9/11 changed the world (of photography)

The tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 has come and gone. I listened to, watched and read many of reports on the commemorations. I was equally interested to read the many commentaries exploring the long-term impact of those horrible events on our nation and on the world. Throughout that process, I never read a commentary that explored the way that 9/11 has impacted the world of photography. With that in mind, this week I will explore my reaction to the events of 9/11 as a blogger/photographer.

Let me say up front that I have nothing but sympathy for those who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks. The long-term consequences of those events are still unfolding, as are our national and individual responses. Because people much smarter than I have explored those larger questions in much greater depth, I am staying away from that. Since what I know is the art, practice and culture of the world of photography, I have been thinking for a while about how the events of 9/11 have reshaped photography.

The attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001 were the most extensively witnessed and recorded events in history, particularly in terms of New York City. Yes, the destruction wrought in Washington and Pennsylvania was a very important part of that horrible day! Still, I would argue that it is the images of the World Trade Center’s destruction that are seared most strongly in our collective and individual memories.

One reason for that is the sheer number of photographers who were in NYC that day and who photographed the unfolding events from hundreds of different perspectives. The scale of that region-wide act of photographing became even more apparent with the opening of the exhibition “Here Is New York.” That exhibition sprang up, in two small storefronts in SoHo, in the wake of the attacks in NYC.

When I went to see that work in 2001, the crowds that had lined up around the block to see work made by both professional and amateur photographers, amazed me. The show was uneven in the quality of the work yet very moving in how it explored the collective tragedy of September 11th. Some of the amateur work was as strong or stronger than the professional work. In all, the human being in me was moved by the whole experience.

The photographer in me was a bit worried and curious what that same show meant for the world of photography, as I knew it in 2000. Ironically, that exhibition was presciently subtitled “A Democracy of Photographs.” In hindsight, I can see that the photography world I knew was about to change. The events of September 11th, though not the trigger of those changes, certainly stand as a starting point of that change.

For example, now I can appreciate how the exhibition “Here Is New York” is a fascinating example of what we now routinely call crowd-sourcing. An amazing 6,500 images were ultimately submitted to that project.

To fully appreciate that, remember that the democratization of photography was moving into high gear at the turn of the millennium. The practice of photography was being wrestled out of the grip of professionals and handed to amateurs by the camera manufacturers. This ongoing battle finally tilted permanently in the amateur’s favor at about the time of 9/11, with the onslaught of high quality, easy to use point and shoot film cameras. Digital cameras with similar ease of use and high image quality followed in the decade after 9/11.

Keep in mind that in 2001, digital cameras were not widely used and the vast majority of cell phones did not have cameras. That means that the “crowd sourced” photo reporting on the New York City events of 9/11 was largely film-based. Thus, it was relatively costly to the photographers of that time who had to pay for film, processing and printing, unlike today’s digital photographers whose opportunity cost per image are minimal.

To appreciate the change that was happening in 2001, consider:

“A May 2000 study from InfoTrends Research Group revealed that in 2000 revenue from digital camera sales in North America will exceed revenue generated from film camera sales by almost 10%. The largest segment in both units and revenues is the digital point & shoot category, which will reach 3.1 million units this year.”

Imagine that same kind of “event” being “covered” today with the proliferation of cell phones, increasingly with video capability. There was no Facebook, Twitter or other social media in 2001 to share the photos. If another event like that happened today, there would certainly be more images than ever, with wider ranging quality, more divergent subject matter and imaging strategies.

Another example of the change is in the practice of conflict photography. The explosion in the use of local photojournalists to cover those same conflicts has dimmed the career prospect photographers who used to travel to violence torn countries in order to photograph the conflicts.

Yes, the “locals” speak the language and they know the culture, so they have an advantage. This kind of leveling of the playing field clearly has an upside and a downside. For the news agencies hiring locals and the locals being hired, the changes brought on by 9/11 were clearly for the better.

The fact is today anyone can take picture, overseas or in his or her own backyard. But the question that matters, which has been amplified by the events of 9/11 is, how many people understand and can wisely use the power of the photographic media with the professional skill and ethical foundation that professional photojournalists do (did?)

Another example of this change in technology and in the cultural impact of images can be found in the controversial practice of embedding journalists (re: photojournalists) with military troops. This process was born out of the wars that were spurred by the events of 9/11/01. The political implications of the photographs that come out of those “embeds” is a whole other blog topic.

So for me 9/11 was a day where our lives, country and culture were changed forever. The attacks, especially in NYC were mediated in a unique way, In a media saturated environment. At the same time my beloved medium was changed equally radically, by events that have unfolded since that day, though it has taken me a few years to understand how, why and what that means.

(Next week I will explore my reaction to the events of 9/11 as a practicing photographer.)

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