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

March 2007 Archives

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March 27, 2007


Yesterday, Time Inc. announced that it was suspending publication of the weekly Life magazine. Like some charmed and perpetually resuscitated being in a mystical Eastern rebirth cycle, the publication seems destined to occupy a limbo of near-death experiences and "eventual resurrection" rumors.


For some time now, media observers have been keeping a death watch over the latest incarnation of Life magazine, a pamphlet-sized shadow of its former self that for the last three years had been distributed as a color supplement in newspapers. The original Life, the pioneering American picture magazine, was founded as a weekly in 1936, and was considered one of the great triumphs in publishing history (reaching some 8 million readers in its heyday). It introduced photo essays to the culture; nurtured the careers of dozens of giants of photojournalism; took pre-war readers to the ends of the earth; covered revolution and the Spanish Civil War, World War II and Korea; chronicled the rise of Communist China and the Cold War, the atomic bomb and the space program; served as the platform upon which publisher Henry Luce formulated his notion of "The American Century"; gave the world its first glimpse of everything from President Kennedy's assassination to the miracle of birth, from tips on "How To Undress in Front of Your Husband" to the refurbished behemoths of Abu Simbel; explored the heartland with relish and Hollywood with wide-eyed affection; contributed to helping mobilize U.S. sentiment against the Vietnam War (through its seminal story "One Week's Dead"); and changed the face of journalism. It suspended publication in 1972--done in by the high cost of printing and postage, staggering overhead, and the migration of advertising to television.

Upon its relaunch in 1978, as a monthly, Life continued as a vehicle for quality photography--and for the lost art of picture story-telling. (I was one of the two youngest reporters on the staff of the start-up, continuing as news editor, directory of photography and new media, and assistant managing editor, over the course of 19 years.) Three years ago, after the magazine folded yet again, Life was recast and retooled, only to be rolled out as a feeble weekly, intended to be doled out by newspapers. Cover stories featured pick-up trucks and animals and the wonders of coffee (the better to appeal to the advertisers, presumably); stories inside were bite-size and wedged between food columns and puzzles. On April 20, this will all come to an end. And, moving forward, the rights to some 12 million images from the famous Life Photo Archive will be siphoned off to the folks at Google, presumably for viewers to have compelling imagery on their screens to gussy up Google's currently vanilla-white pages.

When a living, breathing Mark Twain heard that his obituary had appeared, prematurely, in a London paper, he famously wired a message to the publisher: "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

When I heard the news yesterday that Life had finally died, I wondered, wistfully, "Really? How could anyone tell?"

March 24, 2007


This weekend a compelling documentary premieres in select theaters across the country. The Prisoner: Or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair examines the treatment of a single innocent detainee at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison. His story, intertwined with the tale of a compassionate American guard who befriended him, is a persuasive cinematic indictment of how the U.S. has conducted the war in Iraq.


The filmmaker, Michael Tucker, first e-mailed me after he finished his Iraq War documentary, Gunner Palace, in 2005. We kept in touch, and I was fortunate enough to be able to edit his account of the "back-story" of his new movie, which appears as a riveting and inspirational article on VanityFair.com, called "My Prisoner, My Brother." The film itself has generated wonderful notices, including Richard Schickel's sharp-eyed review on Time.com, which was posted yesterday. Schickel asks, in part:

"Can a film symbolically contain all the elements of a vast, complicated and enigmatic tragedy within the microcosmic story of a single individual accidentally caught up in the ghastly mess of — for convenient example — the Iraq war? Short answer: No, not normally. Longer answer: A modestly mounted, but curiously poignant little documentary called The Prisoner Or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair ...somehow — quietly, devastatingly — shows and tells you more than you may perhaps want to know about the dehumanization implicit in the mighty, blighted Iraqi adventure."

I'm eager to see three other new threads to the cultural conversation, all of which relate to themes raised in Watching the World Change:

1. The exhibition "The Event: Images as Actors in History" at the Jeu de Paume, in Paris (on view this spring), assesses the role of documentary and happenstance photographs in our understanding of pivotal events, including the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. (CLICK HERE for a link to a slideshow of images from the exhibition.)

2. "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," by Lawrence Wright, is a well-received one-man show, now being performed in New York City, based on Wright's brilliantly reported book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

3. The new feature film, Reign Over Me, which opened yesterday, stars Adam Sandler as a widower who lost his wife on 9/11. I look forward to seeing it despite the cynicism in Caryn James's description in today's Times: "[Sandler's] character seems artifical from the start, a man who responds to the loss of his wife and three daughters in the terrorist attack by shutting out the world and zooming around New York on a small motorized scooter while playing '80s music on enormous headphones. There's not much any actor can do with that, or with the self-importance of a script that sees mourning and strained zaniness as a good match."


...Speaking of films, if you're interested in watching two short anti-war "public service spots," check out the links below. I made these faux commercials for VanityFair.com with my lifelong filmmaking partner, Marc Kravitz:

We're Winning This Thing

Come to Iraq

...And while you're in the clicking mode, pop over to the online magazine ALMANAC (March Issue), a crisp way of presenting photojournalism to an Internet audience.

...And for the serious student of photography I highly recommend Phaidon's inventive, invaluable primer, The Nature of Photographs., by Stephen Shore, a pioneer of color photography and the visual bard of Bard College. (In truth, Shore and Luc Sante are Bard's photographic tag-team. The current issue of Aperture runs a transcript of a lively conversation between the two, pegged to the release of the new book.)


March 18, 2007


As I travel the country, I am stunned by the number of people I meet at appearances and book-signings who tell me that they still believe that the September 11 attacks were, as they call it, “an inside job.”

This shouldn’t shock me, I guess. So-called 9/11 conspiracy theories have actually gained traction in the five years since the attacks. According to a study conducted by the relatively reputable Scripps News Service, roughly a third of all Americans polled responded that they believe “it is ‘very likely’ or ‘somewhat likely’ that federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or took no action to stop them ‘because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East.’"

In just one example, I am having an e-mail exchange with someone who continues to send me “evidence” that the U.S. government helped orchestrate the attacks. He wishes to remain anonymous; he attended the same college as I did, and he wrote to me after reading about my book.

Here is some of our back-and-forth correspondence, in which he has wondered whether or not I am an independent journalist or, in fact, part of the very conspiracy itself….

March 5 (Writer Who Requests Anonymity):
“Three steel frame buildings fell in NYC at close to the speed of gravity. In all of history, this has only happened with controlled demolition, because that's the only way it CAN happen. Apparently WTC7 fell 20 minutes after the BBC announced that it had fallen - apparently a glitch in the execution of the media script. The official 9-11 report didn't even mention WTC building 7. And there are many other pieces of evidence that can only be reasonably explained by means other than the official story. I invite you to look through the metaphorical telescope to see the metaphorical rings around Saturn and moons around Jupiter. I know it's hard to see past the implanted cover stories. It took me a couple of years before I finally got it.”

March 6 (Writer Who Requests Anonymity):
“Hey, you gotta check out this article, and watch the 13 minute video.
Is the BBC pre-announcing the fall of WTC bldg 7 on 9/11, and now lamely trying to explain it, a smoking gun? Is the official story a house of cards? Fascinating!”

“I've already seen this clip, yes. In my opinion the people spending time concentrating on side-shows -- the fate of Building 7 (7 WTC, which collapsed after 5 pm on September 11); the size of the Pentagon plane’s impact hole and would-be phantom passengers of that plane; the theories of secret demo teams pre-rigging the towers with dynamite in the days before 9/11; and various mis-statements or misperceptions or unsubstantiated accounts by eyewitnesses, journalists and public officials in the hectic hours after the attacks -- are missing what I see as the four main themes of the Bigger Picture.

“1. Al Qaeda took the towers down. They attacked the towers once before, in 1993, and had vowed to do it again. They pre-videotaped the hijackers who intended to do this. They left a paper and video path across the northeast corridor as they planned the mission. They trumpeted it and heralded the martyrs on their Websites. Metallurgists, architects, structural engineers, demolition experts, and an impressive study by a team from Popular Mechanics have stated that this is precisely what buildings would do -- implode -- if hit with such force and with this amount of fuel. If one were to have rigged such structures with dynamite, as has been theorized, then the buildings, as all dynamited buildings, would have been rigged to fall from the bottom first, not from the top. And it would have taken days to do the rigging, with many, many witnesses crying foul in the aftermath of having survived the 1993 attacks. What's more, there is nothing to support the theory that no buildings like this have ever fallen. First, no one has ever smashed jumbo jets into 110-story buildings; so there are no literal precedents upon which so-called experts can make such statements. Second, previously ‘impervious’ buildings actually do fall in wartime. We have only to look at images from WWII. The Titanic, remember, was thought to be indestructible. But its builders had not bargained for an iceberg of that size or an impact of that force.

“2. The Bush administration was too inept to have somehow been in league with or complicit with the terrorists. They were intellectually and systemically incapable of coordinating this -- and keeping it leak-free. Instead, as we've known for ages, the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing in an intelligence bureaucracy rife with turf wars and in an administration weakened by the stress fractures of internal power struggles. The Pentagon did not bomb the Pentagon.

“3. Many misguided and unconscionably distracted officials (such as Condoleezza Rice, who repeatedly ignored or mis-prioritized the warnings of her counterterror chief, Richard Clarke) downplayed or misread a threat that was staring them in the face. And because of the weak-kneed 9/11 Commission recommendations, put out by a Republican-controlled Congress and watered down in the spirit of bi-partisanship, no one on the Bush team has ever been reprimanded for his or her roles in these truly tragic lapses. In fact, most of them have been promoted or given presidential medals of honor! This has been a consistent behavior pattern of this so-called C.E.O. president.

“4. Often, people who spend a good portion of their days or nights theorizing on the Internet have too much idle time on their hands. They can sometimes fall into the trap of pondering murky videoclips and digital photographs, coming up with grand theories to explain away complex physical events, even if they're basing their theories on technical flaws or on glitches in the images themselves. They are dancing on the head of pins. This sort of 'stove-pipe' intelligence and this accumulation of 'soda-straw' snapshots of misperceived data, events and motives constitute precisely the same sort of juiced-up bogus-case justification that led us into war in Iraq. In this instance, we are doing it on our laptops and desktops."

March 9 (Writer Who Requests Anonymity):
“I am so grateful that you have taken this much time to write to me in response to my emails. You obviously have thought about these things a lot, and have worked out a viewpoint that explains everything you know, and that makes sense to you. My task, I guess, will be to find one little chink in your story that will not hold, and convince you of it. And of course (shudder) there's also the possibility that you are an insider who knows the truth and is deliberately helping to cover it up. Man, I really hope not!"

The e-mails continue. Yes, I believe that our democracy requires such dialogue, perceptive questioning, government accountability and a free press. But this sort of armchair theorizing about a widespread Bush-sanctioned conspiracy, and about narrow points of metallurgy, divert attention from the fact that (a) no one in the Bush administration has ever been held accountable for intelligence failures, and (b) al-Qaeda did this (and many of its leaders still remain in place because of our diversion of resources and attention to the ill-fated war in Iraq).

September 11 was a national tragedy. Much of the theoretical hyperventilating is a national farce.


That said, one of the few worthwhile 9/11-conspiracy-related stories I've read concerns the arrest of a handful of Israeli intelligence agents, whom eyewitnesses saw watching, videotaping and celebrating the attacks from a promenade in New Jersey on the morning of September 11. (The men were taken into custody, held for several months, then deported to Israel after diplomatic intervention.) The facts behind this under-reported story are clearly and exhaustively synthesized by reporter Christopher Ketcham in this month's issue of CounterPunch. What were these men doing on September 11? How much did they know in advance? Did they arrive after the first plane's assault--or before? Where is their videotape--which could prove to be a conspiratorial "smoking gun" were it ever to see the light of day? What did interrogators learn after months of questioning in FBI custody? If these men did have credible forewarning of the attacks, why didn't they inform U.S. officials more forcefully prior to the attacks? And why have we held an Israeli spy like Jonathan Pollard for years (after he performed acts of espionage on our soil), only to let men like these slip from our grasp in a matter of weeks?


"I too have been flooded with e-mails from the 9/11 [conspiracy theorists], who claim in PROFOUND ALL-CAPS that I, Christopher Ketcham, journalist who lives on $4 a day and works in his underwear, am actually part of the government's cover-up of 9/11, a CIA disinformant executing what's known in conspiracy circles as a 'limited hang-out' -- throwing just enough info out about Israeli activities prior to 9/11, but slanting readers away from the REAL story, which is that the Israelis executed the attacks using programmed Ay-rabs or were vetting the hijackers (providing cover) or were aiding them (providing support) or in fact were the REAL hijackers etc. Worse, the fact that in the piece I accept as gospel the 'discredited notion' -- per the conspiracists -- that 19 Muslim men actually hijacked four planes on Sept. 11 and that Dick Cheney was NOT piloting the death-Boeings with a joy-stick from a remote location....well, it all points to the truth that this Ketcham is twisted and dangerous, expert in the arts of the limited hang-out and in the subterfuge of the freelancer as spy as guy working in underwear BUT PRETENDING OTHERWISE at this very moment."

CLICK HERE for a synopsis of Ketcham's piece.
CLICK HERE for a link to his story.

March 17, 2007


Photojournalist Bill Biggart was one of two working photographers who perished while covering the events of September 11, 2001. (The other was police photographer and videographer Glen Pettit.) Bill's experiences that day, and that of his widow, Wendy Doremus, are explored at length in Watching the World Change. The 304 images he made on 9/11 constitute a visual chronicle of that morning. According to eyewitnesses -- and as evidenced on his recovered images (150 frames taken on traditional film, 154 with digital equipment) -- he survived the collapse of the south tower, while standing perilously close to its perimeter. The time code on his camera shows that his last shot was exposed just at the moment the north tower collapsed, taking his life in the process.


Bill's widow, Wendy Doremus, informs me that a Web site featuring Bill's life and work has been activated this week. I urge visitors to check it out, and to honor Bill's memory by spending time with the photographs he left us.

March 11, 2007


It's hard to believe how much time has passed.

Five years ago this weekend, on March 10, 2002, CBS aired the documentary 9/11, hosted by Robert DeNiro. The two-hour prime-time special, chronicling one summer in the life of the Duane Street firehouse--whose firefighters were the first to arrive on the scene in response to the initial attack of September 11--was a national event. Forty million people watched the broadcast, which ran without commercial interruption. (Nextel supported the program with three public-service spots.) Sixth months later, on the first anniversary of the tragedy, 9/11 would air in 140 countries.


My friends Jules and Gedeon Naudet, French-American filmmakers residing in New York, were courageous and alert enough to continue videotaping throughout that day, that week, and into the fall. They gathered some 180 hours of footage, capturing, most critically, the impact of the first and second aircraft, along with the collapse of both towers--directly on top of them. Gedeon withstood the implosion of Tower One, the second building to fall, by jumping into the hold of a firetruck; Jules survived the collapse of the south tower by seeking refuge on a concourse escalator, then the collapse of the north tower by laying on the pavement under a police van.

It is startling to note that on a day many call the most photographed in human history--viewed on television and across the Internet by an estimated two billion people, and recorded by thousands of eyewitnesses with cameras--the Naudets' documentary was the true "Zapruder film" of the attacks, the only video footage to chronicle the event from beginning to end.

It is gratifying and humbling to have been a part of the process: Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, firefighter-actor-filmmaker James Hanlon, CBS producer Susan Zirinsky, the Naudets, and myself served as executive producers of the program, which earned Emmy, Peabody, and Christopher Awards for "best documentary." (Key participants in the project included Leslie Moonves of CBS, Jim Wyatt of William Morris, and Ben Silverman and Mark Koops of Reveille.)

When the broadcast first aired, The Boston Herald would decreee: "It could be the greatest, most intense TV movie ever made." According to Caryn Janes, in The New York Times, the documentary is "an important, firsthand piece of history. [The first plane's] crash occurs so suddenly, is caught so crisply on screen, and unlike shots of the second crash is so rarely seen that it seems to be happening for the first time. 9/11 allows us to claim this moment directly, even as the events of that day are increasingly filtered by hype and blather...

"The film is timely because it reveals how quickly even the most horrifying images of Sept. 11 have been absorbed, have come to seem ordinary.... Jules Naudet [has] said he thought that continuing to film that day was a way of distancing himself from the horrible reality around him, reducing it...to 'that little L.E.D. screen' on his camera. For us, the small screen offers the opposite: a way of moving into those terrible moments that we all lived through in vastly different ways. The film offers a way of reclaiming that experience even as it recedes into history."

[For those interested in reading the exclusive story of the making of 9/11, please refer to pages 182 through 195 of Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11. That section of the book is expanded from an article that originally appeared in the March 2002 issue of Vanity Fair. (The documentary helped raise some $2 million for the Uniformed Firefighters Association Scholarship Fund. A portion of the proceeds of Watching the World Change goes to the UFASF and to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.)]

Looking back now, it seems truly tragic, and unconscionable, that the U.S. government has strayed from its promise and mandate to respond to the threat from al-Qaeda, squandering the world's empathy by embarking on an ill-conceived war in Iraq, one that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since it began--four years ago this month.

March 7, 2007


From Bob Kaufman, of Anchorage, Alaska...

"The article [on Watching the World Change] in the [new issue of Amherst] magazine was great. I was fortunate to gather what I am told are some of the more interesting pictures taken down at Ground Zero. Here's a link to my blog post with the story of how I came to gather the photos, a Powerpoint show with the photos, and e-mails I received from around the world as my Powerpoint spread.

"....A single email I sent a few days after the attack revealed America to me in a way I’d never known. The replies opened my eyes to the depth of American compassion and how much all Americans have in common."



March 6, 2007


My French friends have been e-mailing the following link to what is purported to be a newly released videoclip of the second plane, United Flight #175, impacting with Tower Two, the south tower of the World Trade Center, on September 11, 2001. Taken from below the towers, looking up at the attack, the tape is especially chilling because of the cameraman's (and therefore viewer's) proximity, and, unlike other such sequences, this one shows the reflection of the fireball on the side of the adjacent building.


WARNING: Like other footage of this type (my book lists 3 videographers who caught the first plane's approach and collision, and 35 photographers and videographers who recorded the second), the clip is very difficult to watch and process. To view the video, CLICK HERE.

March 5, 2007


Amherst (the alumni magazine for Amherst College -- I'm class of '77) was kind enough to feature Watching the World Change as its cover story this month. In keeping with the spirit of this Web site, readers were requested to submit their own unpublished 9/11-related photographs, via e-mail. This image came from Jed Miller (Class of '88) who, according to Amherst College Online, was at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y., on the morning of September 11 when he heard a loud boom.

Before long Miller saw a plume of dark smoke in the sky behind the brownstones across his street. "My camera happened to have a new roll of film," he writes on his Web site, “so I put on a hat and went up the hill to the Promenade, which sits on the East River below the Brooklyn Bridge and overlooks downtown. It was packed with people.”



From the Promenade, Miller photographed the World Trade towers burning in the distance, the south tower as it fell and the crowd that watched in shock. To see his photos and to read his account of the day, CLICK HERE.