Photography and the Fragility of Life

by David Jacobs

On Tuesday, September 11, airplanes raped three of America's best-known buildings. The terrorists directed their acts to well-rested Americans, knowing that the amiable chatter of Katy or Bryant would suddenly shift to pictures of unspeakable acts. Megaton detona­tions went off in the minds of millions of TV watchers. It was mass-mediated rape.

The images of the towers have been endlessly replayed. Already, we can't count the number, and there are miles to go before we sleep. Many people seem insatiable in their need to revisit them. Some are moved to sadness, others to anger, and still others feel numbness. But in all cases our relationship to the images has changed through repetition. At first we didn't have a category for the pictures. We turned up the volume — maybe Katie or Bryant could explain. But once we could frame the images, hours later, on the tenth or fiftieth viewing, their impact shifted. How did we see and know and feel these pictures on the hundredth viewing? Or the thousandth?

Years from now, a handful of photo­graphs will represent this historical moment, much as iconic images like Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother stands for the Depression or raising the flag at Iwo Jima for American victory in World War II. In the current moment, we are attuned to the complexities and uncer­tainties of the situation. But in the future we'll know how it turned out, and the images that survive — the burning tow­ers, the firemen raising the flag amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center, the upside down man falling from the burning tower — these images will serve as symbols for moments of our sadness, uncertainties, and fears.

All history flirts with reductionism and over-simplification: we never can grasp, much less communicate, the whole package. But with photographic knowing there is the additional burden of familiar­ity. We are introduced to photography on day one — soon after the slap on the butt comes the camera's flash into our still-closed eyes. Photographs become natural to us, and as we take them for granted they enter us all the more powerfully.

The "we" in the above sentences is an American "we" — the "we" who watch TV and use instant cameras and tapesnapshots on the fridge. But there are other "we's" with other ways of knowing. When the Taliban took the reigns of power in Afghanistan they banished TV, a largely gratuitous act, since most Afghanis didn't have electricity, much less the means to own a TV. Most Afgha­nis don't even know what their leader, Mullah Omar, looks like, since he has never been photographed.

Imagine what Afghanis know about us, and how they know what they know. Can we conjure their image-free knowl­edge of their culture? Or ours? Do they have a concept of what the World Trade Center was, or what it has become? Have most of them even heard of it?

On the other hand, how do we imag­ine them, limited as we are to a handful of canned images of dusty streets, and a staged video of a smiling, benign looking Bin Laden?

If American jets fly over Afghanistan, the Afghanis will know what they're seeing and hearing. They don't need images for that: they felt them close at hand during the war with the U.S.S.R. But they will have little under­standing of how our fighters come to be there, in much the same way that we struggle to understand the intense hatred and self-sacrificing commitment that led terror­ists to steer planes into our buildings. In our ongoing failure to understand one another, war may be waged for a long time to come.

Since my Houston Chronicle article appeared three months ago, the Taliban have been routed, flags continue to fly and photographs of burning towers and firemen raising the flag appear every­where. Meanwhile, Afghanis have re-entered the media world, in some cases literally digging up TV sets that had been buried after the Taliban gained control. Whether the citizens of Afghanistan are drawn more to CNN or Al-Jazeera Bush or Bin Laden — is, however, an open question.

During the days of commercial-free TV coverage that followed September 11, Americans experienced events as they unfolded with relatively little mediation. Broadcasters were scriptless, politicians were improvising and occasionally oneeven heard that rarest of televised utter­ances: "/ don't know." We were all histori­ans, sifting through uncharted, unnamed territory in search of footholds and categories. As masks fell away, everyday posturing gave way to emotional authen­ticity. Much like the days following the John Kennedy assassination, TV created a sense of community, a set of shared experiences born of grief and confusion. People talked about life and death instead of the bottom line; e-mail boxes were del­uged; sales of cell phones soared. Even Congress sang together and proclaimed their brotherhood. We were brought together in the immediacy of the moment, and, like the events of 1963, the experience marked for many a passage from innocence to experience.

But in the intervening months the aura has faded, in part because the passage of time always helps us move beyond grief. Politicians have urged us to travel, shop, eat out and return to nor­malcy. And repetition has played a role, whether in the form of endlessly replayed 9/11 images, ceaseless talking heads on the TV, innumerable celebrity tributes, music concerts or patriotic pageantry in virtually every major sporting event since mid September. The cumulative impact upon many is a state of numbness. The emotions born of real-time, present-tense experience have become less spontaneous and more formalized. For example, in the days immediately following September 11 countless millions flew the flag, among them middle-aged people who 30 years ago would have utterly spurned any such display. It was a spontaneous act, born of genuine emotion. But in the days that followed, this reflex became increasingly gestural as newspapers printed full-pageflags, mass-produced lapel pins became widely available, flags sprouted on web­sites and sports equipment and TV sales­men and women bedecked themselves in flags as they hawked cars and mat­tresses during "patriotic sales." As so often occurs in American culture, eco­nomics took over. What began as a direct expression of private shock and grief became institutionalized.

Powerful images were dominant in the days following September 11, but the months since have been less visually intense. To be sure, few images in the history of photography can match the graphic and emotional power of the burning towers or the firemen raising the flag. But anthrax created fear and panic more through the imagination than rep­resentation. How, after all, do you depict anthrax? Newspapers and news programs played (and replayed) block-lettered envelopes addressed to Senator Daschle and others or pictures of microscopic critters that could have been amoeba or spermatozoa, for all most of us knew. Regarding the war itself, in the first weeks of bombing very few pictures emerged from Afghanistan. Images were tightly controlled, both for security and propaganda pur­poses, as is nor­mally the case during times of war. The War on Terrorism that we saw on TV and front pages was nearly as abstract as the green tinted images that repre­sented our attack on Iraq during the Gulf War. In both cases, war was kept at a safe distance and the gore was minimized.

And then there is Bin Laden, who has adroitly eluded commandos, satel­lite detection and our longest tele-photo lenses. He is as much in control
of his image as he is of his impassioned followers, allowing himself to be seen only when it behooves him. It has become clear, in the process, that the Bush administration is very jittery about the power of his visage and words. After the first bin Laden tape was released in October, the Bush administration tried to dissuade the news organizations from running it except in highly edited snip­pets. Networks were encouraged to show still images taken from the video rather than the full footage. This past Decem­ber, the Bush administration held back another tape for over two weeks, claiming that they wanted to study it thoroughly for intelligence purposes and to assure an accurate translation into English. Two weeks seems like an awfully long time to achieve these rather modest goals.

The suppression of such images has always been problematic, but especially so in the age of satellite transmission and globally accessible television. During World War II, photographers like Robert Capa and W. Eugene Smith conveyed thegritty realities of the battlefield in photo­graphs that were promptly published in magazines around the world. As for ogresand tyrants, pictures of Mussolini, Hitler and goose-stepping Nazis were pervasive in the print media and newsreels through­out the 19305 and 19403. Roosevelt, Churchill and other Allied leaders felt little need to suppress such images. Nor, for that matter, did the lohnson or Nixon administrations try to suppress photographs during the Vietnamese war, even though images from Vietnam often worked directly against their efforts to justify an increasingly unpopular war.

Unlike Vietnam, the War on Terror­ism enjoys extraordinary support among Americans, and Bush's poll numbers are off the charts. Accordingly, the Bush administration's clumsy efforts to control what Americans see of their enemy is especially remarkable. After all, the bin Laden tapes were broadcast in their entirety to much of the rest of the world. Did Washington fear that we couldn't handle them? That we'd be swept away by the charismatic bin Laden? Are Amer­icans less well equipped than the rest of the world to distinguish shit from man­na? In a country that so deeply values its freedoms, why should our government patronize its own citizenry?

On a brighter note, a few days after September 11 The New York Times began publishing short profiles of people who perished in the terrorist attacks. Entitled Portraits in Grief, the series ran daily through December 31 and on an occa­sional basis since (the whole series is available at These sketches, though they appear in America's most prominent newspaper, are essential­ly private. We learn only in passing of the victims' jobs and little if anything of theireducational background, accomplish­ments and the like. The victims are described through salient details — how they loved coaching little league, traveling to Disneyland, bowling, shop­ping at K-Mart, playing Bach inventions, gardening or baking chocolate tortes. Their love of family, and especially their children, recurs in many of the sketches. The accompanying photographs are not studio-made pictures of well-dressed, carefully coiffed men and women that might appear in quarterly reports or, for that matter, in typical obituaries. Instead, they are classic snapshots, casually seen and sometimes out of focus; the kinds of pictures that are creased, tattered and carried in wallets. The framing is tight on each face, and every face is smiling. Some of these people look just as goofy as the rest of us do in our family albums and home videos.

The Times series testifies to the scope of the World Trade Center tragedy. It in large measure avoids sentimentalism while pointing to the inestimable human loss, both in the dead themselves, and the countless thousands of others who were directly touched by their deaths. The series is a great leveler, a paean to democ­racy that would make Walt Whitman swell with pride. Here are cooks, bonds salesmen, firefighters, businesswomen, students, policemen, foreign envoys, mail carriers, grandmothers, janitors, execu­tives, florists and sales people who left their homes that day, went to work orhopped a plane and never returned. Their lives are described through the people and activities they valued and loved. As a totality, the series evolved into a new kind of elegy, an affirmation of the simple, fragile beauties of life.