Volume 20 Issue 18 | September 14 - 20, 2007

Recounting the story of 9/11 through its imagery

By Sarah Norris

Photo by Frank Ward
David Friend, author of “Watching the World Change.” He speaks at the Skyscraper Museum on Tuesday.
Former Life photojournalist David Friend always wanted to assemble a book of photos generated over the course of one week, to prove the primacy of photography in our lives. The result, published last year, is “Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11,” a book of richly mined accounts and photographs from Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 through the following Monday.

Released in paperback this month, Friend’s book offers up a vast array of personal narratives, and serves as a testament to the immediacy and power of digital photography. Here, Friend, who is now editor of creative development at Vanity Fair and also the award-winning producer of the CBS documentary “9/11” (2002), reveals the story behind the book, as well as the implications of life in a digital age. He’ll also be speaking at the Skyscraper Museum, 39 Battery Place, on Tuesday, Sept. 18 at 6:30 p.m.

What were your aims in writing this book?

My chief impulse, six months after the attacks, was that our connection to the events was so related to the visual that if I were to merely look at the visual representation of the events and how we reacted to them I could prove this thesis about the power of pictures.

The second thing was to examine the lives of people affected by 9/11 through the pictures that they saw, that they cherished or took, or appeared in. Many of the people in news pictures could be tracked down and in fact, historians try to get eyewitnesses to events in history, but citizen photographers and people in pictures that day and week were eyewitnesses. I wanted to talk to the eyewitnesses while the heed of history was still aglow.

Since this time, the pictures have become even more important. With the advent of cell phone cameras and You Tube, neither of which existed in 2001, average citizens with cameras are at the frontline of history. Journalism is the first draft of history. Yet journalists are often playing catch-up with the citizens themselves.

How did you approach it?

It wasn’t like I was given an assignment. Two and a half billion people saw this event, but I felt compelled to write from a very particular perspective. There was enough information to just have it be distant credible third-person reporting, but I found that the personal stories of people, combined with my own reaction, created a new and yet naturally flowing way to get a sense of a week. Beginning on Tuesday, ending on the following Monday, it wasn’t my diary, but a visual journal.

Our personal narratives connect to the bigger narrative and seem to matter more than at other times, and the reason is that for the first time since WWII, history came to our shores. We were witnesses. That’s why the personal voice and stories and documentary style of the book worked well together. Our stories intertwine and mean more than we think we mean at the time.

Several of these images were not widely distributed because editors viewed them as too shocking. How do you draw the line between disturbing imagery and providing a record of an event?

This relates to the subject of a Witnessing Atrocity conference in D.C. I attended. On my website (, you’ll see several of us talking about this very question.

In terms of news, you’ve got to see it now. You have to show what is real, and unvarnished truth is important in wartime and in the very skeptical times of our government lying to us daily. We need to see the truth, and I believe that not enough of these pictures were shown. We got too sanitized too quickly. We couldn’t see it enough to show people what we were dealing with.

I am sensitive to families who’ve lost loves ones; over time, there’s no real need to use more graphic footage when words will do.

Images from 9/11 often bring up a great deal of emotion for people. What was your experience of assembling these photographs?

I’ve covered conflicts in Afghanistan and Lebanon, tragedies and news events, so it wasn’t the subject matter per se that was difficult, though it was truly incomparable to other subjects.

I spent two years writing the book, but that’s a pittance compared to people who were down there working or people who made extreme sacrifices and are still plagued by those sacrifices.

Did you find that people’s recollections of and reactions to this event have changed over time?

It was much easier to do the book two or three years out. Over time, people understand the tragedy within the framework of their lives.

Considering today’s constant media coverage, to what extent does such easy access to an event distort our sense of reality?

I think we all have distorted views of reality. It’s tough to get an objective perspective because we’re subjective viewers. In this time, where the Internet and 24-7 TV make immediate judgements, we assume things from their appearance. This easy access to information is sometimes a problem because it’s difficult to get more than surface reactions.

How do you think living in a digital age redefines our community?

Both my kids have Facebook pages and are connected to more people. The editor of my book, Paul Elie, also edited Thomas Friedman’s book “The World is Flat.” Similar themes arose in both, about how the Internet connects us. It’s very difficult to know where it’s all going, but it’s much easier for minority voices to be heard now because of the power of both the Internet and the camera.

In collecting these stories, did you gain any insights about how people processed their experience?

We forget that in that first month after the attacks people were not clamouring for war and “let’s go figure out somebody to attack.” As angry as we were — and rightfully so — the predominant mood in the city was more all-embracing. There was a sense of spirit and community; great loss brought us together. We forget that communities can be like that. I was extremely moved by how people brought back that sense of togetherness, which is too often lacking in our world.

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