The cover photo on the new book “Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images from 9/11-9/17, 2001” (Picador, 464 pages with a 24-page color isnert, $17) is both familiar and, in its composition and intensity, jarring.
In front of a backdrop of New York buildings, a sea of human beings — all races and ethnicities, both sexes, different socioeconomic categories — are staring upward. The camera catches their expressions, which for a group of people with such different backgrounds, are eerily similar — a mixture of wonder, amazement, and, most of all, fear.
These people, a microcosm of those who were in Manhattan and other parts of New York on September 11, 2001, whose perspectives on life varied, are shown, at least in that brief moment, to be united in their status as people whose lives, and their society and planet, were to be changed and indelibly affected by what happened on that day.
To David Friend, 52, the book’s author — who has spent most of his decades-long professional life taking pictures, getting other people in position to take pictures, and trying to make sense of the photos once they are taken — the images were among the most important, and impactful, he has ever seen.
“What this really is is a chronicle, hour by hour, day by day, of what we saw that week,” says Friend in a phone interview from his home in New Rochelle, New York, where he lives with his wife and twin college-age son and daughter. “The book is telling the stories of the pictures we all shared. There were 2.5 billion people — one third of the human race — who saw these pictures on that day, on TV, in the newspaper, or on the Internet. We were all connected to that same picture story.”
Friend, who is Vanity Fair magazine’s editor of creative development, will speak on Wednesday, September 5, at Monroe Public Library, 4 Municipal Plaza, Monroe, at 7 p.m. It is one of the first stops on a national book tour that will last through November.
Friend grew up outside of Chicago. His father is a practicing personal injury attorney and diehard Cubs fan; his mother was a draftsman in the 1950s and has remained active in charity work for much of her life. They now divide their time between Chicago and Scottsdale. Friend graduated in 1977 from Amherst, where his son is now in school.
In his review of the book, New York Times cultural critic Frank Rich says it was “the most original treatment so far of the cultural impact of the day.”
Friend cites that review as one that best conveyed what he was trying to do in writing the book. “This was an attempt to do a sort of species-wide gut check of how pictures affect people, the journalists, the viewers, the politicians, and the people who lost loved ones. It is a very human book, a synthesis of how the various events affected the culture.”
Although the book is about photography and its impact, “Watching the World Change” is a result of extensive reporting and research, and there are only 40 photo pages in it. Friend refers to the book as “a chronicle of the day from a journalistic perspective.”
Friend has a long history in photojournalism. In the 1990s he was the director of photojournalism for Life magazine, and he had worked as a correspondent/photographer in places like Lebanon and Afghanistan for many different publications. After the September 11 attacks, he served as executive producer for the CBS-TV documentary “9/11,” for which he earned Emmy, Peabody, and Christopher Awards in 2002.
For the documentary Friend compiled lots of news clippings and photos about the September 11 attacks, and he continued to do so afterward. “I was like a pack rat, obsessively collecting stuff, and it soon became somewhat of a visual footprint of that week in September,” he says. “And when I reached a critical mass of information, it began in my mind to support the idea that generations from now, people would be able to best understand this event through images.”
Friend, with the backing of his employers at Vanity Fair, spent hours tracking down the loved ones of people who had died in the attacks, and interviewing and photographing them.
“As it turned out it was easier to get people a couple of years after the incidents passed, when emotions were not as raw and when suspicions had dampened, when the spirit of cooperation was there,” Friend says.
Photographers and videographers, just like the bankers and businesspeople who perished in the attacks and those who did not, were simply doing their jobs and living their lives on the morning of September 11 before the hijacked planes screamed toward the World Trade Center towers.
In the book Friend interviews amateur and professional photographers, people like Tom Flynn, a CBS producer, and Grant Peterson, a Brides magazine photographer, both of whom relate their experiences on that day.
Possibly even more important to history, though, were the people who witnessed the catastrophe and were not paid journalists. When the first tower collapsed, at 10:05 a.m., hundreds of people, only some of them professional photographers, recorded the scene on camera. Some had sophisticated SLRs and digital cameras. Others had disposable cameras they had literally bought in the store just minutes earlier. Many of the photographers — and Friend includes photos of them and interviews — were literally running for their lives when they took some of their most significant photos of the attacks.
Many of the other photographs in the book are both stunning and disturbing. One photo, which takes up two pages, was taken in an apartment near Ground Zero. The photo, taken with a fish-eye lens, shows smoke billowing from the north tower a few minutes after the first attack. The smoke, and the tower, are framed by a series of flower pots in the windowsill.
In another, a young woman with a camera is crying, unable to take any more pictures of the disaster. And on a Brooklyn rooftop, a woman plays with her three-month-old son to a backdrop of smoke that engulfs the whole of lower Manhattan.
And one photo, which was taken by the Associated Press but not distributed over its wire, shows a single man plummeting to his death — head-first — from the burning tower.
The attacks of September 11, Friend says, changed the world forever, and photography and cameras, are a significant part of that. September 11 ushered in a new age where technology, especially the instantaneousness of it, is more important that ever.
Photography has also assumed a greater — and scarier — role in our security. In Britain, but also in America, the presence of security cameras, especially in urban areas, is ubiquitous. And now that cameras are more accessible to more people — how many people have cell phone cameras now? — they are being used by law enforcement as well.
“There are communities in Britain where basically the police encourage you to take your cell phone and take pictures of neighbors who are not doing the right thing,” says Friend. “It has really done wonders for cutting down on crimes such as petty crimes and vandalism but it also really creates a sense of Peyton Place, citizens’ action, and vigilantism.”
As well, says Friend, the advent of so many surveillance cameras and facial recognition software is infringing on our privacy but is not significantly reducing the threat of terrorism. “If you spend a day in London, just walking the streets, you will be photographed an average of 300 times,” he says. Law enforcement was able to track down the group of physicians whose abortive attack on an airport took place in Scotland but they were unable to prevent the attack in the first place.
Says Friend: “If you took all that money that was going for facial recognition software, all that money for those cameras that nobody has a chance to monitor anyway, and put it into human intelligence and interdiction you might have a much better chance of finding out about something before it happened and maybe stopping it.”
“Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images from 9/11-9/17, 2001,” Wednesday, September 5, 7 p.m. Monroe Public Library, 4 Municipal Plaza, Monroe. Author David Friend discusses his new book featuring photographs taken on September 11 and the week following. Register. Free. 732-521-5000.