When my father (a volunteer firefighter) and I got into his truck, we rode to Lincolnway Fire Company, where most of the firefighters silently sat around the room, quietly and anxiously staring at the small, lone television set in the corner. The towers burned and crumbled over and over and again; the Pentagon caved; the field smoldered. The images were haunting. I did not understand. But we could not turn away.
America had been attacked on live television, literally causing news stations to break into scheduled mid-morning television. Images streamed across the screen of soot-covered New York businessmen, firefighters, police officers and emergency medical personnel screaming and sprinting through the streets. It was morbid. It was unsettling. It was terrifying. But we could not turn away.
Somehow, someway, though hundreds and thousands of miles apart all over the nation and the world, we all became closer to the events on that day, and in turn, closer to each other. Why? Because we could all experience it together on our television sets and in our newspapers; the live video images and the still, now-iconic photographs combine for an emotional concoction that covered a wide range of sentiments, to say the least.
As Americans watched the terrorist attacks and their subsequent results unfold on screens and across front pages, it became apparent that we were all in the midst of a truly historic event. Ten years after 9/11, one photojournalist said, “I remember thinking—I’ll never forget this…This is war.”
Americans watched as the nation “suffered the most devastating surprise attack since Pearl Harbor,” and the first time a foreign power “had struck our capital…since the War of 1812,” President George W. Bush wrote in his 2010 memoir Decision Points. War was being waged before us, on our own eastern seaboard, for the first time since the Civil War.
The Civil War is an era in which I have had an interest since I was seven years old, so by the time 9/11 happened I was already familiar with the carnage that took place 140 years before the terrorist attacks transpiring in front of me. I had visited Gettysburg, and was as competent as a seven-or-eight-year-old child can be regarding death on a mass scale, which is really not very much. That being said, I had seen photographs of dead Civil War soldiers, and I had seen warfare depicted in film. As I slowly wrapped my third-grade mind around the impact of 9/11, I gained an appreciation for the sacrifice and valor exhibited by those who were in their finest—and many in their final—hours.
The firsthand experience of seeing such horrific sites is something which has stuck with me, and most likely will always stick with me. Despite these memories, the photographs taken by those who were there as the events themselves unfolded are what we will all collectively remember. Those of us who lived through the experience of being alive on 9/11 will remember the most, obviously. Because of a plethora of photographs and the written record, however, those who come along in subsequent generations will develop a general idea of what it meant to live through the experience of 9/11, even though they will (hopefully) have no firsthand experience of foreign terrorism on American soil.
In the 2006 film World Trade Center, as Staff Sgt. Dave Karnes (portrayed by actor Michael Shannon) approached Ground Zero on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, he looked at the stories-tall piles of rubble and devastation and said, “It’s like God made a curtain with the smoke, shielding us from what we’re not yet ready to see.”
Photojournalists in times of war put their lives in danger on a consistent basis. On 9/11, they attempted to tear down the “curtain of smoke” and, through photographs, discovered an additional layer which needed to be shared with the world. Professional and amateur photographers who were on other assignments obviously did not expect to be present for sudden war on American soil, though they performed their jobs admirably.
“I was just trying to watch it out of the corner of my eye…as it got into position for me to click,” she said. “Because as you know, on those cameras you get one try.” With that one try, she captured the haunting image of the nose of the second plane hitting the South Tower.
Spencer Platt, a photographer for Getty, was running over the Brooklyn Bridge after the first plan struck the North Tower. Platt grabbed his camera “to take some more frames, and then it just hit.” He captured the second plane, before pulling “my camera down immediately...to make sure I had the picture.”
Platt jumped in with a taxi driver who “started screaming, ‘He’s got it.’” Platt later pondered why it was that he treated this action as “if that mattered. As if what happened in front of us wasn’t real until it was really captured” on camera.
As I have grown older, my passion for history, and my connection to emotional events such as 9/11, has helped me recognize trends throughout time. One necessary connection that I feel is obvious, is one which goes back to the Civil War, and the very first images of the horrors of combat that reached the general American populace. The images of the battlefield near Antietam Creek, Maryland, in September 1862, shocked all who viewed them, making viewers feel as though the photographers of their time had brought home “the terrible reality and earnestness of war” and laid the corpses “in our dooryards and along the streets,” as was recorded in The New York Times.
At the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, the limited capacity of bulky cameras and the Daguerre silver plate process made it virtually impossible to photographically record battlefield scenes. Nonetheless, photographers such as Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner flocked to Washington City and opened studios similar to those found in New York City. Brady had already been a national celebrity after opening his New York studio in 1844, “where he became almost as famous as the notables who sat for their portraits,” according to the National Park Service.
By 1856, Gardner, one of Brady’s employees, nearly perfected the glass plate process, which was the preferred method for photographers early in the Civil War. Using this technology throughout the first year-and-a-half of the conflict, Brady and Gardner captured “camp scenes and portraits of untested, jubilant greenhorns in their new uniforms” but nothing during or immediately after battles. Aside from technological issues, there were also geographic and timing aspects that could simply not be met by most Northern photographers: The majority of Civil War battles took place throughout Virginia and other parts of the South, making it difficult for the likes of Brady and Gardner to safely and efficiently travel to the scenes of the worst fighting. By September 1862, however, photographers were better able to travel directly behind the war’s major fighting units.
As Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River for the first time in September 1862, the Union Army of the Potomac met them near the small town of Sharpsburg, Maryland. There, over the course of 12 hours, nearly 23,000 Americans were killed, wounded, captured or missing, making Sept. 17, 1862, the bloodiest day in American history.
News of the Battle of Antietam—as it was called in the North, whose citizens usually named battles after the largest body of water in the battlefield’s vicinity—reached the masses. According to The New York Times several weeks after the battle, “the dead of the battle-field come up to us very rarely, even in dreams. We see the list in the morning paper at breakfast,” though the author admitted that New Yorkers “dismiss [the list’s] recollection with the coffee.” To them, the ever-growing list of casualties became “a confused mass of names…all strangers; we forget the horrible significance that dwells amid the jumble of type.”
While it was clear to most cognizant Northerners that the Civil War was raging in all of its horror throughout the fields and ridges of the southern United States, they rarely comprehended or appreciated the news of the conflict’s carnage unless they had a beloved son, husband, father or brother on the frontlines. That all changed because of photographs.
Two days after the battle, on Sept. 19, 1862, Gardner made his first of two trips to Antietam and recorded approximately 90 views of the battlefield (he returned in October to photograph President Abraham Lincoln's battlefield tour). In most cases, he used two lenses to capture two simultaneous photographs, creating stereographs which, “when seen through a viewer…creates a three-dimensional image,” a “technique that increased the impact of war images,” according to the National Park Service.
The immediate impact of Gardner’s photos was not only powerful because he had photographed the site of the bloodiest day in American history—but also because he had photographed the first-ever images of dead soldiers prior to their burial.
The battlefield, hundreds of miles from New York, was “a reality,” wrote an unnamed reporter from The New York Times on October 20, 1862, “but it stands as a remote one…It attracts your attention, but does not enlist your sympathy.” Now, because of Gardner’s photographs and Brady’s studio, New Yorkers treated the photos as if it were a situation during which “the hearse stops at your door, and the corpse is carried out over your own threshold.”
As it was during and after 9/11, the horrible images of civil war kept people informed. Terrible though they may have been, the still photos, full of horrifying detail, allowed Americans to have a tangible piece of evidence to which they could relate. In effect, they were closer to the gory scenes, having seen the humbling circumstances through the lens of a camera—the eyes of a photographer. On 9/11, folks from all over the country—all over the world—were able to feel as though they were New Yorkers, Washingtonians, Virginians and Pennsylvanians.
“I feel like I became a New Yorker on 9/11 for sure,” wrote Getty photographer Mario Tama. “I was already in love with the city, but in a superficial way. It…formed a deep connection with the heart of who New Yorkers really are when you get beyond the veneer.”
Similarly, The New York Times reporter in 1862 felt as if, through the photographs, any American could become one of “our Marylanders, with their door-yards strewed with the dead and dying, and their houses turned into hospitals for the wounded…[T]here is a terrible fascination…that draws one near these pictures, and makes him loth to leave them. You will see the hushed, reverend groups standing around these weird copies of carnage, bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men’s eyes.”
For weeks after 9/11, Americans called off work, kept their children home from school and were in a general state of disbelief, mistrust and near-paralytic shock. They had never seen the likes of an attack on such a massive scale. The thought of being threatened within their own homes and office buildings terrified all of us. The fact that the nation’s economic and militaristic capitals could be destroyed by the hand of a foreign foe using the means of a domestic commercial plane-turned-weapon of war was unimaginable.
The Civil War also allowed unimagined destruction. At least 620,000 Americans lost their lives across five Aprils from 1861 to 1865, more than the total number of combatants killed in action in every American war from the Revolution to Vietnam combined. The distance between Northerners and the war-ravaged South was shortened by the photographic prowess of Gardner at Antietam, and while it had an initial shock value that many may deem offensive by today’s standards, it assisted the nation through a terrible grieving process. Today, these gruesome photos serve as historical documents, allowing Americans to remember with dignity and honor the tragedy of years’ past.
“Mr. BRADY has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war,” wrote the aforementioned reporter from The New York Times. “If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”
By laying these images—these “bodies”—in “dooryards and along the streets,” Americans are exposed to the emotional realities of conflict, which creates a more accurate depiction of historical and current events.
When faced with severe backlash after publishing a controversial photo of a severed hand soon after 9/11, photojournalist Todd Maisel of New York Daily News said, “This is what it was. It was a horror…The horror of this day must not be reduced. You can’t hide terrible things that occurred.”
That is the true lesson of history: There is nothing to hide, and therefore nothing should be hidden. Events must be known, and all generations should be aware of the events through which their predecessors lived. By attempting to sugarcoat images and perceiving events in a more neat or clean version than what actually occurred, we are not doing ourselves any favors.
If we look at war and remember it solely as a glorious experience that only exhibits elements of the best of humanity, we will be in a perpetual state of war, and not realize the loss of life when it hits us. We are a nation which has almost constantly been in some armed conflict, somewhere in the world. Looking at the gruesome images and peeling back the curtain of sensitivity once in a while must be perceived as a healing action, and through this healing hopefully we may be reminded of the true cost of war. When we become acclimated with this terror, we may be reminded of the loss, and as a result do everything within our power to achieve peace by any means necessary.
9.11.01: The Photographers' Stories - A four-part series of interviews with amateur and professional photographers at Ground Zero on 9/11. Originally published in American Photo Magazine on Sept. 7, 2011.
BRADY'S PHOTOGRAPHS.; Pictures of the Dead at Antietam. - A story written by an unidentified reporter who chronicled the importance of "The Dead of Antietam," a photographic exhibition in New York City. Originally published in The New York Times on Oct. 20, 1862.
Photography at Antietam - A two-page summary of the most notable photographs taken on the battlefield at Antietam, as well as an introduction to photography at the time of the Civil War. Published on the official National Park Service Site for Antietam National Battlefield.
Antietam: The Photographic Legacy of America's Bloodiest Day - A landmark work written by William A. Frassanito, the most respected Civil War photography expert and historian. This is the go-to source for anyone interested in delving deeply into Antietam photographs. (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Thomas Publications, 1978)