blowing up each others' mosques. What to expect from the land that brought us Saddam Hussien and his long, dark reign of torture and terror?

Now come reports about al-Zawra, the "pirate" Iraqi television station (purportedly operated with embezzled funds) that has been airing videos in support of the Sunni insurgency, with images of bodies of Sunnis allegedly slain by Shia death squads, secret militia maneuvers, bombed U.S. vehicles, and what The New York Times describes as "grainly clips of grisly violence, running in loops and sometimes in slow motion." The savages, indeed.

And yet, watching today's NFC Championship game between the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints, I was reminded once again of the accelerating American obsession with torture-tainment. During one commercial break, I watched uneasily at the roll-out of the new DVD for Saw III, the third in the horror-film series (each more popular than its predecessor) in which people are tortured with ingeniously crude and painful devices. (In the first movie, a victim was forced to hack off his own leg.) This spot was immediately followed by a commercial for the upcoming horror film Hannibal (as in Lecter), due in theaters February 7. The ad flashed the words, "TORTURE...MURDER...EVIL IS BORN." And while I was watching the game, theatergoers were flocking to The Hitcher, which opened in 2,800-plus U.S. movie houses this week, grossing (and I do mean grossing) $8.2 million as the country's fourth most popular film this weekend. From the producers of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hitcher, touted in TV commercials all week long, follows the travails of a hitch-hiker who tortures and kills the kind, unsuspecting Samaritans who offer him rides.

These films amount to nothing less than pure, unadulterated torture-porn, with requisite humiliation and semi-nudity thrown in, which seem to appear in new incarnations weekly . (This past December brought us Black Christmas, about a sorority terrorized by a psycho-killer at Christmas-time.) These harem-scare-em's emerge from the same part of the American psyche that brought us the depraved Abu Ghraib abuses, the thrash-metal ethos, and the deafening silence among the U.S. populace toward wartime provisions that allow thousands of suspected enemy combatants, under Constitutionally-suspect edicts, to be held in military prisons for years without a chance for due process, habeas corpus, or the slightest hint of human dignity.

America is the place that invented democracy; Iraq, the land of the fertile crescent, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet, that brought forth civilization itself.

Who are we to say what's savage and what's civilized?


...COPS' VOWS. There was a heart-warming image in the "Vows" section of this morning's New York Times, showing the wedding of Judith Hernandez and Christopher Castro, two police officers who fell in love after being caught in the whirlwind downtown of September 11. One picture showed the pair near the Ground Zero perimeter, covered with dust after the collapse of the Trade Towers.



(Hernandez told the Times that on 9/11 she groped in the dark for her fellow officer and future husband. "The collapse," wrote the Times, "had thrown him down an escalator, where he was unconscious with severe back and shoulder injuries.... When she yelled his name, he regained consciousness. 'I crawled under him and carried him on my shoulders twolevels up the broken escalators,' she said. " The other photo (see link here) showed them blowing out the candles of their wedding cake this past December 30.

...BUSH'S ABOUT-FACE. PDN (Photo District News) reports that at last week's presidential address on the new plan to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq, White House image-handlers decided not to let still photographers into the room to shoot the president during the speech. Instead, the press office offered a handout headshot. Miffed, two wire services, the Associated Press and Reuters, declined to run the image, denying the president his face time.

....BARACK, WITH A SHMEAR. In a broadcast today, "Fox & Friends" spread the bald-faced, two-faced lie that Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama may have attended a madrassa (an Islamic religious school where jihad is often a part of the curriculum). The Illinois senator did no such thing and is, in fact, Christian, not Muslim.

January 20, 2007


A man approached me this week and told me, point-blank: “I photographed four of the 9/11 hijackers.” A bit of explanation...

I’m in Delray Beach, Florida, at FotoFusion, the annual conference for photographers and assorted picture-business experts (run by the Palm Beach Photographic Centre), to which up-and-comers migrate every winter to gather inspiration from current and former mandarins of the photo community.

The most stunning discovery during my time here has been meeting Art Nejame, who helps organize the conference with his wife, Fatima, and former Time magazine photo mayven Arnold Drapkin. Knowing that I was down at FotoFusion to speak about the photography in the aftermath of September 11, Art pulled me aside and told me his own 9/11 story, which he has kept quiet for 6 years.

Art, it so happens, runs the Pro Shop in downtown Delray, catering to professional and serious amateur photographers. Because his family hails from Lebanon’s Shouf mountains, he speaks fluent Arabic.

In the summer of 2001, he recalled, two men walked into his photo store and asked him to take their headshots, presumably for use on a passport, visa, I.D. card or driver’s license. One was Mohammed Atta, the chief coordinator of the 19 hijackers. The other, according to Art, was “a short Egyptian – I recognized his accent, a beautiful dialect, actually, and I [later] recognized him from the [F.B.I.’s and Interpol’s I.D.] pictures” that ran around the world. (Fifteen of the 19 hijackers lived for a time in south Florida, finalizing their upcoming attacks.)

Atta was pleased enough with Art’s pictures that he brought in two other young men and asked that their photos be taken as well. “They were both Saudis,” Art said. “I could tell because they have a more gutteral way of speaking. At one point I said, ‘So you speak Arabic?’ and they become very nervous.”

Art had no reason to be particularly suspicious. In 2001, Arabic-speaking men had their photographs taken every day in America without anyone raising an eyebrow. He merely found it odd that the men seemed agitated when realizing he could understand Arabic.

Art is going to send an e-mail describing his encounter in more detail, which I will post here very soon. (As I write in Watching the World Change, citing a New York Post article: among them, the 19 hijackers had 61 I.D. photos taken, for various purposes, including use on martyr posters and, later, al-Qaeda Web sites.)


In the news again: the man pictured on the jacket of my book. (See the image in this blog’s upper left-hand column).

On September 11, George Mannes was a reporter for TheStreet.com, reporting on tech stocks. Once the World Trade Center was attacked, he was instantly transformed into a war correspondent, covering the events for the financial Web site and posting his first-hand report that very day. (TheStreet.com, in the hours and days after the attacks, became an invaluable resource for people searching for information.) On the cover of the book, in an image shot by Kelly Price, Mannes can be seen running for his life to escape the billowing debris-cloud that spread across lower Manhattan as the south tower collapsed.

Mannes now writes for Money magazine. And in a story in the new issue of the magazine, Mannes suggests that the stock market might be due for a major downturn. Quoth the “Business” section of today’s New York Times:

“We are heading for a market correction, if Money’s (tongue firmly in cheek) logic can be believed. As George Mannes notes, in April 1987, filming of the movie Wall Street started and the crash of 1987 occurred just months later. In the spring of 2000, production of two television shows – The Street and Bull – began and that summer the Standard & Poor’s 500 began a two-year slide. And in 2005, two shows about flipping houses were shown, and the real estate market promptly tanked.

“Why worry now? HBO recently announced a new series about a hedge fund trader and his pals. When Hollywood turns its cameras on a financial trend, it’s historically a prequel for a market collapse.”

January 15, 2007


Twice this week we were granted a rare spectacle: the sight of a vulnerable George W. Bush.

On Thursday the president attended a White House memorial for a Medal of Honor recipient. Corporal Jason Dunham, 22, in a successful attempt to save three fellow Marines in Iraq in 2004, lost his life after leaping to smother a live grenade, dying at Bethesda Naval Hospital, a week after the incident. During the ceremony for Corporal Dunham, the president was so moved that he shed a tear, which was clearly evident in news photographs.

Not that we've never seen Mr. Bush with a tear-streaked cheek. Indeed, the president, like his father before him, is prone to visible signs of emotion at certain times. As his former spokesman Ari Fleischer told me in an interview for Watching the World Change: the week of September 11, in a conference call with New York's George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani, the president "started to cry at the end of the call. In that classic way that Bush men do, he started to tear up. And there are some wonderful photographs that captured that tear. The press was in the Oval Office for it."

And yet I couldn't help feeling, upon seeing the picture from this week's memorial, that this was a sorry, single tear a year or two or three too late. According to press reports, the president has never deigned to attend any of the 3,000-plus funerals held for U.S. servicemen and women killed in Iraq. Had he done so, perhaps we would have seen this image much earlier -- and perhaps he might have altered his war plans long, long ago.

Then, on Sunday, the president again revealed his vulnerable side, this time on 60 Minutes, in an interview with correspondent Scott Pelley. The very fact that Bush's handlers had agreed to this forum--a no-holds-barred one-on-one on the never-forgiving newsmagazine show--was a sign that the White House communications team had finally acknowledged the dire state of the president's approval numbers (a scant 17 percent, according to Pelley). Part of the exchange went like this:

BUSH: Abu Ghraib was a mistake. Using bad language like, "Bring 'Em On," was a mistake. I think history is gonna look back and see alot of ways we could have done things better. No question about it.

PELLEY: The troop levels...

BUSH: Could have been a mistake.

PELLEY: Could have been a mistake?

BUSH: Yeah. [General] John Abizaid, one of the planners, said in front of Congress, you know, he thought we might have needed more troops.... Well, if people want a scapegoat, they got one right here in me 'cause it's my decisions [sic].

The president had finally found it necessary to appear contrite--as he had been after the devastating Republican loss of both houses of Congress in the November midterms (which had forced him to admit that his party had taken a "thumpin'"). Maybe, just maybe his advisers had determined that it was easier to offer a mini-mea culpa and then stick to his guns (sending 20,000 more troops into Iraq's wide maw) than to face the prospect of admitting that his father's team, the Iraq Study Group, was correct in calling for a phased withdrawal, diplomatic overtures, and incentives along with benchmarks for the Iraqi government.


In the first two years of the war, Saddam Hussein's forces, al-Qaeda, and the Iraqi insurgency would tape-record the torture, murder, or decaptitation of abducted Western soldiers and contractors, then disseminate the ghoulish scenes across the Web. Now, clandestine cell-phone videographers are taking hand-held execution videos (the most recent tape purportedly shows the decapitation of Saddam's secret-police chief). Saddam's hanging was an online sensation, presumably videotaped with the tacit consent of the Iraqi government (which controlled access to the executions) and presumably dispersed by Saddam loyalists (hoping to assure his martyrdom and to undercut the al-Maliki government). This week's decapitation has yet to hit the Net, as far as I know, but I have no doubt it will soon be coming to a Real Player or Quick Time window near you.

The footage of decapitated Westerners elicited relatively little outrage in the Arab world--though the clips were viewed and e-mailed with abandon. The current decapitation, before it has even been glimpsed, has triggered a torrent of outrage, everywhere, as did Saddam's hanging, which generated even more downloads than the grisliest clips from the early days of the war.

Perhaps the point is that such acts of savagery in this senseless conflict are now beyond politics, beyond taking sides, beyond reason. They are now the stuff of snuff. We surf for a peek and send the links along to friends. We have become the faint shadows of the savages we disparage, thanks, in part, to the medium that has us in its thrall.

January 7, 2007


This is Robert Stone’s week.

On Tuesday, Stone will publish his coming-of-age memoir, Prime Green, recollections and reevaluations of his 1960s post-Beat, proto-literary days and nights, many of them spent in the pulsing bosom of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters. (The phrase “prime green” describes the iridescent hue of the dawn’s first rays, sometimes glimpsed by Stone after a night of hallucinogenic ingestion in the company of Kesey’s clan.)


In today’s New York Times Book Review, Walter Kirn calls the book a wise, clear-eyed “bedtime story [for] all you dreamy children of Aquarius…. [Stone is] in the here and now on every page… pressur[ing] his prose with retrospective pessimism.”

Many readers, myself included, consider Stone to be America’s preeminent narrative novelist, the author of taut, Conradian tales of modern angst that trace the bedeviled falls from grace of an assortment of faith-addled vagabonds, dreamers, and lost souls: Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise (his best book), Children of Light and Damascus Gate, Outerbridge Reach and Bay of Souls. (His best short story: “Under the Pitons,” is in the collection Bear and His Daughter.)

Robert Stone was a mentor of mine at Amherst College. He was the marquee-name, larger-than-life writing professor with the bearded mystic's bearing, who would chain-smoke Carltons and exude gravitas. While staring sidelong into the middle distance, and speaking both softly and forcefully, he would critique his students’ work, always encouraging them to value story line over style.

I remember one particularly fume-fueled night in 1973 when, having been accepted at Amherst for the fall term, I visited the campus as a high school senior and stayed with the friend of a friend at the Psi U frat house. I mentioned that I planned on taking Stone’s writing course. As if on cue, an upper classman I’d just met quoted aloud a blurb from the back of Stone’s first novel, A Hall of Mirrors. The squib, written by Wallace Stegner, declared the book to be “one of the two best first novels I have ever read, the other being Bill Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness…. Stone writes like a bird, like an angel, like a circus barker, like a con man, like someone so high on pot that he is scraping his shoes on the stars.”

It was then and there that I began to understand the value of a good book blurb.

So it was with Stegner’s quote in mind, and a degree of trepidation, that 33 years later I decided that my old professor would be the first person I’d approach to provide a blurb for Watching the World Change. I had stayed in touch with him over the years: he’d had been extremely supportive when I’d first moved to New York to be a “starving writer,” praising my work to agent Maxine Grofsky and offering advice. In recent years, we discussed stories for Vanity Fair, mutual friends, the state of the Middle East and our respective lives.

A year ago, Robert Stone was the first person to whom I sent my ready-to-be-copy-edited draft--a thick, hastily photocopied stack of messy manuscript pages (many of them scarred with hash marks, scrawls, revisions and corrections, single-spaced paragraphs Scotch-taped into the margins). And within two or three weeks, he mailed me what would be the book’s first critique, which now graces the book's back jacket. It remains the most thoroughly effusive and personally inspiring reaction that I’ve received:

"To read Watching the World Change is an overwhelming experience. Beautifully written and observed, as a tribute to the dead, it embodies the Buddhist wisdom about change, life, and the world more than anything written after the events of that day.

“A reader can only bear witness to the tenderness and wisdom at the core of this book, which distinguish it throughout. David Friend's passionate sympathy engages the reader without relenting. Just about all the observations that might be sought from the events of that day are here: victims, survivors in every sense, responders. Loss, pride, a helix of sorrow and shame along the meridians of the world. Along with its records of grief, Watching the World Change celebrates the courage to go on, which may be the most admirable and irreplaceable of human virtues."

I can’t wait to crack open Prime Green.


Robert Stone, Janis Stone, David Friend at book party for Watching the World Change, October 2006 PHOTO BY PATRICK McMULLAN

January 6, 2007


DAYLIFE. Check out the new News Web site, DayLife, which had its Beta launch yesterday. Graphically intriguing, visually enticing, the site (so I've been told) was partly designed by the brilliant team behind 10X10. (Full disclosure: Key advisor to DayLife is Jeff Jarvis, Mr. BuzzMachine.com, who convinced me to start this blog in the first place.)

10X10. Speaking of 10X10, click over to that breakthrough site, which aggregates the day's news by its voluminous Image Output. Really amazing navigation system. Play around with the right-hand nav bar.

100x100. While you're at it, segue to 100x100, (see below) -- a project by photographer Michael Wolf, who shot 100 Hong Kong residents in their 100x100-foot-square living quarters.

HORROR ON THE WALLS. Yesterday, boingboing.net featured the ambitious photo-projection project, "Collateral," by artist Jean-Christian Bourcart who, in 2005, splashed images of Iraq war victims onto the walls of American homes and then photographed the results.


From "Collateral," by Jean-Christian Bourcart,
Tivoli, New York, 2005

On his Web site, Bourcart explains his motivation: "I projected photographs of mutilated and dead Iraqis on American houses, supermarkets, churches, and parking lots. I was thinking of this new generation of kids who will be traumatized for life by growing up during wartime. It was a desperate gesture: my personal protest for the lack of interest for the non-American victims. I found the images on the web. Some American soldiers post their own pictures on a website. They would show a cut leg with the caption: “where's da rest of my shit?” Or a blown up head with the caption: “need a hair cut."....I could not help thinking of those images as some kind of restless ghosts that endlessly wander in the intermediate level of the web. I took care of them like a embalmer would; downloading, revamping, printing, rephotographiing, then projecting them as if I was looking for a place where they would rest in peace and at the same time haunt those who pretend not to know what was going on."


From Bob Gomel, of Houston, a photographer for the weekly Life magazine in the 60s...

"Your [discussion] of Fortune's Special [9/11 Issue] in Watching the World Change reminded me that [Fortune's] inside back-page "Archive" [that same issue] was my picture of the NY skyline during the blackout of 1965, before the World Trade Center was built. (SEE PHOTO BELOW)

"Unlike 9/11, almost no one [back in 1965], professional photographer or amateur, took pictures of that phenomenon. Life editors searched the seaboard for images. Only [long-time Life photographer] Henry Grossman and I had venture out. My double-page opener, 'By the Light of the Silvery Moon,' was a milestone in news-picture publishing, in that I double-exposed the film to include the moon in my frame. [Life editors] George Hunt, Ralph Graves, and Roy Rowan debated its use for hours [before deciding to publish it].

"My appreciation for writing such a moving book."


Photo (c) Bob Gomel for Life,
republished in 2001 in Fortune's 9/11 Issue

January 2, 2007


Since its inception, the conflict in Iraq has been "A War Waged in Images," to quote the title of an article I wrote for American Photo and the Digital Journalist Web site in 2003. And perhaps the greatest sea-change in the visual documentation of the war has been the use of cameras by combatants.

At its best, the proper lens placed in the proper hands--not in the hands of propagandists, but in the hands of those hoping to expose the truth--has served as a window onto atrocitiy. The Abu Ghraib scandal would never have come to light had GIs not photographed their actions and had a courageous whistle-blower not made it his mission to burn two CD-ROMs, filling them with telltale images of abuse to share with his commanding officers. What's more, the urgency of combat scenes (sent over the Internet on home vides taken by soldiers themselves, and captured in several recent documentary films such as The War Tapes) continue to underscore the reality of a war that is often off-limits to Western news crews.

The nadir of this new trend, however, is the new "Hussein Hanging" video, currently circulating on Al-Jazeera Television and elsewhere.


In this instance, combatants--one or two guards present as witnesses to Saddam's execution--brought along camera-equipped cell phones to document the deed. When footage like this courses through the digital ether, justice is trivialized, as is any sense of real retribution for crimes Saddam had ordered against thousands of victims over the decades. In the end viewers around the world come away doubting not the hanging itself but the motives behind the court that ruled in favor of the hanging. Hussein's death becomes not the result of prudent jurisprudence but the excuse for pure spectacle.

Then again, maybe the swift ubiquity of the footage and its strange theatricality will make some viewers actually doubt its authenticity. Next, I suppose, we'll hear from those in conspiracy circles that the hanging was a staged perfromance, filmed on the same secret soundstage in a desert out West where the Apollo moonwalks and the 9/11 attacks were shot.

Some will even rush to critique the dim lighting, garbled taunting, and shoddy production values.