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

February 2007 Archives

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February 26, 2007


From Julia Kumari Drapkin, a graduate of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism, and a dynamo photographer and correspondent for the St. Petersburg [Florida] Times...

“I have thought often about your book. Just recently, I was speaking on a photojournalism panel and several veteran photographers echoed the familiar angst about the expanding media landscape -- 'Everyone with a camera these days believes they are a photojournalist! How will people know what to believe?'

"With the proliferation of images by professionals and amateurs, using Kodachrome and cameraphone alike, many photographers complain that the authority of photography as a medium is being undermined by dilution. What they fail to appreciate is that the lone lens, while able to communicate a powerful perspective, is incapable of capturing objective truth. Just as an object is defined in 360 degrees, so too must a historical event be understood as a collection of perspectives.

“On Sept. 11th, 2001 thousands of images were captured--from those experiencing it inside the towers, to those on the streets below, from nearby boroughs, and even from space. The relativism of such diverse images created a complex, even paradoxical, honesty that no individual photographer could capture alone.

“By presenting the diverse images of hundreds of photographers capturing the same event, Watching the World Change illustrates an evolution in seeing in 
the information age: a 360-degree perspective that is a landmark for authoritative truth in photography. Professionals and amateurs together have taken the power of the image to its ultimate level, a new objectivity capable of transcending the relativism of the individual photograph and limitations of the individual experience.

"So, after many instances when your book came up in mind or in conversation, I wanted to finally put these thoughts to electronic paper. Indeed, your book has been
insightful to me and I hope you find these comments useful."

Julia Kumari Drapkin

February 21, 2007


In January, while giving a talk about my book at the 2007 FotoFusion festival in Delray Beach, Florida, I fell into conversation with Art NeJame, one of the organizers of the annual slate of workshops for members of the photo community. Art told me a mesmerizing story of how he had come to encounter four of the September 11 hijackers -- more than a dozen of whom had lived in South Florida during their preparation for their "mission." It all happened because of a passport photo.


I asked Art -- whom I have known, along with his wife, Fatima, for many years -- to send along his recollections, which appear here, in detail, for the first time.

From Art Nejame, of Boca Raton, Florida....

"It was in the middle of June 2001. [The September 11 ringleader, Mohammed] Atta came into our [Delray Beach photo] shop and asked if we took passport or ID photos (apparently he had found us in the yellow pages). I, of course, said yes. He said that he needed a couple of pictures for himself and the fella with him. I heard him tell the other fella in Arabic that they could get their ID photos here and that I would be taking them.

"Since I speak Arabic, I understood them and started to chat with them in Arabic. Atta was not pleased that I had understood him and that I also spoke Arabic. He immediately told the other fella not to say anything further. I was a little taken aback to say the least, since most people are pleased to converse in their native tongue and my Arabic was considerably better than rudimentary, in fact I had answered him with the same Egyptian dialect in which they had spoken to each other. (My dad was born in Lebanon and traveled from Lebanon through Palestine by camel to Egypt in 1916, fleeing the war in Lebanon. He lived in Egypt for a few years, finished high school there and subsequently came to the US in 1919. I of course learned Arabic at home as a child growing up in Johnson City, NY and studied formal Arabic at SUNY Binghamton [from a Palestinian PHD] as an undergraduate. I subsequently understand the Lebanese, Egyptian and Palestinian dialects and there are distinct differences. I find the Egyptian dialect to be much more melodic and the Palestinian dialect to be much more guttural in pronunciation.)

"I took the photos (Polaroids) of both individuals; they paid cash and subsequently left. I did feel that it was strange that they did not want to converse with me in Arabic, since it was obviously their native language, but so be it. But then again, Atta was strange anyway. He didn’t look at you, he looked through you.

"A couple of weeks later Atta came in again and I said hello in English. I asked him if he needed more photos or was there something wrong with the photos that I had taken before. He said that he was meeting two other fellas here and that he needed photos for them just like the photos that I had taken for him. Again, I spoke to these two new customers in Arabic, but Atta interceded so as not to allow any conversation of any kind. I backed off, not wanting to offend him. I’m here to take photos, not to cause any problems. I subsequently took photos of the two new customers and heard them talk in Arabic between themselves and they spoke with a Saudi dialect, which is even more guttural than the Palestine dialect. Atta paid cash for the photos and left.

"I was none the wiser until I saw their photos in the paper a few days after 9/11. Needless to say, I recognized four of the pictures immediately. Atta’s eyes were so piercing. He was easy to remember. The next day the new chief of police in Delray Beach was in my shop to pick up his official portrait that I had taken a couple of weeks before and I asked him for some advice. He of course said yes and I explained that I had taken photos of four of the alleged hijackers and who should I notify. He said that since I told him, he would notify the FBI in West Palm Beach.

"Three months later in late December I received a call from some agent and asked if they could talk to me about the photo session with Atta. I mentioned that the Police chief of Delray had reported it in mid September and he answered me by saying that it must have fallen through the cracks. I suggested that it must have been a big crack and there was dead silence on the other end for a few seconds. I guess FBI agents in West Palm Beach don’t have much of a sense of humor.

"A month later, the day before Fotofusion 2002, four and one half months after 911, a lady agent called and asked to speak to me. She came in the following day and we spoke for a couple of hours. Like I really had nothing better to do than to waste two hours talking to the FBI just one day before Fotofusion. She was very nice, yet very professional and asked me the same questions repeatedly every few minutes during the two hours. Apparently she thought that I may give her different answers. I didn’t. She left and I have had no further contact with any government agency since.

"This is pretty much the end of story, except one day a couple of months later, a customer overheard me chatting with a close friend about how I happened to photograph Mohammed Atta and she came over to me, grunted and asked if I was proud of myself. Yea, right, like I knew Atta was before 911. This is a perfect example of why I have rarely spoken about my encounter with four of the terrorists. Ironically, I am probably one of the most published photographers in the World and I only made $9.00 on each pair of photos, which is what we charge for walk-ins for having passport photos taken. Nine bucks, such a deal for infamy.

"David, Well, it took me five years to come out of the closet. It's as accurate as can be. I'm curious to read the reactions. Please keep me posted..."

February 19, 2007


My friends from Amherst (most of them from the class of 1977), inspired -- or repulsed -- by my visage on the cover of the new issue of Amherst, our alumni magazine, have been spending the day sending e-mails, trying to come up with "thought bubbles" for what I'm supposedly thinking...


In any event, I'm grateful that Emily Boutillier, the magazine's new editor, and Molly Lyons, the writer of the article, were so generous in their praise of Watching the World Change...and that photographer Frank Ward chose such a forgiving image. Even if I do look like I'd feel more comfortable on the cover of Maryknoll Missioner.

In any event, the mailbag...

Donaugh Brennan, from Dublin, e-mailed...

In [a] recent post I noticed that you attribute the 'prime green' of the title of Robert Stone's memoir to 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."

That is perhaps how Stone attributes it, but I experienced the phenomena while watching the sun set one summer evening in Mayo in the West of Ireland. My partner and I, as we sat there with our eyes fixed rigidly on the horizon, hadn't ingested any hallucinogens, unfortunately.

However, we were looking out specifically for the 'green ray', which manifested itself moments before the last rays of sunlight winked out over our view of the Atlantic, because we'd been inspired to so by Eric Romer sublime film 'Le Rayon Vert'. At least I think we saw it. It could have been a delusion of the weird dusky light, eye strain and well, wishful thinking.

All the best,

NOTE: I can't vouch for Donagh's taste. While he has an insightful Web site, I loathe Rohmer's The Green Ray--a wispy, verbose cinematic trifle.

But while we're on the subject, Donagh, I'm just finishing Robert Stone's stunning 60s memoir, Prime Green. Of the fleeting emerald epiphany, Stone writes, with his characteristic transcendence and facility:

"People who live in the tropics sometimes claim to have seen a gorgeous green flash spreading out from the horizon just after sunset on certain clear evenings. Maybe they have. Not I. What I will never forget is the greening of the day at first light on the shores north of [Mexico's] Manzanillo Bay. I imagine that color so vividly that I know, by ontology, that I must have seen it. In the moments after dawn, before the sun had reached the peaks of the sierra, the slopes and valleys of the rain forest would explode in green light, erupting inside a silence that seemed barely to contain it. When the sun's rays spilled over the ridge, they discovered dozens of silvery waterspouts and dissolved them into smoky rainbows. Then the silence would give way, and the jungle noises rose to blue heaven. Those mornings, day after day, made nonsense of examined life, but they made everyone smile. All of us, stoned or otherwise, caught in the vortex of dawn, would freeze in our tracks and stand to, squinting in the pain of the light, sweating, grinning. We called that ligh Prime Green; it was primal, primary, primo.

"The high-intensity presence of Mexico was inescapable. Even in the barrancas of the wilderness you felt the country's immanence. Poverty, formality, fatalism, and violence seemed to charge even uninhabited landscapes. I was young enough to rejoice in this..."

From a MySpace devotee...

This reader tells visitors to her MySpace page that she's currently reading my book, The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here.

From Teuvo Lehti, a Finnish retiree, serious amateur photographer, and former United Nations employee now living in France, who sent this image he took in 2000….



February 17, 2007


There is still time to rethink the design of the Freedom Tower. Or so says yet another expert as he weighs in on the long-delayed construction project that is set to replace the unconscionable, beguiling, perpetual emptiness that inhabits the site where the World Trade Center once stood.

Even all these months, seasons, years after September 11, a “hold-on/not-just-yet” attitude was voiced in an Op-Ed in yesterday’s New York Times. Guy Nordenson is entitled to his opinion, surely. He’s a structural designer and a Princeton architecture professor. And his reservations sound valid, even prudent.

Nordenson writes: “Despite reports that Gov. Eliot Spitzer has now decided to back [the latest plan for the Freedom Tower], the fact is that with a little time it is still possible to rethink the tower and make it both secure and welcoming without setting back the overall ground zero construction schedule. [The current design, with its] 20-story fortified wall around the base of a 1,776-foot tower, hardly evokes freedom – rather, it embodies fear and anxiety.”

Delay, you say? My vote, not that it matters a whit, is quite the opposite. I say quit the re-re-re-thinking and get on with it. Five and a half years after terrorists obliterated the World Trade Center, there is still nothing resembling an even begrudging consensus about what should rise in its place. But there is an agreed-upon blueprint, finally, and the new governor has endorsed it. And most of the constituencies effected by the decision have had their say. This impulse of eleventh-hour reassessment, coming on the heels of years of civic stasis, not only embalms the would-be building, it also impedes the creation of the World Trade Center Memorial that will some day honor the memories of the nearly 3,000 who died that day, and the many who continue to suffer (and, due to ailments among those who helped in the recovery effort, continue to perish) in the long shadow of September 11.

We must move on. And moving on means settling for a plan, however imperfect, and following through with it.

As a student of history, I must admit to being even more concerned about the memorial itself than I am about the Freedom Tower. I recognize the pivotal role that such a hallowed space (meant for reflection and mourning, for commemoration, for education) will play in determining how future generations understand the impact and meaning of the attacks and their aftermath.

In a similar way, a portion of the last chapter of Watching the World Change describes the early struggle, in 2001, to plan the construction of a much less ambitious but singularly important memorial: one intended to honor the memory and valor of the September 11 firefighters.

Ivan Schwartz was the director of the Brooklyn design studio hired to begin work on an ill-fated statue – originally conceived to be based on the famous photograph by Thomas Franklin showing three firemen raising the American flag at Ground Zero. But the design for the statue was defiled by “overthinking” at its earliest stages when the Fire Department brass and the real-estate developer/patron behind the project came up with the idea of having Schwartz alter the figures – changing them from three Caucasian firefighters, resembling the actual men who had had the gumption to hoist the colors in the first place, and replacing them with a Caucasian, an African-American, and a Latino firefighter. The men rendered in the statue’s prototype, explained an Fire Department spokesman, were “composites, intended to symbolize the entire FDNY.... The artistic expression of diversity supersede[s] any concern over factual correctness.”

The unveiling of a large mockup of the statue created a firestorm. Members of the public – and of engine and ladder companies across the city – called the monument an example of “political correctness run amok.” A petition drive conscripted many of the FDNY’s rank and file, who clamored for the project to be quashed. Pundits joined the pile-on. Conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg asked, “Why not [convert the figures into] a Muslim woman in a floor-length burqa, a Chinese guy in a wheelchair, and a whole passel of midgets of various hues and nationalities?”

Eventually, the statue was scrapped, quite literally. The model, which had sat in the foundry for months, was destroyed.

As noted on page 314 of Watching the World Change: “Schwartz says he warned about the consequences of erecting too literal a memorial. The statue would be derivative of not one but two famous images [the 9/11 flag-raising photo and the Iwo Jima flag-raising photo, which it echoed], both of them known for sparking intense emotions. Perhaps [the powers-that-be should have considered] a more metaphorical statue. Perhaps they [should have] slow[ed] down the project and arrive[d] at a more cautious consensus. ‘The main Civil War memorials,’ he now reflects, ‘didn’t emerge until roughly fifty years later, once the veterans were dying off.’”

With this in mind, I recommend a look at six books that might help guide those who are thinking about the eventual World Trade Center Memorial. The first is Hal Buell’s new work, Uncommon Valor, Common Virtue, which explores the enduring effect of the Iwo Jima image (shot by AP photographer Joe Rosenthal in the waning days of World War II).


It is a companion to the popular Flags of Our Fathers – a truly rewarding read (made into a truly mediocre film) about how our public desire to memorialize ended up compromising the lives of the three surviving Iwo Jima flag-raisers. Also worth studying are The World War II Memorial: A Grateful Nation Remembers (by my friend and fellow Vanity Fair colleague Doug Brinkley) and World War II Memorial: Jewel of the Mall by photographer Stephen R. Brown (with an introduction by Robert Dole), which visually surveys our newest Washington monument.



Another vital book is Wall: A Day at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, now out of print, a photo-driven volume from my longtime journalistic cohort Peter Meyer, which grew out a story from the pages of Life magazine. And then, this Memorial Day, National Geographic Press will publish Where Valor Rests: Arlington National Cemetery, by Rick Atkinson and Rich Clarkson – a moving, glossy keepsake (if I can judge by having looked through the galleys before they went on press).

See TakeBacktheMemorial.org.
What we are asking for is not much. Bloomberg intends to build a memorial
without memory.
-- Tim Sumner
[Tim also praises this site on www.FreedomTower.com.]

There's another book by Nicolaus Mills on the WWII Memorial [Their Last Battle: The Fight for a National World War II Memorial] which details the politics [behind it]. Even today, people from the various "Save the Mall" coalitions come up to me at book signings and tell me how much they hate the WWII Memorial. I admit to bias but I rather like it with the fountains and it seems to pull the monuments together and if nothing else, it was simply "about time."

February 13, 2007


For news freaks, legal eagles, and political junkies, watch tonight's PBS Frontline broadcast "News War," about challanges facing the press in the 21st century. The opening installment of the four-part series, led by correspondent Lowell Bergman, focuses on the impact of the Plame-Libby case on press power -- and the Bush administration's hostile posture toward the news media. I've written a review of the program in this morning's New York Times.

Click here for opinions from:
Federal Flaks

Last night I gave a lecture about Watching the World Change. The audience: students at New Rochelle (N.Y.) High School. I laid out 5 mottos for teenagers (some of whom might be considering a career in journalism)...

1. Hang out with honest people--people who bring out your best self.
2. Real experience is more importaqnt than anything.
3. Mentors matter. Listen to the lessons they're trying to knock into your thick skull.
4. There's no such thing as luck. Hard work lets you make your own breaks.
5. Enjoy going to work each day, or it's not worth it.

February 7, 2007


Image has always held sway over American presidential politics. Lincoln was elected in large part because of the appeal of a photographic portrait, taken by Matthew Brady, that was published around the country on the eve of the 1860 election. A century later, Colorado Senator Gary Hart’s presidential aspirations were forever dashed when a snapshot emerged showing the married Democratic candidate frolicking with a comely young companion named Donna Rice – on a pleasure boat called Monkey Business.

Now we have not just snaps but videoclips -- snaps that move, crackle, and pop, politically. As columnist Stacy Schiff observed in yesterday’s Times: “As with most sports, technology has transformed this one. Jon Stewart and Oprah are its umpires. YouTube its steroids. Never have we and our words [and pictures!] had to live in such tight quarters. Blurting just isn’t what it used to be in the days of Daniel Webster or William Jennings Bryan.”

One wonders just how much damage this already highly trafficked YouTube-hosted video will do to the chances of candidate John Edwards fussing with his mop. Or this compilation at therealmccaincom, purporting to show John McCain as a serial fabricator.

Which brings to mind Joe Biden.

Delaware senator Joseph Biden entered the 2008 presidential marathon last week with the pointiest elbows in recent memory, lambasting fellow Democratic candidates, making arguably racist comments (dubbing Illinois senator Barack Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean”), and setting loose a storm of counter-criticism. Soon, supporting videos were dusted off and trotted out of the vault showing vintage Biden in all manner of bloviation.

As it so happens, Biden -- even beyond the racial-profiling remark -- comes with plenty of baggage from his most memorable foray into the presidential fray, in 1988. Back then, he dropped out of the race after conceding he’d lifted portions of his campaign speech from that of Britian’s labor-party leader, Neil Kinnock. Around the same time, he also underwent two rounds of brain surgery.

Putting aside Biden’s recent comments, it is interesting to note that in years past a plagarism charge or a previously grave medical condition might have been enough to upend a politician’s presidential aspirations. But no longer. Such shopworn facts are hardly impediments to a candidate like Biden; they amount, instead, to political trivia, mere froth in the Google deluge.

Indeed, Biden joins a crowded field that already includes one candidate who has admitted trying cocaine (Senator Barack Obama), another tainted though cleared in a real-estate scandal (Senator Hillary Clinton), a third (Senator John McCain), who is a cancer survivor and whose formative experience came from years of internment in a Vietnamese prison camp, along with potential contenders Rudy Giuliani (a cancer survivor who had an affair while serving as the mayor of New York City) and Newt Gingrich (a man with his own history of infidelity, who resigned as House Speaker after losing his grip on the Republican party).

This is not your father’s — or stepmothers or surrogate’s — presidency. The last two commanders in chief were elected despite their having been, respectively, a reformed drinker and an alleged womanizer. Gone are the days when FDR’s and JFK’s physical ailments were shielded from public view with the stoic complicity of the White House press corps. (Imagine if Kennedy’s dalliances had occurred during the age of the cell-phone camera. Or if Nixon had hatched his political plots in the era of 24/7 spin. The Watergate tapes might have made it into the electronic ether via leakers, not subpoenas—the damning sound bytes ours for the clicking, on iTunes.)

If there’s any upside to a culture of perpetual revelation, remorse, and confession—played out in real-time video snippets—it is the fact that our would-be leaders are viewed as true representatives of the American people, replete with all-too-human flaws. Our potential presidents are not mythic, outsize characters or screen stars beyond our ken (though we did elect one of those, way back in 1980), but men and women who must go through the same crucible of mishaps, tragedy, and raw life experience that every member of our species must endure. One person, one vote means we vote with our eyes wide open, and our consciences clear, for people full of foibles, people of resilience, composure, moral judgment, and, hopefully, something resembling stature—an attribute Biden surely seemed to lack last week.

And we can thank YouTube and Oprah and, well, democracy, for that.