The looping videos of the destruction of the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001 seemed to be everywhere – a repeating nightmare from which one could never wake. Newspapers and magazines published still photographs echoing the same scene over again – flames shooting from an iconic structure in which thousands of people worked. The images all screamed apocalypse on a visual scale never before seen, let alone in New York City, with the transcendent blue sky providing a backdrop that made the events of that day seem even more ominous, cold-blooded and insidious. Walking through the city one could smell the horror days later. The odour would eventually disappear, but the imagery remained seared into memory.
Photographs of people fleeing the falling buildings appeared, soon followed by image upon image of the numerous handmade posters pinned to lamp posts and windows in lower Manhattan by people searching for their missing friends or family members. On 11 September, a photograph of the US flag being raised at the ruins was published, echoing the famous World War II photograph of Iwo Jima.
But it was the imagery of the people falling from the fiery towers that was seen as the most horrific and forbidden, revealing an even more personal and visceral subtext to the horror unfolding. Publishing them was considered by many as further victimisation of the victims, increasing the trauma of those who knew and loved them.
Several years later, after the controversial decision was made to release recordings of phone calls made to emergency services, listeners could hear the final, frightened words of some of the people trapped inside the burning buildings before they died. Along with news reports on the day of the attacks themselves, National Public Radio played music by artists as diverse as Philip Glass, Michael Nyman and Dolly Parton, hoping to offer listeners some distance, some distraction, from that day’s horrifying attacks.
Now, with half a billion pictures being shared every day, and new technologies such as Google Glass on their way, I often wonder how events would have unfolded had the people inside the towers on 11 September been able to upload photographs and videos during those last trying moments, reaching out to the world during such an extraordinary predicament.
If a photograph of people falling from the building had been too much to contemplate, and if their terrified voices at the end of the phone caused nightmares, what would it be like to see the fires advancing through the eyes of someone wearing Google Glass? Could others witnessing it, including spouses and children, recover from the agony? Could civilisation right itself? Would these numerous evocations of death revictimise those injured or killed, as well as the entire nation which was struck that day? Might they be used in bloody propaganda videos? Would a proliferation of such imagery inevitably lead to some form of all-out war as the only way to avenge the suffering they depict?
Or, even more obscenely, would terrorists increasingly count upon the victims of their terror to depict their own victimisation as part of their strategy? And would publications snap up the material as exclusives, showing the human side of the conflict?
These questions are not easy to answer, and they can, and should, make one queasy – just as Time magazine’s photo blog Lightbox’s publishing of photographs of events leading up to the decapitation of a Syrian by an Islamic rebel group provokes a question as to whether it is ethical for a photographer to depict one, let alone four, such beheadings. Time later named one of the photographs as among the 10 best of the year. What are the boundaries concerning the publication of such images, or are there no longer any? And does the carrying of personal cameras wherever one goes render any such discussion moot?
The enormous freedom of expression and dissemination that we have been given in this era of camera phones is hardly a licence to photograph and publish everything. But for someone in an apocalyptic situation, it may be the only response that makes sense. And, as a result, the reader will not be spared the intimacies of extraordinary suffering.
Fred Ritchin is professor of photography and imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is the author of Bending the Frame: Photojournalism, Documentary, and the Citizen (Aperture, 2013), After Photography (W. W. Norton, 2008) and In Our Own Image: The Coming Revolution in Photography (Aperture, 1990, 1999 and 2001).