Somerstein Essay: Photographic Coverage of 9/11

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Rachel Somerstein

If I ask you to picture 9/11, one of a handful of photographs likely comes to your mind: a plane hitting the World Trade Center; people fleeing Lower Manhattan; firefighters raising an American flag. Such photographs, which give viewers a sense of “secondary witnessing”—it is as if we were there[i]—also seem to suggest that news photographers enjoyed unobstructed access to document the attacks and their impact.

In fact, in the days after 9/11 the World Trade Center site quickly became extremely difficult for the press to access. Firefighters and police officers threatened photographers for taking pictures; one photographer recalls being menaced by a firefighter with a shovel.[ii] The area around the World Trade Center became a “frozen zone,” studded with checkpoints, barriers, and fencing.[iii] Soon the National Guard and other security forces kept journalists (and others) from entering what became known as ground zero, or “the pit,” the piles of building, airplane, and body parts where the World Trade Center once stood.[iv] Over the months that followed some photographers snuck in to this most famous crime scene in the world, managing to photograph for a few hours before being kicked out. Others, including former New York Times photographer Edward Keating, who later won a Pulitzer for his photographs of 9/11, were not so lucky; they had their film confiscated and were arrested for “criminal trespassing.”[v]

What’s more, the handful of photographers who did gain access to the pit labored under tacit and express conditions about what they could document, how, and when the public could see their pictures. The Fire Department forbade Gary Suson, for instance, from photographing remains, or publishing his photographs as he took them; he had to embargo them until the recovery was complete.[vi] Joel Meyerowitz, a photographer who gained access to the site in late September, made what critic Peter Conrad called “brawnily heroic” photographs of firefighters and depicted the “Biblical scale” of the wreckage.[vii] If credible journalism means laboring free from power and ideology, neither of these photographers was able to do so. But when we encounter their photographs, we don’t “see” that the Fire Department and other security forces called the shots, or that these conditions shaped the photographs that emerged and, in turn, our collective understanding of the aftermath of 9/11.

Barbie Zelizer has written about how the news media republished many of the same day-of photographs in the weeks following the attacks, particularly of the plane hitting the Tower, or of people witnessing the attacks.[viii] More than “establi[sh] newsworthiness,” Zelizer wrote, the repetition of such photographs helped people to “bear witness” to 9/11’s trauma. The press also circulated photographs of crowds outside of the World Trade Center site, who’d traveled there to “see” it for themselves.

But the limitations that photographers faced in the days and weeks after 9/11 can help to explain why editors reprinted these photographs. That is, aftermath photographs from the pit did not make it into the news because there were not that many of them being made.

It was also difficult to photograph the aftermath at the Pentagon, because it is such a highly-securitized space. Though theoretical explanations can explain why we would not see so many images of the Pentagon—the Towers’ destruction created a bigger spectacle—governmental and militaristic forces would have kept photographers from the site.

The FBI’s release of “little seen” images showing the Pentagon’s destruction further attests to the few photographs that made it into the mass media showing the Pentagon.[ix] These unremarkable pictures are not romantic or aggrandizing or particularly emotionally resonant. They aren’t what most of us would consider “good” pictures. But they remind us of what we didn’t see in the days and months after 9/11, and can help us speculate about those absent scenes.

If there had been more diverse pictures, what might they have looked like? And if these pictures had ever entered the public conversation, what might they have done? If, as W.J.T. Mitchell has asserted, the destruction of the Twin Towers was an attack of iconoclasm that created a new image in its wake—that of America surprised, attacked, humiliated[x]—to what degree did the absence of human-scale, pile-in-process photos cement that new picture?

Our collective understanding of 9/11 largely (visually) focused on the moments just after the planes hit the towers. Such photographs further enabled public support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as Barbie Zelizer has asserted. They focus on the strike; they ask for a counter-attack. Brawny photos of heroic firefighters stand in for soldiers we would soon enough send abroad. Aftermath images, ones that we did not see much of, invite different responses. They ask us to pause and consider what it will take to put things back together, and to meditate on the costs of what we have lost. But aftermath images are not the kinds of pictures news organizations tend to prize. (That is one reason photographer Sara Terry started the Aftermath Project, which supports photographic projects about how people rebuild and “learn to live again” after the guns have gone silent[xi]). We focus on the initial impact, not the long duree, which is why it can be difficult to visualize long-unfolding stories like climate change or life after conflict. But these are where some of the most compelling and complicated stories unfold.

While technology seems to have granted us unprecedented visual access, transforming anyone with a phone into a photographer, in fact there is so much that we do not see because of obstacles visual journalists face. Such challenges limit the possible pictorial rhetoric that even has the chance to emerge. Over time, these blank spots and silences get woven into our collective memory, and help to shape the images that become iconic. As scholars we need to attend to this reality, an aspect of collective memory that we don’t often remember, and that can help explain, at the level of journalistic practice, why 9/11’s visual rhetoric looked the way it did 20 years ago, and why the most widely-circulated images have remained relatively stable in the two decades since.

About the author: Rachel Somerstein is an associate professor of journalism at SUNY New Paltz. Her research focuses on photographers, photographs, and collective memory.

Featured image: A piece of the American Airlines airplane that crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11. Credit: FBI.


[i] See Hoelscher, S. (2012). ‘Dresden, a Camera Accuses’: Rubble photography and the politics of memory in a divided Germany. History of Photography 36(3): 288-305.

[ii] Sanchez, R. (2016). “9/11 images are seared into the memories of Magnum photographers.” CNN, September 8.

[iii] Rohrlich, M. (2001). “In TriBeCa, ‘open’ signs and empty sidewalks.’ New York Times, September 27.

[iv] Johnson, J., Buchanan, M., & Alexander, S. (2011). “9.11.01: The photographers’ stories, pt. 4—’whatever it takes.’Popular Photography, September 8.

[v] New York Times. (2002.) “Photographer is arrested.” January 12.

[vi] Sachs, S. (2002). “From a camera at Ground Zero, rare photos of an agonizing dig.” New York Times, May 28.

[vii] Conrad, P. (2006). “The Observer: Joel Meyerowitz.” The Guardian, 27 August.

[viii] Zelizer, B. (2011). “Photography, journalism, and trauma.” In B. Zelizer and S. Allan (eds) Journalism after September 11 (2nd ed.), pp. 48–68. New York: Routledge.

[ix] Cade, D. L. (2017). “FBI re-releases lost photos of the Pentagon from 9/11 after glitch.” PetaPixel, March 31.

[x] Mitchell, W. J. T. (2005). What Do Pictures Want? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[xi] Aftermath Project. (n.d.). “The Story.”

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