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by Magnum Photographers
powerHouse Books, 2001
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jan 21st 2002

New York September 11On 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 of it.

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.

Links:

© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.

Christian Perring, 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.