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

August 2007 Archives

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August 30, 2007


MINNEAPOLIS ALERT. Let me get this straight. We’ve had planes hijacked by suicide bombers, plotters planning to take shoe bombs and liquids onto passenger jets, and an airport screening system so overtaxed that law enforcement teams and journalists routinely sneak suspect items past security. So why are we putting the airport cops in the bathroom stalls?!!!

HIGH STAKES IN RENO. In a speech in Reno, Nevada, President Bush asserted that “Iran’s active pursuit of technology that could lead to nuclear weapons threatens to put a region already known for instability and violence under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust.” Sorry, but do we now celebrate Groundhog Day in the dog days of summer? This is precisely the language Bush, Rice, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and company used in the summer of 2002 to trump up their case for war in Iraq. Only, back then, the terms were “holocaust” and “mushroom cloud” and “nucular.”

Next up, we’ll hear arms experts say that a pre-emptive first strike against Iran by the U.S. or Israel would be “prudent,” and “limited,” and a virtual “cakewalk” militarily.

For a chilling assessment of the real risks involved, I suggest reading The Atlantic Monthly’s classic 2004 piece, “Will Iran Be Next?,” in which James Fallows persuades commanders, spooks, and diplomats to go through some chilling Iranian “war games” scenarios.

ALAS, POOR FREDO. Aha…The traditional “Farewell Lunch,” at an undisclosed Texas eatery, at which Dubya “Big Tony” gave Attorney General “Dunno” Gonzo his final Soprano-style send-off. (Alberto Gonzales's food taster is shown at right.)



LOWRY’S GONE GONZO? Yesterday, columnist Rich Lowry opines in The New York Post (under the headline, “Gonzo Goes—‘Mob’ Wins”):

“Alberto Gonzales’s tenure as attorney general, and now his departure, represent a triumph for what Karl Rove calls ‘the mob’—the howling mass of Democratic members of Congress, bloggers and media commentators who despise all things Bush….The Gonzales case is sad all around: for what happened to the reputation of a decent man over-matched by his responsibilities; for the distraction at a crucial department of government; and for the blood-lust that masquerades as political opposition in Washington. But it’s never very edifying when the mob wins.”

Huh? Spool the reel back a few years and replace the name Karl Rove with Hillary Clinton, the words “Democratic” with “Republican,” and “all things Bush” with “all things Clinton” and, voila, you get the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” As Justin T says: What goes around comes around.

AUGUST MAYDAY. The FDNY got wise this week and relieved three officials of their command in the wake of the Deutsche Bank disaster, which claimed the lives of two firefighters. But there must be a probe that goes deeper and answers the larger questions about the systemic problems within the higher echelons of the department. Where are the real “smoking guns” behind this debacle?

ABU GHRAIB HANDSLAP. Consider this from yesterday’s New York Times, after the acquittal Lt. Col. Steven L. Jordan, the lone official to face court martial proceedings in the Abu Ghraib torture scandal:

“Colonel Jordan’s acquittal on most charges means that no officers have been found criminally responsible for the abuses at the prison. Col. Thomas M. Pappas, a military intelligence officer who ran Abu Ghraib, was punished administratively by senior Army commanders for improperly allowing military dogs to be used during interrogations to frighten detainees. Janis Karpinski, a brigadier general who was the military police commander at Abu Ghraib, was reprimanded and demoted.”

Perhaps this is becoming a new American tradition. Punish the henchmen and let the leaders off, scot-free.

For a thorough examination of the Abu Ghraib scandal, please pick up Tara McElvey’s blistering new book, Monstering: Inside America's Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War. (She’ll be doing a reading at the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan on Thursday, September 6, 7:00 PM, 828 Broadway New York, NY 10003).


August 29, 2007


From Dieter Steiner, formerly an editor at Germany’s Stern magazine, now residing in St. Augustine, Florida…

"’Watching the World Change’ is a superb website, or do I have to call it a blog? Visually well done, lots of information, it reads well, like a diary. I am getting hooked.”

From photographer Wang Yao, of Beijing, vice president of the China News Service…

“Your book gives a very sensitive and deep insight to the effect of 9.11 on humanity.”

From a reader, J. B. Williamson…

“This first paragraph from a Las Vegas sports writer’s column [Joe Hawk/Las Vegas Review-Journal, August 22, 2007] breaks my heart.”

‘I have a confession to make, one that I am embarrassed to share: On Sept. 11, 2001, one of the most horrific days in U.S. history, when terrorists turned our pompous belief in national security upside down with hijacked air attacks that killed almost 3,000 Americans, I did not shed a tear. Not one...’

I must agree with Williamson about the sentiments, however genuine, expressed at the top of Hawk’s column.


Frank Ward, for nearly three decades the official Amherst College photographer (and currently an assistant professor at Holyoke Community College) took the author’s photo for the paperback of Watching the World Change. (The book ships to stores this week!)

Frank, it so happens, is one of three Pioneer Valley photographers whose work will appear in the group exhibition “Conflicts” at the Hosmer Gallery in the Forbes Library, 123 West St., in Northampton, Massachusetts.

CLICK HERE to view the introduction to the show, written at Frank’s request. The exhibition runs from September 4 to 29th, with a reception on Saturday, September 8 from 2-4 PM.

CLICK HERE to view the altogether "forgiving" author's photo, to which I am forever grateful.


Triptych by Frank Ward
(Prishtina, Kosovo, 1996-2007)

August 21, 2007


Navel-gazing has long been the province of mystics, experimental novelists, adolescents, patients in Freudian analysis, and bloggers. Recently, though, the belly button has been synched directly to the shutter release. Digital cameras and personal networking Websites, such as MySpace and Facebook, have created a generation of teens (my daughter among them) who continually photograph themselves by holding out their lenses at arm’s length, shooting inward, then uploading the resulting snaps onto their personal Web pages, for the entire Net to have a gander. Posing, posturing, posting; posing, posturing, posting.

Now comes a gadget that make it infinitely simpler to shoot oneself silly. (Thanks to Adam Seifer, of Fotolog.net, for drawing my attention to this ultimate in “autofocus” devices.)


Forget the tripod. Call it the MyPod.


Two years after Hurricane Katrina, I’m reminded of the caches of water-damaged snapshots that surfaced after the flood, from disparate neighborhoods across New Orleans to ravaged regions along the Gulf Coast. Recently, I’ve learned that homeowners in storm season have been encouraged not only to have their trunks and safes prepared for possible evacuation, but also to have backed up their most treasured photographs, digitally, the better to quickly gather their flash drives – in a tiny water-tight container -- if and when they have to flee in a time of crisis.


Earlier this month, I appeared on a panel in Washington, D.C., at the annual Association of Educators of Journalism and Mass Communication. The topic: Witnessing Atrocity. [CLICK HERE to read coverage of our panel, chaired by Meg Spratt, of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and including the University of Maryland’s Diana Huffman and New York Daily News photographer David Handschuh, also an educator at NYU, whose travails on September 11 I describe in Watching the World Change (pages 16-17 and 353-54).]

Among the highlights:

--Handschuh’s revelation that even though firefighters, police officers, rescue workers, medical-response teams, and many others are receiving compensation for serious health issues that have beset them since 9/11, one group of “first responders” has been denied coverage: journalists who covered the events for weeks on end. Handschuh is attempting to raise awareness of this glaring omission. If any journalist wants to contact him directly, and anonymously, please send me information at dfriend@vf.com and I will pass it along.

--Huffman’s remarks that “the press is the only profession that’s mentioned by name in the Constitution” (a fact that I’d never considered) and her aversion to the notion of “the breakfast-table test” -- her reluctance to accept what many people in the newspaper business contend is the litmus for gauging if an image is too “graphic” for print publication: Would an editor want to run a news photograph if it risked upsetting a family sitting around the breakfast reading the morning paper? My view is that we are running too few of these “graphic photos” in our publications, especially when it comes to imagery related to the war in Iraq. A world view governed by overprotectiveness and sanitized stage sets breed complacency, apathy, and ignorance.

August 17, 2007


Lately, in every newspaper I browse and on every visit to YouTube, I see reminders of our pitifully screened-in lives. In the headlines over the last few days: a plan to put TV monitors on New Jersey PATH trains (to beam news flashes and train schedules to commuters); a rash of new voyeuristic TV shows based on the online gossip sites and video blogs; failed attempts to find six doomed Utah miners by dropping a camera through a bore hole; a new study in the Journal of Pediatrics that for every hour a baby watches videos, he decreases his vocabulary by six to eight words; a proposal, in the aftermath of some recent runway near-misses, to require pilots to spend more time in cockpit simulators, practicing runway maneuvers; an initiative by Chinese authorities (purportedly for fighting crime, but with nefarious political and privacy implications) to scan the faces of all 12.4 million citizens of Shenzhen and encode them onto memory-chip-bearing I.D. cards that would also contain information about their criminal and credit histories, ethnicity and religious background, and, as the Times reports, “even personal reproductive history…for enforcement of China’s controversial ‘one child’ policy.”

This week, the significance of these news items took on added resonance for me after attending a sneak-preview for a new film that is set to open in theaters in December. Called Look (in the coming days, visit look-themovie.com, not yet an active Web site), the film, directed by Adam Rifkin, was produced by Barry Schuler, a lively, articulate, and visionary man, who, during his time as C.E.O. of AOL, was both fascinated and disturbed by the extent to which our public and private activities – on urban street-corners and in quiet neighborhoods, from the mall parking lot to the corridors and crannies of our workplaces -- are documented by surveillance cameras, then forever and unfungibly stored. “You create a clickstream every day,” says Schuler. “It exists forever. And it can be datamined.”



On Tuesday Schuler hosted an advance screening for Look. It is a film of overlapping L.A. narratives, locales, and characters (think Crash or Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A.), which purports to have been shot entirely from the perspectives that would have been afforded by wide-angle, extremely high-def digital surveillance cameras, had those cameras been rolling as the interlocking storylines unwound.

Conceptually, this is an intriguing premise, promising thesis, and imaginative format. And Schuler’s heart, pocketbook, and mindset are in the right place: he claims that part of the reason for creating the film (which he co-produced with Donald Kushner) has been to retool how movies are made, dispensing with the traditional studio structure. “The industry was founded by carnival owners,” he says, “who used the early technologies of moving pictures as a method of getting butts in seats. Zoetropes were big attractions at carnivals even before images were projected using Thomas Edison’s device.” He’s right, of course. The carny ethic is still very much in evidence in Hollywood. It is very, very difficult to turn a buck in the movie business. For a century, wide-eyed rubes -- called investors -- have flocked westward only to have new generations of studio executives assist them in parting with their money. Instead, Schuler says, he’s trying to toy with unconventional ways to shoot, market, distribute, and release films.

For all its promise and fresh patina, however, Look is upended by the same strained “faux reality” and the ultimately labored and unsatisfying execution that harmed the Mike Figgis cult classic Time Code, the appealing Rashomon-wannabe from 2000, which used four cameras, each shooting a single drawn-out take, simultaneously, in real time, from four perspectives.





Look certainly has spirit and energy and an almost puerile exuberance that, in many ways, has viewers pulling for the picture from the opening credits. It has a raw, driving score: the throbbing fuzz-metal ditty “Electrocuted” is destined for some major downloading. It has several winning and memorable characters: the Convenience Store cashier, the department store lothario. But its raison d’etre – the exploration of how The Ubiquitous Camera truly impacts our lives – is merely a stage set. The film never goes deep enough and rarely transcends the obvious, often feeling as static and one-dimensional as its battery of stationary cameras. While Look is occasionally charming, it is marred by missed opportunities, unalloyed stereotypes (women are almost universally depicted as objects, vixens, or victims), and what seem like rather arbitrary plot-thread resolutions.

That said, Look raises important questions at a perfect juncture in the culture: What safeguards do we have against perpetual visual intrusion upon our public and private actions? How do we maintain our privacy in a post-9/11 age when public security seems sacrosanct? Have we already become immune to (and apathetic toward) the prying eye of the surveillance camera? What recourse do we have when our financial data, medical histories, and online viewing and purchasing patterns fall into the hands of government, law enforcement agencies, and big business?

Since seeing the film, I’ve been haunted by one recurrent scene: the lone car in the mall parking lot, videotaped day and night by a lone security camera looking down from on high. The message implicit in the image: Despite this round-the-clock vigilance, the ever present camera has failed at its chief task – to alert authorities that a woman is hopelessly trapped in the trunk.

August 11, 2007


This week journalism and communications professors gather in Washington, D.C., for the annual Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference. I’m on a panel tomorrow called “Witnessing Atrocity: Legal and Ethical Aspects of Documenting Tragedy Through Visual Images.”

I’ve brought along a copy of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others as a way to flex the skull.* Some gems, as I re-visit the work:


-- “Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half’s worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists. Wars are now also living room sights and sounds…”

-- “Nonstop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image. In an era of information overload, the photograph provides a quick way of apprehending something and a compact form of memorizing it….”

-- “[T]he old advertising slogan of Paris Match, founded in 1949…: ‘The weight of words, the shock of photos.’ The hunt for more dramatic (as they’re often described) images drives the photographic enterprise, and is part of the normality of a culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value….How else to get attention for one’s product or one’s art? How else to make a dent when there is incessant exposure to images, and overexposure to a handful of images seen again and again?”

Yes, SHOCK has become one of the great objects of our Internet Trawls, thinking ourselves The Great Unshockables, with nothing but time and brain cells to kill. Our media comes so canned, we want the candid. Our lives are so insular, we want to ferret out the outrageous, the lewd, the violent, to blow open the door to see others living beyond the pale. And we want it all vicariously, voyeuristically, from a distance, without negative consequence. We don’t want to trouble ourselves with getting up from our keypads and actually walking on the wild side. We’d rather sidle up with our idle eyes. We want to be safe in our strapping American tanks as we tool around Baghdad, watching images of insurgents on our laptops. We love our remotes. And we want it all remotely.

THE CONFERENCE. At a panel on Citizen Journalism today, I was impressed with Lisa Williams, founder of Placeblogger.com and creator of a pretty amazing “place-blog” for the town of Watertown, Mass, called h2oTown.com. One sentiment she expressed, which I found endearing and enlightening, boiled down to this gist: Our lives are utterly transparent on the Web. We’ll get burned, but then we’ll get used to it, and it will make us stronger and better journalists or bloggers or communicators or...people. “Some day, we will elect a president,” Williams remarked, “who [wrote or did] something really dumb on MySpace when he was 16.”

Longtime television correspondent Marvin Kalb moderated a lively panel on the ethics of war reporting and I was surprised to learn that both Amit Paley (who has reported from Baghdad for The Washington Post) and Abderrahim Foukara, the Washington bureau chief of al-Jazeera TV, had both been accused of being mouthpieces for both the right and the left. Foukara claimed that certain audiences in the Arab world, upon seeing an occasional story with too much of a pro-American slant, accuse the network of being handmaidens of the C.I.A.

And I thought America had cornered the market on skeptics and conspiracy theorists!

* See pages 129-132 of Watching the World Change for a description of my discussion with Sontag about "graphic images" of September 11, which we had as she was in the early stages of writing her book.

August 7, 2007


AL-ZARQAWI’S POSSE...AT SARDI’S? Yesterday Agence France Presse reported that the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, now in full swing in Scotland, is featuring a tasteless production called “Jihad: The Musical,” which promoters have billed as a “madcap gallop through the wacky world of international terrorism.”

Next up? The musical-comedy, “Maim!”?


STOP! DON’T SHOOT! Last week the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcast came to its senses. After a concerted campaign by the ACLU and an effective Web-fueled protest initiative that mobilized bloggers, amateur photographers, and people in the news business and the tourist trade, the mayor’s minions rescinded a proposal that would have required that citizens taking snapshots or video footage in New York City first obtain a permit for shooting pictures in one spot for longer than 30 minutes. They would have also had to render proof that they had acquired $1 million in insurance. The same rules would have applied to a film crew (or group of tourists) of five or more if they used a tripod for more than 10 minutes.

A similarly wrong-headed law (rescinded in 2005 and described in Watching the World Change, page 121-122) would have made “unauthorized” photography illegal on all New York subways. The edict was scrubbed after it was determined to be unenforceable.

…AND CHECK OUT... Virginia Heffernan’s new “Screens” blog. As she does in her recent Times columns, occasionally quoted in this space, Heffernan continues her prescient and always relevant examination of the intersection of television and the Internet, mass media and grass(roots) media, political spin and advertising, and all manner of amateur/citizen/user/under-the-radar-generated multi-media.

ALSO: Peter Howe’s digital tribute to a longtime den mother to many in the photo community, Jeanette Chapnick, who passed away earlier this month.

ALSO: Photographer James Balog’s groundbreaking survey of how climate change is affecting the rapid regression of glaciers around the world. (Quite literally groundbreaking, alas!)

AND...Having finished Cullen Murphy’s illuminating and refreshingly accessible Are We Rome?, which assesses our two-century-old democratic experiment in contrast with the slow descent of the Roman Empire, I’m now onto a loopy, summer cartoon of a novel, Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris, a manic-depressive hybrid of The Office and Dilbert.

ENDQUOTE... And this, from writer Nancy Jo Sales in the current issue of Vanity Fair:

"They have rehab for everything else, maybe one day they'll have rehab for the addiction to fame. It'll be called Anonymous Anonymous."


August 2, 2007


On August 21, the paperback version of Watching the World Change, from Picador USA, will be available online and at discerning bookstores everywhere.



For those who have resisted purchasing the hardcover because of the pricetag, now is your opportunity to obtain a light, portable copy, with a sleek new cover, designed by Henry Sene Yee, which has a bold, noir, mid-50s feel, reminiscent of film posters by Saul Bass. The graphic echo of the twin towers is evident on the spine, the title page, and even in the juxtaposition of the title and subtitle on the cover.

The jacket includes a blurb from a review that I had previously overlooked, from the New Orleans Times Picayune: "An elegant and moving examination of the photographic legacy of that day in history. . . . Brings meaning to a terrible time."

In the "More Praise" section are other snippets that I'd never mentioned herein:

"Turns a familiar story around and helps us understand why we saw event as we did." -- The Wall Street Journal

"Captivating...gripping...Friend makes a strong argument that the images tell the real story." -- Booklist

"Carefully mixes the stories behind the images in the book--both famous and obscure--with perceptive commentary on their power." -- The Christian Science Monitor

"A meticulously written, carefully considered text...Richly deserves the sizable audience that Oliver Stone's World Trade Center attracted." -- Richmond Times-Dispatch (Never mind that Stone's 2006 film was generally regarded as a box-office disappointment.)

Go...Tell a Friend.

Better: Order One For a Loved One...Now.