“In 300 years,” says David Friend, standing at a billboard near Ground Zero, “we’ll have a good, solid sense of what happened through images rather than words.” Photo: Frank Ward
By Molly Lyons ’97
On September 11, 2001, thousands of New Yorkers—bystanders, photojournalists, imperiled office workers—took out their cameras in the face of disaster. David Friend ’77 has spent five years seeking the stories behind the images, hoping they’ll reveal a truth about the day.
September 11, 2006, is a beautiful day in New York—breezy, sunny and solemnly quiet. The subway carries firefighters in dress uniforms and kilts, and commuters give them a brief nod. Downtown, police officers with set jaws direct traffic away from Ground Zero. The rerouted drivers don’t complain. Nor do the office workers who need to flash company IDs before being allowed to slip through the blue sawhorses in front of their buildings. On the five-year anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, New York City’s dynamism is tinged with the dread of remembered horror and the sorrow of loss.
In a hotel across from Ground Zero, radio stations from around the country—West Virginia, Utah, Arizona, Colorado—set up mini-studios, each with a muted television airing the reading of the names of those who died, and each with a view of the site itself. A roster of experts, witnesses and politicians, including senator-turned-actor Fred Thompson and retired firefighter Dennis O’Berg, who lost his firefighter son in the attacks, circulate through the rooms giving interviews. Among them is David Friend ’77, editor of creative development at Vanity Fair and author of Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), published two weeks earlier.
While Friend is there to be interviewed, more often than not it is he who comes away with the story. He quickly makes a connection to his hosts and discovers, among other things, that one interviewer lived on a houseboat for a while and another’s parents were in vaudeville. Watching Friend, it’s clear that he can draw out almost anyone. In fact, he has interviewed Presidents Reagan and Clinton and world leaders including King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. He has also covered war zones in Afghanistan and Lebanon. As lead editor of the 2005 Vanity Fair article, he broke the story identifying former FBI official W. Mark Felt as the Watergate source Deep Throat. And this fall, Friend negotiated the Vanity Fair photo shoot of celebrity baby Suri Cruise.
Friend grew up in Highland Park, Ill. After graduating from Amherst, he moved to New York City to be a novelist. But when his fiction didn’t sell, he got a job as a reporter at LIFE, which allowed him to travel around the world with the top photojournalists of the day. He later became LIFE’s director of photography before moving to Vanity Fair. Along the way, he’s published humor articles and cartoons, and his poetry has appeared in The New Yorker. He curated exhibitions on such topics as child war victims in Rwanda for the International Center of Photography and the conflict in Somalia for the United Nations. He established LIFE’s Website and until recently oversaw Vanity Fair’s. Of this liberal-arts-like approach to his career, he says, “I always dabbled in diverse subjects in grade school, high school and college, so was grateful when my first full-time job was at a general-interest magazine, where I could pursue any story on any subject as long as it was photographable.”
Back at the radio junket, he asks every journalist and commentator, “Where were you when you first saw the attack at the Trade Center?” Saw, not, as in the case of President Kennedy’s assassination and other past national tragedies, heard. After all, 2.5 billion people around the world watched the towers come down. It remains the most watched news event in history. In his book, Friend examines the images taken that day and in the six that followed—their power, their truth and how they changed us.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, Friend was walking through Times Square when he saw on a billboard-sized screen the twin towers burning before him. It seemed almost unreal, as if he were watching a movie at a drive-in. “In front of me,” he writes in the book, “spread an odd tableau—part George Orwell, part Fritz Langian kabuki. I saw row upon motionless row of the backs of heads tilted up toward the monitors.” Friend headed to his office, where, through a window, he watched the South Tower crumble in the distance. He then slipped away, alone, to a nearby room to watch the scene on TV. “By checking a televised replay of what I had just witnessed from afar,” he writes, “I could gauge the reliability of my own eyes.” Friend quickly began to help plan Vanity Fair’s 52-page special issue, which the magazine produced in 10 days—no small feat for a monthly publication.
To Friend, photography came to define the tragedy. “From families grieving to politicians spinning,” he says, “from law enforcement agencies to the military planners plotting their bomb runs, everyone used pictures—snapshots, news photos, ID pictures, surveillance shots, visual evidence. A horrific event, conceived by al-Qaeda in order that it be witnessed by millions, spawned millions of visual connections in its wake.” Photography was the first artistic impulse: “Thousands of people took out cameras. They had to capture it. People even took photos of the images on their television sets.”
Friend eventually proposed a story for Vanity Fair to run on the first anniversary of the attacks, accompanied by photos that few people had ever seen. “I wrote the piece in order to make the case for the otherwise unconvinced that photographs matter, that image matters in modern life,” he says. That article was the springboard for the book. “I had the notion years before of taking the DNA of a week and looking at it in pictures,” he says. He started writing the book around the second anniversary of the attacks. “By then I was able to gather more candid images, images that took more weight later.”
Friend argues that in the scramble to cover breaking news, “visual documentation can often be the most reliable medium in which to chronicle an occurrence, one that might otherwise be more distorted by verbal chroniclers.” To Friend, the photographs of 9/11 provide an objectivity, distance and perspective that words simply do not. “Photography will act as a historical baseline,” he believes. “In 300 years we’ll have a good, solid sense of what happened through images rather than words.”
It took a long time for some of the photos to emerge—especially from the few people who took photos from inside the towers and from photographers who felt the material too upsetting to be seen right away. On the radio junket, most of the interviewers ask Friend about one photo, “The Falling Man,” by Richard Drew. Many had never before seen the image of an unidentified man falling, headfirst, from the upper floors of the Trade Center. Some U.S. newspapers ran the disquieting photograph immediately after the attacks, and Esquire wrote about it in 2003, but other media, for the most part, censored the image. “It was confined to the far reaches—it was too much to take at the time,” reasons Friend. It’s been called “the most famous picture that was never seen.” Another photo, by Jeff Christenson, shows workers leaning out the windows of the burning North Tower, and has provided a sense of certainty to one set of parents, Mike and Jindra Rambousek, who believe it shows their son, Luke. “At least we [now] have some idea,” Mike Rambousek tells Friend in the book. “For almost an hour and a half they were surviving and hanging out the windows, waiting, waiting.”
To collect the images, Friend tapped into a community of artists, and word spread from photographer to photographer. Friend chose 50 pictures. He picked some for their news value: a triptych by Wolfgang Staehle shows the first plane heading toward and then colliding with the North Tower. “It was a revelation,” Friend says. “It was the initial photo that captured the first moments.” Other images in the book provide highly personal impressions. In one photo, for example, Isabel Daser, eight months pregnant, poses on a street several blocks in front of the burning World Trade Center. At the time, she thinks she is witnessing the crash of a small plane.
Friend’s book tells the story behind each of the 50 images, interviewing the photographer, the subject or his or her family members. He also draws on a few experts who will be familiar to Amherst readers, including Carol Solomon Kiefer, curator of European art at the Mead Art Museum; Frank Couvares, the E. Dwight Salmon Professor of History and American Studies; and Martha Sandweiss, professor of American studies and history. Friend places each image in the context of the moment it was snapped and examines the power and meaning it has today. “Still photos help us slow things down,” he says. “They allow us to reflect. People took them that day because they couldn’t get a handle on it otherwise. And those photos help us all share a common narrative.”
Take, for example, a photo by Magnum photographer Alex Webb of his neighbor Jenna Piccirillo and her 3-month-old son, Vaughan. They’re on a Brooklyn roof with the smoking Ground Zero in the background. Piccirillo is leaning toward Vaughan, who’s in an infant seat. We can’t see her face, but we can see the baby squinting in the sun. Behind them, dark smoke blows from across the river. In the book, Webb tells Friend that the photo shows “a kind of incongruity which I often feel exists in situations of strife and which is often ignored: life continues in the face of disaster.”
Not all of the photos will stand the test of time. Some will shift in importance and impact as the world and we change. But others will remain iconic. Friend predicts that the images that will prove most lasting show the planes hitting the towers; the body of the Rev. Mychal Judge, the fire department chaplain and first officially recorded victim, being carried from the wreckage; and the South Tower falling behind the cross on Trinity Church.
Personally, Friend is particularly haunted by a shot of an appealing, sunny apartment with a windowsill filled with potted, flowering plants. The window frames the catastrophe outside: the tall gray buildings emitting thick clouds of smoke. The photo, by Patricia McDonough of her own apartment, was taken with a fish-eye lens. It’s an image that is at once comfortable and claustrophobic. But to Friend, the visual that most hits home is not a photograph, but a two-minute slice of video made by his friends Gedeon and Jules Naudet that became part of the CBS documentary 9/11. Friend was an executive producer of the Emmy- and Peabody-winning film, which has been screened in 140 countries and has raised $2 million for charity.
The Naudet brothers started out making a documentary about Engine 7, Ladder 1, housed just blocks away from the Trade Center. On the morning of 9/11, Jules followed Chief Joseph Pfeifer on a routine call about a gas leak. While Jules filmed the firefighters at work, he caught on tape the first plane, American Airlines Flight 11, flying overhead. Soon, he found himself with the chief in the lobby of the North Tower. Gedeon, meanwhile, rushed to the tower on foot, camera in hand, to find his brother. As the morning unfolds, each brother keeps the cameras rolling, each is sure the other is in the towers, and when the towers collapse, each brother is terrified the other is dead. Hours later, when they are reunited in the firehouse, the brothers embrace and begin to weep. Jules tells Gedeon, “I know now what death looks like.” The scene of brotherly compassion stirs Friend each time he sees it.
“Everybody has a story; everyone has such a personal connection to that day. It’s all part of the grand narrative,” Friend says. He’s still collecting parts of that narrative. Photographers continue to send images. And on his Website, readers from around the world write to share their experiences of that day, to talk about the images that haunt them most, to record how the attacks have changed them. A reader from Switzerland writes about photographing the day from his balcony on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village: “The images, some strangely disturbing, have not yet left my drawers. Voila, some images and experiences are too pungent, too personal, too internally disrupting to work with. Perhaps one day.”
Also on the Website, the Rev. Stuart Hoke of St. Paul’s Chapel, which is part of Trinity Church, recalls, in an interview with Friend, the impromptu service he held as the South Tower toppled over the church. By sharing experiences like Hoke’s, Friend helps connect our narratives, and readers have readily lent their voices.
Critical response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive. Garrison Keillor called the book “lucid, thoughtful and wide-ranging” in The New York Times Book Review and wrote that Friend “conveys more of the truth of the day than photographs can.” Culture critic Luc Sante, whom Friend quotes in the book, praised it as “gripping, profound, far-reaching—in fact, an entirely new way of writing about history, a stunning achievement.” In his New York Times column, Frank Rich described the book as “surely the most original treatment so far of the cultural impact of the day.” Indeed, Watching the World Change reports the facts of the day, but never loses sight of the emotions of those who where there. It touches on politics without being political. It examines technology and media while reminding us of the people those media capture. It forces us to look at our recent past and challenges us to re-examine our understanding of the tragedy and our national and personal responses to it.
Proving Friend’s point about the resonance of photographs, the book has also stirred up much debate. When Rich mentioned the book in his column on September 10, 2006, he focused on a photograph taken in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on the day of the attacks. Shot by Thomas Hoepker, it shows a group of people, seemingly enjoying a sunny day outside, appearing, to some anyway, oblivious or indifferent to the disaster that is a backdrop of smoke just across the river. In the book Hoepker tells Friend, “It’s possible they lost people and cared. [But] the idyllic quality turned me off.” He kept the photo to himself for four years. “Over time, with perspective, it grew in importance,” Hoepker tells Friend. “It’s a very contemporary picture: the bright colors are up front [but] it has that touch of neutrality, a coolness, a bit of a distance to suffering and not trusting of emotions.... It took a while for the news to sink in. It took a while to know how to react.”
Rich interpreted the photo differently. “This is a country that likes to move on, and fast,” he wrote. “The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just Americans.” This did not sit well with David Plotz, a writer for the online magazine Slate, who argued in his own column that Rich exploited the photo as a metaphor, and that nobody really knows what the people in the shot were discussing, thinking, feeling. Plotz’s take: “They have looked away from the towers for a moment not because they’re bored with 9/11, but because they are citizens participating in the most important act in a democracy—civic debate.” Indeed, Walter Sipser, the Brooklyn artist pictured at far right in the photo, e-mailed Slate to say that was exactly what the group was doing. Chris Schiavo, his then-girlfriend, was pictured next to him. She told Slate that as a native New Yorker, “it was genetically impossible for me to be unaffected by the event.”
“We all have different perspectives on pictures, on events, on one another,” acknowledges Friend. He says the back-and-forth about the Hoepker photo demonstrates that the images have combustibility. “They make you react in a visceral way, an emotional way, an intellectual way,” he says. Even far from Ground Zero, in places like Fort Smith, Ark., his book gets a reaction—at a signing there, he says, some turned away from the images, finding them too upsetting or exploitive, while others told him they’d bought the book to remember, to keep for “history’s sake.”
Friend continues his book tour. He made stops at Family Weekend and Homecoming at Amherst, where his son, Sam, is a first-year student. (Sam’s twin sister, Molly, is at Hofstra University.) At the same time, Friend is turning his sights to other projects, possibly a novel.
Friend has always seen a singular power in photographs. “This experience,” he says, “gave me a platform to show people what I’ve always believed.” In addition, it solidified his thinking about how easy it is for politicians to use images to mold public opinion, another angle he examines in his work. But writing the book has also given Friend a new perspective: “We all forget in the first three months after the attack the tremendous amount of giving that went on among people. Being back in touch with that world—where people were much more compassionate—reminded me of how generous people can be in times of trouble.”
On September 11, 2006, David Friend asks me where I first saw the attack. As it happens, I was just a few floors below the Vanity Fair offices, watching television with co-workers in my editor’s office. Each time the station replayed the second plane hitting the towers, we all gasped, no matter how many times we’d seen it before. Our editor sent us home, and I can easily conjure up they way I felt as I walked uptown with a friend, stopping and turning every so often to look behind us. My stomach was hollow and clenched. I sometimes feel that eerie sensation even now, when I see one too many unmarked cars flash their lights and zoom away, when the subway is stopped in a tunnel for an extraordinarily long time or when, say, I see The Devil Wears Prada at the movie theater and am caught off guard by a trailer for World Trade Center.
So I was a bit apprehensive about picking up Friend’s book. Watching the World Change is not always an easy book to read—it eloquently details the anguish of the grieving and captures the terror of the day. Friend’s subjects speak with candor and heart, and he doesn’t shy away from grim truths. But as I read it, I was surprised to feel a sense of relief—finally, a work that steps back and encourages us to really look, to connect and to learn from our reactions to the images. We are forced to ask ourselves: What power do these images have over our emotions, our opinions? How do they shape our memory of the day? Do they bring us solace? Do they generate more questions? Our answers may change as the years go on, but the images that provoke the questions will be lasting touchstones of history.
Molly Lyons is a literary agent in New York City. She has written for SELF, Glamour, Redbook and other magazines.