Representations of 9/11 in Documentary Art
The two buildings, smoke billowing from the tower blocks like sky-high chimneys, the aerial views of New York destruction; this was a potent example of iconography long before the events of September 11th, 2001 even occurred. The relationship between the viewer and images of metropolitan destruction is long lasting one. Built upon through many 1990’s CGI-blockbusters such as Godzilla or Armageddon, the understanding that skyscrapers are occasionally obliterated was ingrained in the public’s mind for years before any of 9/11 terrorist attacks took place. It’s little surprise that so many people described witnessing the events as “surreal”, or “like a movie”.
Susan Sontag wrote that “Photographs objectify: they turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed”. If this is true, then the 9/11 home viewer was suddenly overwhelmed with unwanted possessions. What unfolded, and the unprecedented media coverage it received, tricked a viewership into processing what they saw in a similar manner to how they’d process the latest Roland Emmerich epic. The tension that was produced in coming to terms with the hyperrealism of the million or so replays on news media was something that caught viewers off guard. These non-fictional images lacked the detachment of foreign lands or the rules of war. How we processed the totality of the situation was so heavily influenced by our previous experiences with cinematic concrete carnage and that it caused an inability in so many to peel themselves away from their TV screens, hoping at some point a hero would come along and save the day.
On top of the city-spanning aerial footage captured by news helicopters was a huge influx of crowd-sourced media. Shaky handheld video cameras and survivor snapshot photographs were rushed in to news sources across the world. The aerial footage did nothing to separate itself from that of the sweeping cityscape shots contained in popular movies. It was in the personal element of subjectivity, the snapshots and shaky video, that the viewers could begin to process the horror of that day.
Below I have compiled what I consider the most relatable examples of documentary art that have dealt with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. This is not to judge someone’s art or interpretation of that day as better than another’s, this is simply a list of well formed expressions. Everyone has a story of that day, where they first saw the towers like that for the first time, who they looked around to in hope of solace. These are those which I felt best described the various distances of experience.
1. ‘9/11' by J. Hanlon, G. Naudet and J. Naudet
This is about as first hand as it gets for anyone that didn’t work in the towers or wasn’t a first responder. This documentary follows two brothers making a film about a firefighter trying to make the department and then inadvertently gets caught up in what happens as the battalion gets called to action on one of the most tragic days in United States’ history.
It’s an interesting film because it doesn’t focus on reasoning or rationale behind what took place. It never attempts to judge or tackle wider issues. It localises the point of the film to the witnessing and documentation of the firefighters while understanding that there would be no place to attempt objectivity. The lens is regularly wiped, the cameraman frequently talks to those in the shot.
In hindsight, it’s hard not to watch this and think of the Matt Reeves film Cloverfield. Reeves unabashedly took techniques of documentation that viewers encountered during 9/11 coverage and he applied those to the B-move monster genre. If there was a real life equivalent film that Abrams could have maybe been influenced by, it’d be this one.
At the end of it, this film becomes just as much about the story of the camera crew than the fireman they were following, but it does so unashamedly, and that’s important. It was refreshing to watch a documentary that didn’t focus on the factual side or any sort of conspiracy theories and stuck to accounting for the day. It’s a personal, well edited, account of 9/11 and for that it’s relatable.
2. Image from the series ‘Untitled Photographs' by Tim Barber
The image of the burning towers has grown to iconical status in the last decade or so. It can be held alongside the crucifiction of Jesus Christ in terms of public recognition. Much like how the great painters of the Renaissance wanted their version of religious scenes to stand as definitive, this is Tim Barber’s contribution to the collection of images that stand within our collective memory of 9/11.
If we were to break down the image on a connotational level, we begin to see some interesting developments. This image is, by far, not his most technically astute example of work but I think that’s why it excels. In a society where the use of Photoshop in the field of photojournalism is almost a weekly issue now, it’s refreshing to see what looks like an unedited snapshot. The contrast is poor, the focal point is overexposed and the image lacks depth of colour but its in these shortcomings we find credibility.
The cinematic stylings of many more well-known photographs only add to the detachment factor of fiction-association and stand as yet another barrier to processing realism. It was the act of making this a spectacle in which to gaze upon that created America’s fear of another attack. Rather than simply documenting the moment and letting it go, it became fetishised and held up in martyrdom as a vague symbol of oppressed freedom.
In Barber’s image, the attack is depicted as an interruption. First and foremost, it shows daily life, the everyday, the antithesis of the spectacle. The subject is shown on the phone, facing away from the camera and with a document in hand. The document was maybe at some point important, at some point held attention but now it’s pointing away in irrelevance. She has been interrupted. The phone in the subject’s hand is so symptomatic of the majority of the public’s experience when they learned of the news.
Inside the living space, on the walls, we can see framed pictures and in comparison to the window space, the terrorist act appears as just another framed image for us to look at. It simultaneously presents itself as both the object, the image and the document.
Again, the effectiveness of these documents come down to their inherent subjectivity and the unwillingness of the artist to shy away from it in such a time of wider importance. Understanding the personal fears of those in the city that day is impossible but that does come across to a certain degree here. I imagine this image is most relatable for New Yorkers during that time but I cannot place tags like that on something which I experienced in such a detached fashion as an Irishman.
3. ‘9/11: The View from the Mid-West' by David Foster Wallace
A lot of David Foster Wallace’s reportage is best known not for what he’s covering, but for the details he produces as a spectator wandering around inside any given landscape. In this piece for Rolling Stone, we are gifted with an exemplary piece of writing in which the role of the author is likely the most relatable position for those across the world; the news spectator.
Foster Wallace was in Bloomington, Indiana and found out while listening to the radio in the shower. From there he rushed to the nearest TV in a 74 year old neighbour’s house and tried to make sense of what was going on. What’s important about this piece of writing is, like the Barber photograph, subjective worries and the act of communal witnessing. The need to reach out in times of tragedy is well understood. It’s almost taken for granted. But the small details that the author includes here grant it an anxiety that otherwise wouldn’t be present.
When he arrives at the house, he says that “In retrospect, the first sign of shock was the fact that I didn’t ring the bell but just came on in, which normally here one would never do." This small familial custom that is deemed unimportant here is so relatable to me. Given the time difference, it was afternoon and I had just arrived home from school when I heard the news. Friends, as they passed my house, were called in to see what was happening. At one point, one friend was particularly distressed as she was under the impression her absent father worked in one of the towers.
Foster Wallace takes care to note the effect of shock on himself and includes, at several times throughout the essay, references that he may not remember things perfectly well. “I know at some point for a while there was the sound of somebody mowing his lawn, which seemed totally bizarre, but I don’t remember if anyone said anything.”
No point hits home more than the notion that these comparisons I just made with big-budget Hollywood films were something that a previous generation were actively making at the time of these events. it’s one thing to reflect and compare, it’s another to see something and instantly think of it’s similarities to entertainment. “Nobody’s edgy or sophisticated enough to lodge the sick and obvious po-mo complaint: We’ve Seen This Before.” That was when it hit me how well written this piece was. For the unassuming teenager I was then, I didn’t have the ironic coating of critique that the author’s generation had. I wasn’t educated enough. I wouldn’t have even known what “po-mo" was. I probably have that skepticism now and it was that connection I felt with Foster Wallace biting his tongue and not commenting to a room full of old ladies about the intricacies of news manipulation, that let me to love this piece of writing.
This author made a living through creating a narrative out of what seems like irrelevant details, but these tidbits serve always end up serving a purpose. The details contain Foster Wallace’s human element, something so startlingly absent in the innumerable statistical accounts or expressionist eulogies that were pushed out in the twelve years since 2001.