What relevance does the still photograph have in the days of action-packed TV visuals that shock as they streak across the screen? Are camerapersons with their ubiquitous shoulder bags and well-worn sneakers soon going to be out of business? Will visuals via the Internet, scans and the digital camera phase out the much-loved Leicas and the hardy Nikon? Some of these questions have acquired a particular salience in the memorializing of 9/11. At a 2002 exhibition entitled Eleven — Witnessing the World Trade Center 1974-2001 held in New Delhi that showed the works of 22 photographers, its curator, Robert Pledge, of Contact Press Images spoke of his virtual imprisonment on the island of Manhattan in the few days following 9/11 — his windows to the world were the visuals captured on the Internet and through scans sent by friends. These were, in turn, transmitted through wire services and newspapers. The world watched transfixed those moments of electric tension on film as the twin towers and much within crumbled in unimaginable tangles of metal, dust and concrete. Many of the most poignant as well as informative images were taken by still photographers.
Even though this was well over ten years ago when technology was not as advanced, for days, the world media were awash with still images, film clips and stories of those who had died, chilling escape narratives of the fortunate and in time, the inevitable sub-text of such an event, the onset of post-traumatic stress disorder. There were those who said that they would never enter a high-rise building or a lift; others re-located to the west coast, unable to face the prospect of living in any proximity to the locale of such a close brush with death; some went silent, others could not stop re-living the horror of the events of those days. Insomnia, hallucination, personality change and disorder of various kinds were reported not only among those who had been in the towers and other buildings in the complex but also by those from nearby areas. It was a disaster, an attack that needed to be remembered not only by those who experienced it, but by generations to come. And the Americans are particularly adept at memorializing textually and through the camera any event that they take to be an assault on the integrity of their nation. The recent Hollywood offerings of Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln bear testimony to this alliance between the popular media and national self-righteousness. A parallel discourse is often available through the images made available by the work of intrepid photojournalists and photographers — often risking their lives in highly dangerous areas of a war-torn or disaster-saturated world.
Disaster and conflict-zone photography — for want of a more sophisticated phrase — owes a lot to the image that lingers and can be referred to again and again. In order to add value to Pledge’s exhibition, a number of leading photographers and editors critically reviewed the experience of the photographer in the field — the visual journalist. Alex Perry, at the time the south Asia bureau chief of Time magazine, with considerable experience of Afghanistan, pointed out that despite limitations, some of the best and most poignant images of that war-torn country have come from still photographers: TV crews just did not measure up, he felt. In part, Perry added wryly, the fact that still photographers were not paid as well as TV camerapersons meant that they felt emboldened to take risks and try hard for the less hackneyed image. They invariably came back with “unsurpassed visuals” and though TV visuals were on occasion “amazing, the commentary was dreadful”, and the text rarely got beyond clichés. Bringing into focus once more the debate between the word and the image, Perry added that September 11 was “a real invigoration for the photograph”.
In the intervening decade, 9/11 has continued to be memorialized in several ways. While re-building of the World Trade Center is expected to be completed by 2020, One World Trade Center with 100 stories on completion is to open for business in 2014. The complex will also include a memorial to the over 2,000 persons killed in the attack by the two jet-planes on what were the tallest buildings in the world. While searching for memorabilia from the site continued for quite a while, the collective American psyche has invested a lot of emotional and financial resources in keeping the memory, horror or outrage associated with 9/11 alive.
At Washington DC’s Newseum, a special viewing area encloses a mangled antenna from the WTC as well as a piece of the damaged Pentagon. One wall is covered with photographs of several of those killed and the reminiscences of their families and friends. If one is not too sure of one’s responses while peering at this bit of destroyed technology, a brief documentary on constant view around the corner is a tear-jerker of sorts. It is the story of 54-year-old photojournalist Bill Biggart, the only professional photographer to be killed during the attack. His remains and camera-bag with three shattered cameras and the flash card with the last photographs were discovered amidst the debris on September 15. Apart from being used in the documentary on view at Newseum, Biggart’s still photographs were bought by Newsweek for its issue of October 15, 2001, as well as exhibited at New York’s International Center of Photography and Washington’s National Museum of American History. If Biggart has become something of a hero in the annals of contemporary American history, the process has also ensured a place in the sun for the photograph and its role in documenting momentous events.
Alerted on the morning of September 11 by a passing taxi-driver of the plane crash, Biggart apparently rushed to his apartment and grabbed three cameras of which fortunately, one was a digital. Walking the two miles to the WTC, he continued shooting photographs on slide, film and with his digital camera. He photographed the burning twin towers, and as the first tower collapsed, he called his wife and said “I’m with the fireman, I’m safe and I’ll meet you in twenty minutes.” When the second tower was attacked, he kept running towards it — and never returned.
Eye witnesses were reported as saying that Biggart got far too close to the inferno. The digital camera recorded his last photograph as being taken at 10.28.24; the North Tower collapsed at 10.28 — almost twenty minutes from the time that Biggart had spoken to his wife. In the days following the collapse of the tower, Biggart was reported as being among the missing. Afterwards, his photographer friend, Chip East, recovered over 150 images from his digital storage device. As expected, the images are searing: a darkening morning, shrieks, shouts and tottering buildings; then, just a dust haze through which one could barely see a distraught woman screaming as she ran in any direction; in others, the heroes of the day, the firemen, battled flames whilst shouting out staccato commands to a crazed population; at the end of the brief but vivid documentary, there was a persistent memory that lingered, of chaos, noise, falling debris — and people jumping to their death from hundreds of feet up.
As September 11 comes around, such photographs, video-clips and the storyline of Biggart’s last moments will be re-imagined and re-lived. The mythography of those hours “that changed the world” is getting institutionalized in a country where the obsession with fighting ‘terror’ has become a national preoccupation.