Saturday, 13 February 2010

Power of Photography

Last week new photographs of the 9/11 attacks in New York were published for the first time. September 11th 2001 is a date forever etched in our minds, an infamous day where the world seemed to freeze in terror as sinister events unfolded; and yet there was a sense the world we lived in was poised to change, and not for the good.

Historic events in contemporary times are often defined by the way they are recorded, the solitary photograph or short video clip has become the symbol of what occurred. The impact of 9/11 seemed so real and great, possibly because of the blanket media coverage that brought it all into our lives so vividly, swamping us. Never before had such an event been captured on so many live TV streams, photographed by so many people with access to cameras, commented on via the internet and mobile phones. A technological new century meant a technological new experience of world events. It meant a bombarding of footage, of images and the most chilling aspect of all - mobile phone voice messages of people about to lose their lives. We may not have been in New York on 9/11, but we were all engaged, terrified, connected, like never before.

But like past key events in history, it is often the photograph which becomes the icon and thus basis, of people's memory. We all watched the horrific TV footage, but it is the photograph still, that prints onto our memories. The photographic image allows us to pause, reflect, contemplate, study. It is a frozen moment. Still. Video footage is raw and has huge impact, but often details become blurred as the linear flows on, your brain sometimes only remembers fleeting elements. The video camera captures the event, the photograph captures the possibility of seeing the intricate core of what is actually happening.

One of the most fascinating aspects of 9/11 was the photographic work that was produced of the attacks, of the aftermath. Quite simply put, the photo-journalism of that day was breathtakingly stunning. New York seemed awash with photographers, either professional or not, and aided by the fact by 2001, digital photography was breaking into a medium of its own.

I write this with a strange mixture of self-conflict when I reflect on some of the incredible images taken of the towers collapsing, or the planes colliding with the buildings. These images are utterly horrific. Some show plumes of fire, of smoke, of carnage. Twisted girders, blackened materials, a razored-cut web of wires; all that resemble some kind of apocalyptic metal hell. It is a blazed horror film, purgatory even, inconceivable if for the fact you know it is real. Some images show people - and these are the most utterly terrifying and disturbing of them all. People covered in dust, in burns, terror on their faces. Grayed indistinguishable figures standing at windows - innocuous enough perhaps, but the context of knowing their fate turns the shadowed forms into ghostly gut-wrenching symbols of mortality and tragedy. Lives are lost. This is the worst thing of all.

Yet amongst this, the images of the impact of explosion, are incredible to look at. There is a warped sense of not beauty in the photograph itself - far from it - but from the medium of photograph's own ability to capture so much detail, so much of the split second moment, in all it's colour and clarity of sharpness. It is a reminder of the medium's ability to do what it does. The magic of an image appearing on the paper. And the more detail, the more focus makes it that much more incredible. Part of me still finds photography such a wonder, a beautiful contradiction of processes; the science and yet also the other-worldy creativity.

Images of such events are crucial to remember what happened, but also illustrate to us, what a major impact Photography has to all our lives, whether we are even conscious of it or not.

New images of 9/11
Incredible Ground Zero images from photographer Joel Meyerowitz.


Anonymous said...


I see you are twitter friends with cardiffblogger - Nathan Collins.

I was hoping you would give him a message, to check the comment at his sarcasm site. I don't have a tw account.

Thank you

Rohan said...

Imagery can be so powerful, and the human mind has an eerie fascination with tragedy. You see such amazing images labelled as 'aftermath', and this is a vivid example. You are absolutely right in talking about self-conflict, as it is a challenge to label anything that happened that day as 'beautiful', but it is clear what you mean.