'Watching the World Change': Images of Sept. 11 On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of ordinary citizens joined some of the world's best photojournalists at the World Trade Center towers to chronicle the horror and bravery of that day.
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'Watching the World Change': Images of Sept. 11

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'Watching the World Change': Images of Sept. 11

'Watching the World Change': Images of Sept. 11

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The images of the attack on 9/11 are seared into our collective consciousness.

(Soundbite of news report)

Unidentified Man #1: The World Trade Center, Tower Number 1, is on fire. The whole outside of the building, there was just a huge explosion.

BRAND: on that day, thousands of thousands of ordinary citizens joined some of the world's best photojournalists in chronicling the horror of that day. Watching the World Change is a new book that tells some of the stories behind those photographs. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Like most Americans, David Friend, an editor at Vanity Fair magazine, remembers September 11, 2001 clearly. He was crossing Times Square on his way to his office and looked up in time to see one of the towers collapsing on the jumbo TV screen that is a Times Square landmark.

(Soundbite of news report)

Unidentified Man #2: Building 2 collapsing. Jesus, Building 2 collapsing.

(Soundbite of sirens)

BATES: A former photojournalist, Friend had been looking for one project to examine in depth for a while when his interest and history collided.

Mr. DAVID FRIEND (Author, Watching the World Change): You know, I'd always had this concept that you could take the DNA of history, of a slice of time, by its pictures. Looking at the events of 9/11 and their aftermath, I thought you know, we really learned about it and processed it and grieved and reacted to it through photographs.

BATES: There were photos of the towers' smoking ruins, of course, and of people fleeing the tsunami of debris after the towers fell, and pictures of dazed survivors covered in dust, and exhausted emergency personnel.

(Soundbite of news report)

Unidentified Man #3: We got an ambulance full of people, and we're being bombarded with so many we can't handle.

BATES: Reporters, like WNYC's Beth Fertig, often risked their own lives to cover the story.

Ms. BETH FERTIG (Reporter, WNYC): The building is falling right now. People are running through the street. Smoke is everywhere.

BATES: Some of the photos that were hardest to look at from that day involved people who fell to their deaths from the towers. In this interview, John Axisome(ph) tells NPR's Noah Adams what he saw hours earlier.

Mr. JOHN AXISOME (9/11 witness): I will never see something so horrible in my life. I saw a gentleman in a red shirt and his arms weren't waving or nothing, he just calmly jumped. And seven in all, I believe. I didn't see them all. I turned my head in horror, but each time someone else would jump, the whole crowd would break into hysterics.

BATES: Thanks to non-stop news broadcasts, even people who weren't there were riveted by that horrible sight. David friend says there were many photographs of these so-called jumpers, but a single photograph became an icon for the unspeakable choice facing people in the burning towers. It was taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew, who describes it here.

Mr. RICHARD DREW (Photographer, Associated Press): What you see is one frame out of a series of 12 that my camera took on that morning of September 11th, and it's a picture of a man falling head first from the World Trade Center. He's perfectly vertical and he's just very peacefully falling from the World Trade Center.

BATES: We can't know whether the man - whose identity is still in question - fell peacefully. What is without argument is the emotional force of the picture itself. David Friend talked with a number of editors who debated the wisdom of showing this elegant composition of a lone man on his way to certain death. One person who chose to publish it was Naomi Halperin of the Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Ms. NAOMI HALPERIN (Morning Call, Allentown, Pennsylvania): We posted hundreds of photos on a long wall in the newsroom, and people from other departments came to look, everyone in the newsroom came to look. And that photo in particular stopped people in their tracks.

BATES: Halperin's paper ran Falling Man on the back of the first section, blown up to fill the page because, she says, the photos of the collapsed towers were only part of the 9/11 story.

Ms. HALPERIN: We chose this photo to represent everybody who died that day, and without that, I think, it wasn't a complete storytelling.

BATES: Many of Halperin's readers were moved; many more were outraged. David Friend says part of the outrage stems from shock.

Mr. FRIEND: Pictures from - of that sort of power tend to be foreign images. We don't tend to see our own dying before our eyes.

BATES: As a result, Friend says, hundreds of papers declined to run Drew's photo at all. Many of those that did buried it in inside coverage, or ran it in small format in deference to readers' sensibilities.

If the same thing happened in 2006, says Friend, thanks to technology's evolution, photo editors might be faced with even harder choices.

Mr. FRIEND: A friend of mine says that, you know, if 9/11 had happened today, we would have had people within the towers taking pictures on their picture phones of what was going on inside.

BATES: As happened last summer, when people caught underground during the London tube bombings sent photos from their cell phones.

With the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks upon us, many of the day's most haunting images will return to haunt us again. They're still hard to look at, but David Friend says there's a reason we can't turn away.

Mr. FRIEND: Pictures matter in our lives. Pictures really are among the only reliable vessels of our understanding of that day.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

BRAND: Those pictures are at our Web site, npr.org. You can also hear David Friend discuss other photos from the book there - npr.org.

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