|Book Review - New York September 11|
by Magnum Photographers
powerHouse Books, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Jan 21st 2002
On September 11, 2001, I was at home on Long Island, fifty miles
from Manhattan, and my wife and I watched the television news
during the day, seeing the images of the Twin Towers being hit
by the planes repeated over and over, as well as the coverage
of reactions to the terrorism from New Yorkers and the rest of
the world. After a few hours, I had had enough of the television
reporting since there seemed to be no new information available;
there was no sign of further attack, and all the reporters and
news anchormen were repeating what was already known and were
speculating about who was responsible. They kept on showing images
of the attack and interviewing stunned, traumatized New Yorkers
who had been in or close to the World Trade Center, and I just
felt that watching those images was too painful; I was not learning
anything new but seeing the destruction became, if anything, more
upsetting every time I saw it. In a way, I felt that the images
themselves were traumatizing, and I saw no point in becoming traumatized
if I could avoid it.
Of course, other people had different reactions. Some people just
watched the news all day. Some people quickly slid into depression
as the massive loss of life became clear; it became difficult
for them to continue with their ordinary routine, go back to their
jobs, or think of anything else but the terrorism. Some people
felt that it was important to keep on watching TV, in case there
were any further developments, or simply to be a witness to what
was clearly one of the most significant events in our lifetimes.
But I preferred to have the radio news on instead; over the days
that followed, I found the power of the images on television too
intrusive for me, and it seemed to me that they were making my
wife depressed too. Radio provided the same information as television,
but kept it at a distance.
My wife and I did not know anyone who was killed or injured that
day, although we have friends who lost friends or family. So while
of course in a sense the tragedy affected us personally, in the
way it affected most people living in America, it was at least
at one remove. I wanted, and maybe needed, to get back to my routine
as soon as I could. Not that I wanted to ignore the news altogether,
but I did not want to feel more destabilized than I had to. The
images of Manhattan covered in smoke, utterly changed, were maybe
as upsetting to me as the estimates of the numbers of dead and
missing. I love being in the city of New York; and it is one of
the great advantages of my current job that I can live close enough
to go in fairly frequently. In that week following the attack,
it was not clear how radically the city would be altered, but
certainly the skyline would never be the same again.
I have not yet been to see Ground Zero; I have not felt any need
to do so, although I'm gradually coming to think that I do want
to fully appreciate the size of the area that has been destroyed.
I have mixed feelings about it, I suppose, and part of my reluctance
is in going to a place where so many people died. In The Undertaking,
undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch says that in his experience,
it is better for families to see the body of the deceased, even
if the person died in a bad accident and has been disfigured.
It helps people come to fully recognize that their loved one is
truly gone; the visual proof means they have fewer ways of imagining
that perhaps the horrible truth is not so. I wonder whether there
is a useful parallel with seeing the destruction for myself; maybe
I would ultimately be better off once I have seen the site of
Ground Zero with my own eyes. Or maybe it is not about whether
I would be better off or not; perhaps simply acting as a witness
is important in itself.
Over the last few months, I've thought often about the psychological
aspects of the terrorism and its aftermath, and the balance between
facing it and ignoring it. I firmly believe in the importance
of being a well-informed member of society, able to assess for
myself the actions of the Western governments in the new "war"
against a mostly diffuse and unidentified group of enemies. Yet
I seriously doubt that I can sufficiently educate myself about
the geographical, political and military particulars of Afghanistan
and its neighbors to second-guess the anti-terrorist policies
of the US government and its allies. It sometimes seems that being
a responsible citizen of the world requires more knowledge than
most people with jobs and families can reasonably be expected
to have. That's not to say that we should not try to know what
is going on around the world, but since it is not possible to
know everything, we have to decide what information to focus on.
So, at last, I will turn to the book under review here, New
York September 11. It is a book of photographs by photographers
from Magnum Photos, an agency that supplies photographs to newspapers
and magazines. Magnum photographers have covered news for the
over fifty years, and they are known for their tradition of mixing
reporting and art. They have an office in Manhattan, and their
photographers were taking pictures as soon as the news of the
first plane crash was out. These photographers took their pictures
as a matter of second nature, ignoring the commands to officials
to leave the area even as the disaster was still unfolding on
September 11th, and they captured some sights that
otherwise would never have been recorded.
Of course, there are some images that have been reproduced in
many places. The images on the cover and in the first few pages
are very familiar - planes hitting the Twin Towers, the Towers
on fire, the Towers collapsing. The photographs of these events
are by Steve McCurry, and they continue to be visually arresting,
almost unbelievable in the clarity of their content. McCurry has
several pictures here too: because of his untiring diligence on
recording the details of the event, he was soon declared to be
the official photographer of the disaster in New York, and was
given access to the whole area of Ground Zero. His images are
almost monochromatic, lit by a light of one color, be it the light
orange/brown of the fire mixed with daylight filtered by the smoke,
or the blue of the sunlight filtered by the smoke and dust at
a different time of day, as workers work in the wreckage of the
buildings. Most eerie is his photograph of the escalators in the
lobby of 2 World Financial Center; the space is filled with streaks
of sunlight, and every horizontal surface is covered in dust,
rubble, and papers. McCurry's pictures have a stark beauty; it
is confusing to see beauty in the aftermath of horror, but there
it is, leaving the viewer wondering how it can be possible.
Other photographers focus more on people, the firefighters, the
police, the office workers, New Yorkers comforting each other
in the days that followed, and family members searching for their
missing relatives. There are so many stunning pictures here, and
I stare at some of them for minutes, noticing more and more detail,
doing some kind of emotional processing, trying to make sense
There are no photographs of bodies or body parts at the scene,
nor of people jumping from the Towers to their deaths. I saw the
pictures of people jumping on television - our local PBS station
WLIW was broadcasting the BBC coverage, and they showed it - and
while it was horrific, I don't think it should have been censored,
although it might well be gratuitous to show it again afterwards.
There is only one image of a dead person in this book, of Father
Mychal Judge, lying at rest in his coffin, surrounded by flowers
and mourners. Of course, I can understand the importance of respecting
the feelings of the families of those who died, but in some ways
the fact that there are no pictures of bodies and body parts at
the scene makes this an incomplete record. More than three thousand
people died in this attack, and yet we do not see any sign of
them in these pictures. We know of course, in the images of the
fires and the collapsing Towers, that in the very seconds that
those images were taken, people were losing their lives, and that
is terrible knowledge. But I am sure that the photographers took
pictures of the dead, and I think that eventually, not now, it
may be appropriate to make those images available, to show what
it was like.
The issue of how much to show again raises difficult questions.
What is the point at looking at these pictures? How much is too
much? I have watched some television shows about the events of
that day and the days that followed, about the heroes and tragedies,
and there's a fine line between witnessing what happened and commercializing,
even trivializing, the magnitude of the horror. I cannot imagine
buying a video of the attack coverage, for example; it would feel
too strange and voyeuristic to put in the video and sit down for
an hour or two to relive the events. But it feels reasonable and
worthwhile to sit down with a book of photographs; the difference
is hard to pin down, but it is something to do with the immediacy
of video, and its tendency to cheapen what it depicts. Maybe there's
even a dignity to photography, a tradition that makes it seem
more reasonable as a format of record; maybe it is to do with
the stillness of the image in a photograph that allows one to
focus on details without being overwhelmed.
Even if it is hard to explain why it is important to see these
pictures, I have a powerful conviction that it is important. This
terrorism has changed New York forever, and it has left a mark
on the United States. For myself, I can view these pictures now
without any sense of being psychologically harmed, but with a
strong sense of needing to needing to make sense of what the changes
mean for the future, and how they affect my understanding of the
past. At the end of this book is a section of pictures of the
Twin Towers taken in earlier times, to remember what they meant
to us. I don't remember hearing anyone ever extol their beauty
before September 11th, and I personally never even
had any desire to see the view from them - I far preferred the
architecture of the Empire State Building - but nevertheless they
were such a symbol of New York and even of the United States.
To see them again in their awesome height and unapologetic modernism
is a reminder of how much I associated them with this country.
I will return often to this photographic record of their destruction
and the human response of New York City.
© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry.
He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can
play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster
communication between philosophers, mental health professionals,
and the general public.