Witnessing 9/11

September 12, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I was stuck by the increasing erasure of the photographic record.  It seems that many images of 9/11 have now become taboo to share, out of what I think is a misplaced sense of privacy for those involved or because, as a deeply traumatic shared event, it is felt to be too traumatizing to see the events relayed so viscerally, even 20 years later.

It is now rare, extremely rare (especially in US media), to see the photos of Marcy Brothers, the "Dust Lady", or the "Falling Man", or of the priest Mychal Judge being carried dead from the World Trade Center. These were the photos which defined that day in the days and months that followed. Many other photos which showed us the real human cost in all its horror, so common in newspaper reports in those early days, have now also seemingly disappeared. What we are now left with is mostly photos of smoking or collapsing towers, or firefighters standing on the heaps of rubble left in the aftermath. 

I think this is wrong, and fundamentally misguided.

9/11 was a real event which happened to real people and destroyed real lives.  It was brutal, and it was evil.  I remember very clearly, in the days that followed, I bought every single newspaper from my local store to see the photos and understand the events.  The television images showed one side of the story, but by its nature television does not, can not, bring us as close to the human stories.  A tv image moves on in seconds, its transitory nature does not force us to stop and process.   Television images are a fundamentally less useful medium for historic record.  When we think of the Vietnam War, most of us will think of the brutal images of "Napalm Girl" Phan Thi Kim Phuc or the execution of Nguyen Van Lem.  The news reports have come and gone in our collective consciousness (especially for those of us who did not live through it) but the images remain. They help us to connect to events outside of our experiences.  Through those images we understand the human cost of that war.  We can bear witness, and if photography has any purpose at all, it is to bear witness.  

Marcy Brothers deserves to be seen.  Her trauma deserves to be understood.  When her photo became one of the defining images of 9/11, her trauma was our trauma.  The power of the image - an elegant woman, well dressed for work, in distress, covered in thick dust - told the story of that day in a uniquely human way. 

The falling man deserves to be seen.  Dozens of people jumped from the towers before the towers fell.  Their experience is a part of the 9/11 horror and it should not be forgotten.

Mr Mychal Judge gave his life as one of the many first responders who died that day.  We don't have photos of every sacrifice, but we do have that one.  And it deserves to be seen. It is a visceral and profound record of the loss experienced 

Without the photographic record, we risk sanitizing the evil, downplaying the trauma.  There are already enough ridiculous 9/11 conspiracies, and the erasure of the photographic record plays right into the hands of people who would spread such nonsense.  It's fun to speculate on harebrained theories when you're not confronted with the actual human costs of a real human tragedy.

If we are unwilling to bear witness to horror, we risk becoming a society where the truth itself becomes obscured because we are unable to confront it.  Our feelings and comfort are prioritized above the truth.  The worst of humanity have always exploited the erasure of history, of truth, for their own benefit.  It would be a gift to todays neo-Nazis if the photos of the piles of bodies and emaciated survivors of German death camps did not exist.  The Chinese Communist Party would love if the photo of The Tank Man were erased from the record.  The need for historical witness should absolutely supersede the right to dignity or privacy that victims may have had, as harsh I know that seems.

I kept those 9/11 newspapers for many, many years, as I knew they would be remain an incredible record of a seminal day in our history.  Sadly, they were lost when I moved to America.  It saddens me that the stories those papers contained are now also being lost to an unfortunate, collective amnesia. 
 


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