“A Rare and Chilling View”: Aerial Photography as Biopower in the Visual Culture of 9/11
We have seen the Twin Towers collapse hundreds of times on TV. The steel and glass skyscrapers exploding like a bag of flour, the dust and smoke pluming out across Manhattan. But never like this, from above. —Philip Delves Broughton1
Photography is an apparatus of power that cannot be reduced to any of its components: a camera, a photographer, a photographed environment, object, person, or spectator. “Photography” is a term that designates an ensemble of diverse actions that contain the production, distribution, exchange, and consumption of the photographic image. —Ariella Azoulay2
In February 2010 a “trove” of aerial photographs of the collapsing World Trade Center towers was broadcast on ABC television news and circulated widely online. These previously “unseen” views, according to an Associated Press report, offered “a rare and chilling view from the heavens of the burning Twin Towers and the apocalyptic shroud of smoke and dust that settled over the city.”3 The aerial images, taken on the morning of September 11, 2001, by Greg Semendinger, an NYPD aviation unit helicopter pilot, had been sitting in an archive maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the federal agency that was put in charge of the investigation of the Twin Towers’ collapse. After ABC News filed a Freedom of Information Act request, 2,779 photographs (including Semendinger’s) stored at the NIST on nine compact discs were released, and small groups of Semendinger/NIST images were disseminated to the public in two batches. In the parroting nature of today’s news culture, all of the subsequent stories about the distribution of the Semendinger/NIST aerial images pushed the same angle—the NYPD helicopter contained the “only photographers allowed in the airspace near the skyscrapers on Sept. 11, 2001,” with the accompanying headlines: “9/11 photos show day from different perspective” and “8 years later, the pictures still shock.”4
The visual culture that surrounds the events of September 11, 2001, particularly in regard to the attacks on the World Trade Center, links powerfully to discourses of photojournalism—especially war reportage—as well as to consumption of spectacle and horror.5 Thus, much of what remains to be “seen” in the 9/11 archive concerns the subjects and objects of a visual culture that is itself part of the exercise of power in a globalized world.6 Yet, despite the observance of conventions of event reportage, the catastrophic scale and the iconic setting of the events themselves produce what John Taylor has called the “bazaar of death”—the desire to view scenes of violent death becomes recuperated as virtue if it can be “accompanied and displaced by more comforting ideas,” including the belief that the lure of the spectacle is part of saving the nation.7 As Slavoj Žižek has argued, this national consolidation of a viewing practice of spectacular scenes of horror may reflect the kind of popular taste developed over the previous several decades for disaster movies.8 Or the lure of an experience that is thrillingly disorienting, even sublime, may stretch back further over centuries of Western modernity to the kind of spectatorship defined by Alison Griffiths as “immersive.”9 This “overall recognition of the visual appeal of the attacks” may also signal, as Andrew Hill postulates, that such directed violence by networked, non-state actors broadly understood to be “terrorists” have come to play out as an extreme expression of the objective of twentieth-century art; that is, these acts, in their capacity “to shock and to produce a radical disruption of everyday life” thereby “overshadow and threaten to subsume the work of art.”10
To a remarkable degree, visual culture dominates both the immediate experience of and memory of the attacks on September 11, 2001, especially imagery that became iconic through globalized mass media repetition—amateur footage or still shots of the planes hitting the towers, collapsing skyscrapers, fleeing workers and pedestrians, overwhelmed but heroic rescuers....As a cluster of images, they represent both distance and proximity, long shots and close-ups, offered as the full panorama of possible witnessing of something unthinkable. Yet, if the attacks themselves played out as über-violent performance art, the photographic collections have remained largely on safe ground, as it were, reassuring in observing the conventions of photojournalism—we’ve seen these images before. Unimaginable horror is always already “known” by suturing visual conventions of war and catastrophe reporting to discourses of unprecedented newness or rupture. This tension between the raw terror of something so bad that it is believed to be new and modes of representation that contain the terror as something familiar as imagery itself is one complex site for state-sponsored biopolitics that wages its wars ceaselessly while masking the complex dimensions of its operations.
Davide Deriu has argued that while many genres of photography have been linked to memorialization in the aftermath of traumatic events, aerial photography has not usually been included.11 Thus, in the discourse of “rarity” and “newness” surrounding the release of Semendinger’s photographs after years in NIST storage, the commercial lure of the “previously unseen” meets the attempted gravitas of memorialization. As Marita Sturken has delineated, the drive to memorialize has been exceptionally rapid in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, even if the realization of memorialization has been rather slow.12 Nevertheless, “unseen” photographs and moving images continue to emerge and be offered by the mainstream media and memorializing interests as unique, authenticating emblems of patriotism, remembrance, and thrilling immersion in a world-class spectacle—the collision of two airplanes with two of the largest skyscrapers ever built and the horrifying collapse of monumental architecture and loss of human life that ensued (with accompanying advertisements along with copyright battles surrounding each “release” of images across a variety of publication formats). What marked the Semendinger/NIST images as newsworthy in February 2010 long after the official books, exhibits, and History channel documentaries had been issued was their apparent peculiarity of perspective; they are all aerial photographs.
Aerial photographs are often believed to offer a perspective radically different from the point of view that is available from the ground. Images taken from above the earth, whether by balloon, plane, or satellite, provide views that are panoramic, distant, and more abstract than those taken at closer range. Usually associated with utilitarian military or municipal projects (reconnaissance, surveying, cartography, urban planning) or modernist aesthetics (abstraction, minimalism, objectivism) or a specific genre of contemporary landscape photography, aerial photography is inevitably tied, historically and technologically, to modes of passive and powered aviation as well as methods of mechanical production and reproduction that structure the possibilities and constraints of the imagery. Due to the intense abstraction of reconnaissance photography, most military aerial photography has been believed to be useful in times of war only to specialized analysts or to be of value historically solely to scholars and “niche” collectors.13 In terms of scale, aerial photography of traumatic or violent events is usually associated with surveying, documenting, and conducting surveillance rather than capturing images at the “human” level of individualized suffering usually associated with photojournalism.
There are numerous examples of “human”-level photojournalism in the 9/11 visual archive. For example, at the fifth year commemoration of the attacks in New York, two collections of photographs taken by photographers on the ground were published, both titled Aftermath. In Aftermath: Unseen 9/11 Photos by a New York City Cop, former NYPD detective John Botte argues for memorialization of the first responder as a kind of everyman—a democratic heroism marked not only by the grievous loss of places and people but also by the official neglect or callous disregard for those, like himself, who suffered tragic health problems from toxins in the air around Ground Zero or from post-traumatic stress. His black-and-white photographs are taken primarily at ground level, but the book includes several images shot from an early morning helicopter flyover on September 13.14 Professional photographer Joel Meyerowitz’s Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive was republished in 2011 for the tenth anniversary with the support of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.15 Meyerowitz positions himself as a visual chronicler of the historic record, mourning the ruination of part of the city he loves as well as memorializing individual victims. Both books aim for “art” status and draw on photojournalism, landscape photography, and portraiture while making claims for documentary authenticity and nationalist exceptionalism.
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About the Author
Caren Kaplan is Professor of American Studies and affiliated faculty in Cultural Studies, Science & Technology Studies and Cinema & Technocultural Studies at the University of California at Davis. She is the author of Questions of Travel: Postmodern Discourses of Displacement (Duke University Press, 1996) and co-author and co-editor of Introduction to Women’s Studies: Gender in a Transnational World (McGraw-Hill, 2001 and 2005) and Between Woman and Nation: Transnational Feminisms and the State (Duke University Press, 1999).