Fillip 17 — Fall 2012

“A Rare and Chilling View”: Aerial Photography as Biopower in the Visual Culture of 9/11
Caren Kaplan

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.

While many photographs in the 9/11 archive were taken by official “first responders” like John Botte, or civilians who were in close proximity, like Joel Meyerowitz, with a corresponding intimacy of scale achieved either by deliberate framing or cropping of images or the constraints of the event itself (smoke, fire, obstacles, urgency, fear, etc.), there are also National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite images that are part of the public record. Many of these images are very much “unseen” by the public, although others have become part of the established iconography. Such high-altitude aerial imagery is difficult to bring into the range of affect considered appropriate for memorialization unless it is compared to the ground-level imagery, or unless it provides scalar context. The satellite imagery requires its own longer discussion in relation to the ways in which earth sciences, meteorology, and other fields have participated in militarized aeromobility and practiced biopolitics.16

Here, I am interested in the aerial photographs shot from policing helicopters such as the one flown by Greg Semendinger and his co-pilot, James Ciccone, that have been situated within discourses of rarity, rupture, and disaster aesthetics as part of the conventions of photojournalism and war reportage.17 With air space around the towers closed to all except NYPD aviation units almost immediately after the first collision, this aerial photography exemplifies the tensions between governmental, militarized, and auteurist documentary practices of representation in relation to state power. Within the conventions of aerial photography as well as within the standard archive of “9/11,” the Semendinger/NIST cache of images of the catastrophic attack and collapse of the World Trade Center towers released by ABC News in February 2010 do not offer anything truly novel.18 But these very claims for “newness” open up avenues of critical inquiry into the specificity of aerial imagery, the militarized aeromobility of metropolitan policing, and the emerging parameters of biopower in the era of the so-called war on terror.

From the very first balloon flight in the late eighteenth century, as both L. T. C. Rolt and John Christopher have chronicled, aerialists have claimed the benefits of flight for waging war.19 As airpower came into dominance by the end of the First World War, it generated what Peter Adey has termed “aerial life,” a culture of rapid movement via the air that, in its very velocity and militarization, threatens to destroy what it creates. This “aeromobility” is always already empowered by state and industrial investments in scientific, commercial, and political innovation. As Saulo Cwerner has argued, aeromobilities make modern spaces and produce uneven subjects of globali­zation.20 It is possible to view airpower as the military aspect of a more general aeromobility that marks late modern society, but it is also possible to grasp aeromobility as intrinsically militarized. That is, any asserted division between military and civilian aerial life masks the foundational practices of preparing for and waging war that support the security and boundary concerns of the state and its related institutions. An expanded sense of airpower as militarized aeromobility can serve a deconstructive purpose, putting supposed opposites into complex juxtaposition, revealing diverse assemblages of agents, objects, subjects, and institutions in active relationships with each other.

There are at least three facets of militarized aeromobility that demonstrate most tangibly the biopolitical relations between state, industry, and culture in modern times. First, as the colonial conflicts of the twentieth-century “inter-war” period produced territories under administrative practices such as the British Mandate, military airpower became one of the preferred modes of control—making long distance supervision possible through surveillance and the constant threat of attack.21 Colonial territorialization developed a visual culture as a mode of control that moved beyond the geopolitical context to representational practices that produced differences as a kind of “realism.”22 Secondly, throughout the twentieth century, myriad subjects and industries were mobilized around the airpower endeavour. Private industry, academia, government, and culture helped to make airpower operational as a proto-“revolution in military affairs.”23 This version of what James Der Derian terms the “military-industrial-entertainment complex” produced wealth, cultural capital, ideological practices, and organizational structures.24 Moreover, many of these elements devolved around new, ostensibly non-military powers and technologies of transportation, communications, and trade that we can also understand as militarized.25 Taken together, these three facets of militarized aeromobility have acted in innumerable ways to produce biopolitical forms of control. Aerial images, in particular, have provided operational intelligence, not only for direct warfare, colonial territorialization, or military-industrial-complex mobilization, but also for more locally focused biopolitical projects that benefit state interests.

Lest this dense but brief description give the impression that airpower as a biopolitical agent of aeromobility is monumental and fully coherent, it is important to note that it is, in fact, fraught by failures and uneven effects. Aerial imagery, derived from a visual culture tradition of distanced or linear perspective, has represented power as a transcendental aesthetic practice that brings together sight and knowledge. As Denis Cosgrove has argued, this “Apollonian gaze” gathers “diverse life on earth” into a “vision of unity,” thereby producing an “individualized,” “divine,” and “mastering” view from a “single perspective.”26 This view “from the heavens” has powered various representations of not only terrain and individual communities but the Western, modern state as a political institution. According to Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt, from the French Revolution onwards, drawing on baroque Christian iconography, the “god’s eye” became incorporated literally into official state declarations, commercial logos, coins, and paper money. Elevated or “bird’s eye” views became increasingly important in the Western modern arts of landscape and panoramic painting, underscoring belief in national and cultural specificity of terrain and architecture.27 The belief that the view from the air is universal can coexist with the understanding that such views support the aims of a particular state—particularly in relation to the security of the population.

What does the state claim that it needs to see and how does it arrange populations biopolitically via the imagery produced by airpower? The seemingly endless war of the first decades of the twenty-first century is hardly an anomaly. Following Foucault, we can understand war-making as a foundational, ongoing, constitutive activity of the state, blurring the lines between military and civilian subjects.28 As both the operational intelligence and the firepower of contemporary warcraft, airpower brings biopolitics into what Vivienne Jabri has argued are the key practices of a “global matrix of war”: the direct use of violence and the power to kill; disciplinary power directed at individuals and communities; and the biopower directed at the life and welfare of populations.29 Airpower’s unique perspective assists the state in “seeing” populations in particular kinds of spatialized arrangements.30 Just as the state needs to “see” with ever-greater precision in order to directly enact violence and power, it utilizes disciplinary power to manage individuals and communities, in part, through visual culture. The state also generates biopower through modes of seeing that appear to address the life and welfare of specific populations as targets and non-targets.31 With the increasing dominance of air power throughout the twentieth century’s aeromobility, the state could now see “in substance what the mind could only subjectively conceive.”32

If we grant that states create legibility in order to control populations, then what biopolitical purpose is served by the recently released aerial photographs of the attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001? Here it might be useful to consider aerial life’s “recalibration of the human eye,” as Mark Whitehead has put it, along with the emergence of “a new breed of medical, social, and governmental observers” to diagnose and gather knowledge.33 The National Institute of Standards and Technology is part of that “new breed” of observers. Founded in 1901, the NIST is administered as part of the US Department of Commerce. Its mission is to “promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.”34 Its resources for enhancing our security and quality of life circa 2009 totaled $1.6 billion, employing approximately three thousand people at two primary sites—one in Gaithersberg, Maryland, and one in Boulder, Colorado—as well as partnering with numerous other industry, academic, and governmental groups. Since the beginning of the twentieth century and the advent of aviation, the NIST has been part of the story of militarized aeromobility, testing and reporting on the engineering and mechanics of airplanes and even, as happened during WWI, taking over production of materials and resources needed for the national war effort.35 As the agency tasked with “Building and Fire Research,” among other subjects, the NIST became the lead investigator into the collapse of the World Trade Center and its towers. Due to the marshalling of militarized aeromobility in the security practices of the state, aerial imagery contributed significantly to this investigation.

There were many “eyes in the sky” on September 11, 2001. NOAA geostationary satellites on regular rotation produced all manner of data including high-resolution imagery of the collapsing and burning towers. After the attacks, NOAA jets flew five missions over five weeks to help map Manhattan’s “ground zero” using aerial photography and light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology. The International Space Station captured images of the fires and released several through NASA. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) generated images as did the air traffic control system and numerous other governmental groups and units. Thus, the NYPD police aviation unit that produced nearly three thousand images (including the twelve that were released to the public in 2010) that became archived at the NIST is only one component of a militarized aeromobility that produces a large amount of image data.

As state control of populations at borders and through national surveillance projects has become rationalized as “homeland security,” and as resources have poured into the military and paramilitaries (such as Blackwater, now Xe), the destabilization of the boundary between civilian and military spheres of life favours biopower. The aviation unit that shot the photographs of the damaged and collapsing Twin Towers belongs to one of the foremost paramilitary entities in the US, the New York Police Department. The first police department in the nation, the NYPD was established in 1845. Its home base has always been located on the lower part of Manhattan Island, close to the site of the September 11, 2001, attacks. Closely modelled after the Metropolitan Police Service in London, which itself used a “military-like organizational structure, with rank and order,” the NYPD put down many riots and developed a reputation for police brutality throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Currently the largest police force in the US, the NYPD has excelled in aerial policing, bringing militarized aeromobility to the tactics of metropolitan “law and order.”

Aerial policing that is internal to nation-states has been around as long as there have been airplanes, and its history is entangled with military air control practiced in colonies and during official wars. The first reported incidence of aerial policing in the US occurred on the cusp of WWI in 1914 when police in Miami used a Curtiss F-type seaplane to capture an escaped prisoner. New York formed its volunteer air section early on in 1918 using decommissioned navy planes. The flow of military aviation surplus to “domestic” policing units has been built in from the beginning—many police departments depend on the “trickle down” of former military planes and helicopters (and many members of the departments are former or future soldiers). Such “technology transfers” in the era of aeromobility contribute to the blurring of the line between military and civilian and, with the great powers extended by Homeland Security since 9/11, make local metropolitan surveillance and population control a matter of federal concern.

With both military surplus and specially commissioned aircraft, the NYPD has been a leader in police aviation—and as the largest police force in the nation, it uses its helicopter fleet for national “security” as well as metropolitan crime fighting. Helicopters are ideal for urban aerial surveillance: they don’t need much space for take-off and they can manoeuvre easily between buildings while maintaining different altitudes. As the New York Times reported in 2006, the NYPD Bell 412 helicopters are able, from “over the pinnacles of Midtown,” to reveal criminal or “terrorist” activity by “boring down” with the telephoto lens of a video camera that is also equipped with infrared sensors.36 As the reporters enthuse: Once confined to trailing stolen cars from 1,000 feet or throwing their powerful klieg lights in nighttime demonstrations, the Police Department’s aviation unit has quietly taken an aggressive role in law enforcement, transforming the age-old model of policing.... These days there is almost always an airborne cruiser over the city, providing bird’s eye advice to traffic officers, chasing teenagers out of cemeteries at night or giving a lift to fire chiefs who want an overhead view of a raging blaze.37

Despite this “small-town” narrative of errant teenagers, traffic cops, and colleagues who need a “lift,” the context for the fleet of seven state-of-the-art helicopters “outfitted with the latest mapping, tracking, and surveillance technology” is their aggressively militarized “front-line role” in “thwarting terrorism.”38 An Associated Press story published online at in May of 2008 celebrated the NYPD’s purchase of state-of-the-art helicopters decked out with an “impressive arsenal of surveillance equipment” intended to “protect the people on the ground from terrorist attacks.” These helicopters, which were made by Bell according to “NYPD specifications,” contain the technology to “read license plates” or to “scan pedestrians’ faces” from, as the copy puts it, “high above the nation’s largest metropolis.” The NYPD aviation unit uses these “stealth birds” to patrol transportation and commercial sites that “terrorists might find irresistible” with the advantage that flying in these $10-million copters, which have no police markings, means that those on the ground “have no idea they are being watched.”39

But the ballyhoo about the stealth helicopters notwithstanding, not all of the aviation unit aircraft are that “high-tech.” Assembled in the sky above Lower Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001, as the first tower that was hit by a jetliner began to burn, was a small, non-stealth NYPD patrol helicopter stationed out of a Brooklyn airfield that contained two veteran NYPD pilots, Semendinger and Ciccone. With approximately 88,000 takeoffs and landings a year at metropolitan area heliports, helicopters dominate the lower levels of the sky above New York City.40 On September 11, there were many helicopters and small aircraft flying through this relatively uncontrolled “highway with few signs” in the vicinity of the World Trade Center.41 Once the first jetliner hit the North Tower at 8:46 am, segments of the airspace began to be closed to civilian aircraft. The first radio report of the North Tower fire was filed live by Tom Kaminski from a WCBS-AM traffic copter on a routine flight in the vicinity.42 By 9:08 am, five minutes after the second jetliner crashed into the South Tower, the Federal Aviation Authority grounded all flights going to or through New York airspace and closed all New York City area airports. Semendinger and Ciccone’s aviation unit helicopter has been reported to be the first on the scene in an airspace that would be, for several days, empty of any craft except those approved by the police and military.

Earlier in this work I asked, rhetorically, what the state claims that it needs to see. At this point, having established that spectators and consumers of images participate in biopolitical projects in many ways including militarized aeromobility and its imagery, I would ask what it is that we think we need to see when a “trove“ of “previously unseen” aerial photographs is released for our “information.” Rather than analyze the Semendinger/NIST aerial images, I have been trying to point to various elements that made it possible for these photographs to participate in militarized aeromobility on September 11, 2001, and afterwards. In writing about photography, the expectation is that one focuses on the images. But as soon as we begin to describe the content, structure, or semiotics of the image, its active elements begin to “die,” as it were. The photographic image becomes contained as a reflection of a “real” moment in time and its composition and the “diverse actions,” as Ariella Azoulay puts it, that make it possible become lost from view. That is, in “seeing” the photograph, we see very little of what there is to know. If photography is an “apparatus of power” that “cannot be reduced to any of its components,” to continue to quote Azoulay,43 it is powerful precisely because it is often considered only in terms of one single element—the photographer as an auteur, a camera as a specific kind of machine, particular spectators in time and place, as a material object in cultural history, as a thematic subject, etc. To consider the photograph as an active object that mobilizes all of these components and more is to expand “viewing” images from a consumption model to a dynamic field that includes most of the myriad activities of modern life. Images are generated and consumed on a vast scale in contemporary life. But how images are put together to make biopolitics or militarized aeromobility can only be grasped if we keep images “alive” as objects that are not to be read but lived with, dynamically engaged as powerful assemblages, composed of multiple incommensurable parts, never reducible to the visible end product.

Thinking through the Semendinger/NIST aerial photographs that were released by ABC News and other media outlets on February 2010, it is tempting to post and describe each one in detail. They are “beautiful” photographs—awe-inspiring in the horror of what they convey, shot by an experienced photographer who knew what he was doing even as he has related being utterly overcome by what he was seeing through the multiple frames of helicopter window and camera viewfinder. Several have been cropped expertly to highlight elements in view. As towers collapse, killing thousands, and smoke and debris billow hugely in enormous, terrifying, death-dealing clouds where no clouds should ever be, a cleared airspace held several relatively small police helicopters carrying a handful of officers as spectators to an unimaginable view. These “rare” and “chilling” views come to us courtesy of militarized aeromobility, the product of aerial life as an alibi for biopolitical airpower. Insisting on their rarity makes it possible for us to ignore the massive generation of photographic data over more than a century from cameras carried aloft and the expanded realm of digitalization that puts aeromobility into even speedier and more powerful registers. Emphasizing the “chilling” nature of the Semendinger/NIST aerial photographs (as even I have been unable to resist completely) produces affect as a distracting component and turns us away from considering the NIST, just for one example, as part of the entertainment industry in a new world order. Affect certainly makes these images powerful—but so does a global media conglomerate, a federal commission, a photographer’s choice of camera and scene, and the reach of profit-oriented online “news” when it is image driven.

What makes an aerial image emotionally moving on a mass level, as we see here in the example of many of the 9/11 representations, and therefore motivating for any number of interests ranging from state to capital to familial to normative projects of all scales is a negotiation between the diverse components and a tacit agreement to focus on a limited number of elements at a time. To be truly successful for militarized aeromobility, the image cannot be grasped as a product of airpower or even as intrusive surveillance. Watchful vigilance on behalf of the state and scopic universalism allow for the spectacle to unfold at just the right oblique angles (thereby allowing for situational context). Offered to us as “data” from the archive yet marvelled at as aesthetically sublime, the Semendinger/NIST images work strenuously to bolster the power of the state to “see” biopolitically via militarized aeromobility without revealing the awful truth, which is that “terror” comes from what most people in the US do not want to see. That is, as Sloterdijk reminds us, “terrorism” is a “fighting method that immediately spreads to both sides of the conflict.”44 “Moved” by imagery assembled by militarized aeromobility, we can continue, via a virulent biopolitics, to create divisions between “us” and “them,” making photographs that wage war without end.

An earlier version of this essay was published in Reconstruction 11, no. 2 (2011), Republished by permission of the author and Reconstruction.

  1. Philip Delves Broughton, “Dramatic Images of the World Trade Centre Collapse on 9/11 Released for the First Time,” Daily Mail, February 12, 2010,
  2. Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone, 2008), 85­–86.
  3. Ula Ilnytzky and Colleen Long (Associated Press), “Chilling Aerial Photos of 9/11 Attack Released,” Huffington Post, February 10, 2010,
  4. Ibid.
  5. A wider field of “9/11” imagery includes the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., of course, as well as other sites. In this essay, I am restricting my comments to the Semendinger/NIST imagery photographs of the attacks and aftermath in New York City.
  6. Nicholas Mirzoeff, Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture (New York: Routledge, 2005), 3.
  7. Ibid., 1.
  8. Slavoj Žižek, “On 9/11, New Yorkers Faced the Fire in the Minds of Men,” Guardian, September 10, 2006,
  9. Alison Griffiths, Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 2–3.
  10. Andrew Hill, Re-imagining the War on Terror: Seeing, Waiting, Traveling (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 10.
  11. Davide Deriu, “Picturing Ruinscapes: The Aerial Photograph as Image of Historical Trauma,” in The Image and the Witness: Trauma, Memory and Visual Culture, eds. Frances Guerin and Roger Hallas (London: Wallflower Press, 2007), 197.
  12. Marita Sturken, “Memorializing Absence,” in Understanding September 11, eds. Craig J. Calhoun, Paul Price, and Ashley S. Timmer (New York: New Press, 2002), 375. For example, a September 11, 2008, CNN report titled “Creating 9/11 memorials a slow process” quotes Mayor Bloomberg as describing progress as “frustratingly slow.”
  13. Allan Sekula, “The Instrumental Image: Steichen at War,” Artforum, December 1975, 26.
  14. John Botte, Aftermath: Unseen 9/11 Photos by a New York City Cop (New York: Collins Design, 2006), 100.
  15. Joel Meyerowitz, Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive (New York: Phaidon Press, 2006; commemorative edition, 2011).
  16. For example, see Paul B. Stares, The Militarization of Space: U.S. Policy, 1945–1984 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985); Pamela Etter Mack, Viewing the Earth: The Social Construction of the Landsat Satellite System (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990); and Paul Hirst, Space and Power: Politics, War and Architecture (Cambridge: Polity Press), 2005.
  17. Semendinger, who has described himself as a serious amateur photographer, had his cameras with him on the morning of September 11. With Ciccone piloting the helicopter, Semendinger shot three rolls of film with his Minolta camera as well as 245 digital images. The digital images were given to the 9/11 Commission and ended up in the NIST archive. The Associated Press reported that immediately after the event, Semendinger emailed some photos to friends and “several were posted on the internet” (Ilnytzky and Long, “Chilling Aerial Photos of 9/11 Attack Released”).
  18. As Glenn Corbett, a fire science expert who had served on a NIST advisory committee, remarked when asked about these images: “I don’t see anything here that’s new…. These are common photos…. It just reinforces things we know.” See Colleen Long, “New Photos of 9/11 Attack on World Trade Center Taken by NYPD Helicopter,” Daily News, February 10, 2010.
  19. L. T. C. Rolt, The Balloonists: The History of the First Aeronauts (Stroud: Sutton, 2006); John Christopher, Balloons at War: Gasbags, Flying Bombs, and Cold War Secrets (Stroud: Tempus Publishing, 2004).
  20. Saulo Cwerner, Sven Kesselring, and John Urry, eds., Aeromobilities (London: Routledge, 2009).
  21. While Giulio Douhet’s classic The Command of the Air was published in 1921, advocates of military airpower had been advancing arguments for the dominance of this approach from the first use of balloons for observation in the early nineteenth century. See Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (New York: Coward-McCann, 1942). For excellent discussions of the use of the airplane to “control” populations (often through strafing and terror bombing as well as generalized surveillance) in the period before World War II, see David E. Omissi, Air Power and Colonial Control: The Royal Air Force, 1919–1939 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990); Group Captain Peter W. Gray, RAF, “The Myths of Air Control and the Realities of Imperial Policing,” Air & Space Power Journal 15, no. 3 (Fall 2001); Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing (New York: New Press, 2001); and Priya Satia, “The Defense of Inhumanity: Air Control and the British Idea of Arabia,” American Historical Review 3, no. 1 (2006), 16–51.
  22. There is a rich literature on numerous aspects of colonial visual culture. See, for example, Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Roger Benjamin, Orientalist Aesthetics: Art, Colonialism, and French North Africa, 1880–1930 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); and Beau Grosscup, Strategic Terror: The Politics and Ethics of Aerial Bombardment (London: Zed Books, 2006).
  23. See Leslie W. Stuart, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993); Noam Chomsky, ed., The Cold War and the University (New York: New Press, 1997); Manuel De Landa, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991); and David Edgerton, Warfare State: Britain, 1920–1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
  24. In recent work both Jennifer Terry and Nick Turse have also expanded the classic Cold War formulation of the military-industrial complex to include global media, personal computing, and social networking. See Jennifer Terry, “Killer Entertainments,” Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular 3, no. 1 (2007), and Nick Turse, The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives (New York: Henry Holt Books, 2008).
  25. I am indebted to Minoo Moallem for thinking these matters through with me. I have also been inspired by Deborah Cowen’s work on logistics, Jennifer Terry’s multidisciplinary investigation of militarized representation, and Inderpal Grewal’s research on security states. See Deborah Cowen, “A Geography of Logistics: Market Authority and the Security of Supply Chains,” Annals for the Association of American Geographers 100, no. 3 (2010), 1–21; Jennifer Terry, “Killer Entertainments”; and Inderpal Grewal, “‘Security Moms’ in the Early Twenty-first Century United States: The Gender of Security in Neoliberalism,” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 34, nos. 1 and 2 (2006), 25–39.
  26. Denis Cosgrove, Apollo’s Eye: A Cartographic Genealogy of the Earth in the Western Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), xi.
  27. For a lively, erudite discussion of all manner of “views from above” in relation to the history of photography, see Beaumont Newhall’s classic Airborne Camera: The World from the Air and Outer Space (New York: Hastings House, 1969). Christine Boyer has written persuasively about aviation, bird’s eye views, modernist urban architecture, and city planning in her book The City of Collective Memory: Its Historical Imagery and Architectural Entertainments (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996). For a fascinating discussion of landscape art, architecture, and national interests, see Renzo Dubbini’s Geography of the Gaze: Urban and Rural Vision in Early Modern Europe, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
  28. See also Julian Reid, The Biopolitics of the War on Terror: Life Struggles, Liberal Modernity, and the Defence of Logistical Societies (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006) and Brian Massumi, “National Enterprise Emergency: Steps toward an Ecology of Powers,” Theory, Culture & Society 26, no. 6 (2009), 153–85.
  29. Vivienne Jabri, War and the Transformation of Global Politics (Houndmill: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 55.
  30. I do not have space here to discuss at greater length James Scott’s arguments in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). Although I am working in a very different context and do not adhere to every aspect of Scott’s approach, I appreciate his inquiry into state projects that produce legibility (which is as important as some of the examples I am working with of projects and practices that erase or unmake legibility).
  31. See the excellent pieces collected in a special issue of Cultural Politics titled “Just Targets,” co-edited with a thought-provoking introductory essay by the editors. Ryan Bishop, Gregory Clancey, and John Phillips, eds., “Just Targets,” special issue, Cultural Politics 2, no. 1 (2006), 5–28.
  32. Le Corbusier, Aircraft (1935; New York: St. Martins Press, 1988), 96.
  33. Mark Whitehead, State, Science, and the Skies: Governmentalities of the British Atmosphere (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 41.
  34. “NIST General Information,” NIST, last modified May 31, 2012,
  35. For example, during WWI, the primary producer of optical glass, Germany, cut off supplies of this valuable commodity to the rest of the world, spurring the NIST to take over production for the US. See “NIST at 100: Foundations for Progress,” NIST, last modified November 3, 2000,
  36. Andrew Jacobs, “Instead of Walking a Beat, Flying One,” New York Times, July 2, 2006.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Associated Press, “Police Take Crime Fighting to New Heights,” MSNBC, May 23, 2008,
  40. David B. Caruso, “Helicopter, Plane Collision Exposes Crowded Airspace over Hudson River,” Huffington Post, August 9, 2009,
  41. Al Baker and Michael M. Grynbaum, “Airspace above Hudson a Highway with Few Signs,” New York Times, August 10, 2009.
  42. For a full timeline and further details, see the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States report, available online at
  43. Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, 85–86.
  44. Peter Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air, trans. Amy Patton and Steve Corcoran (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), 26–27.
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).

You Might Also Enjoy
Folio FOut Now