9/11 changed practice of photojournalism

William Woody photographing an editing session at the Eddie Adams workshops in New York following 9/11.

The imagery of 9/11, particularly the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, became part of the most thoroughly documented single event in United States history.

It was a prelude to our society today, where images, both video and still, can be recorded, transmitted and shared globally within a few seconds.

9/11 not only changed the way society records history, it changed the practice of photojournalism.

Professional photographers in Manhattan that day were tested mentally in concentration, technical ability and human compassion, unaware that the event would continue to change from a plane hitting a building to utter destruction.

The human toll of the attacks was evident everywhere. For the veteran shooters, they had to block it out and continue to record history.

The timing of the attacks that morning also allowed thousands of rush-hour commuters, armed with amateur cameras and cellphones, to contribute to the day’s visual record.

I was enjoying coffee that morning, my second year as a photography student at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., when I watched the second plane hit the South Tower. The moment Flight 175 struck and exploded into a fireball on live television, we all asked ourselves if that had really happened. We as a country had never experienced such live destruction before, and the broadcast images kept us in a state of shock and seared the event into our memories.

Earlier that year, I was accepted to the Eddie Adams workshop, a photojournalism school that takes the top 100 collegiate portfolios from across the country.

The school is named after Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Eddie Adams, whose photo of a North Vietnamese colonel shooting a prisoner in the head in Saigon in 1968 became one of the most iconic images of the Vietnam War.

My bags already were packed to go to New York when the workshop was threatened with cancellation because of travel restrictions imposed by 9/11.

It was rescheduled for Oct. 5, and I arrived a day before to find lower Manhattan still smoldering. I will always remember the smell, a metallic burning odor that stung my nostrils and, in certain waves, made my eyes water.

Most of the top photo editors decided to stay and teach the incoming class. It was apparent from the get-go this workshop would be different, and any previous lesson plans where changed overnight.

The Associated Press on 9/11 took in tens of thousands of images from New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

Some of the most important and powerful images were shot by random people on the street without any formal photographic training. In the hours after the New York attacks, AP editors handed out hundreds of rolls of film and digital cards to anyone heading to ground zero. And as they got the film and digital cards back, they used some of the resulting images.

At the Eddie Adams school, the images continued to flow in real time.

The iconic image of three New York firefighters surrounding a flagpole with the trade center in ruin in the background was still fresh.

That image, taken by Thomas Franklin of the Bergen County Record, was one of the first digital images to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The industry at the time was starting to move from film to digital. Many of the traditional film images from that day had a grainy reproduction. On the digital side, 9/11 was digital photography’s first major event, and it proved just as effective as film.

Unlike New York, images from the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., were grainy, hard-to-see pictures taken from great distances.

In New York, when the towers fell and the dust turned light to dark, ghostly outlines of human beings staggering from ground zero were recorded.

One of the greatest documentary news photographers in the world is James Nachtwey. He lives in Manhattan between assignments and scrambled that morning to get to the World Trade Center.

His collection of images from 9/11 make up one of the best news portfolios recorded that day. If you have never seen his images, his accomplishment of telling a story through photos is second to none.

The video from 9/11 also provides some of the most horrific details of the tragedy. Amateur photographers nervously tried to hold their cameras steady as Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower. The audio is just as haunting, as the men and women holding the cameras began to scream. And how can we ever forget the sights and sounds of a 100-story building crumbling or people running away from the ensuing dust cloud?

The tragedy of 9/11 allowed us to see ourselves at our deepest depths of grief. It also showed us heroes in everyday life. This evidence was most memorably recorded through photography.

Since their invention, the photographic still-image and moving-picture capability have continued to transform and shape our world.

Ten years later, anyone who was old enough to remember that day has a story to tell.

For future generations, the story will be told through 9/11’s visceral images.


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