Of the many images of the Sept. 11 attacks, which ones will be remembered 10, 20, or 100 years from now? Photo editors face that daunting question as they select the images they will publish from the hundreds of hours of television footage, digital video-feed, and photographs that were collected in the aftermath of the tragedy. The SPJ 2001 National Convention seminar “The Care and Handling of Controversial Pictures” provided a rare opportunity for the attending journalists to experience first-hand the difficulties that arise in photo editing. Approximately 70 participants were split into 10 groups, and each group received an identical set of 13 images. The images varied widely – from shots of victims and firemen to the shots of the World Trade Center towers at different angles and times of the attacks. Participants were instructed to select one image that would endure as the iconographic image of the terrorist attacks. The groups were given 20 minutes to choose an image. They came up with nine different images – only one image was selected twice. Then, seminar leaders took turns critiquing the chosen images. The panelists found most of the selections to be lacking in one aspect of the story or another. Scott Sines, managing editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., argued that a photograph of people running in terror and disbelief from dust and debris had a high level of human interest. But he said it lacked “the central piece of information” – the tower itself. This absence, he said, gave less credence to the event. The panelists settled on the one image they believed provided the most complete story of the Sept. 11 events. It showed the setting, with its New York skyline and massive twin towers; the plot, with the body of the north tower engulfed in flames and another plane about to strike the south tower; and the characters, the people in the street running away in terror. One panelist, Brian Storm, lived this convention exercise for real – and on a much tighter deadline. Storm, multimedia director at MSNBC.com, and his team had to choose from a barrage of images in 15 to 20 seconds to upload to their Web site. In choosing the images, Storm and his team faced a dilemma: whether to publish the jumpers who leapt or fell from the Trade Center towers. The jumpers were one of the hardest things to witness during the attacks, and media organizations often self-censor graphic material. Storm said he had gotten letters from viewers saying it made them “physically ill” to think that a loved one could recognize a jumper. Storm and his crew finally decided that it was an “essential part of the story,” and MSNBC.com published the images. But because of the interactive nature of the site, Storm ultimately was able let each individual make his or her own decision about viewing the images. “We created a site that let you choose to go in and see that picture,” Storm said. Panelist Patty Reksten, director of photography at The (Portland) Oregonian, shared some of her more challenging decisions. When she mentioned images of blood-covered victims to her managing editor, he simply shook his head and replied, “Don’t even bring it up.” Reksten, however, believed that the tragic element was an essential part of the story. “We shouldn’t assume that readers want to be shaded,” she said. Her paper eventually did run the images – but only on the back pages of the paper. Reksten said the role of the photo editor does not end with selecting images and handling sensitive material. “There needs to be one key editor to look at an entire report and make key decisions for two reasons,” she said. “One is to not repeat images, and the second is that you continue to add information and continue the story.” From day one, her paper, like others, tried to cover not only the immediate implications of the attack but its broader repercussions. “Even the sports section focused on the attacks,” Reksten said. With everyone using images of the attacks, there needed to be one key person in the newsroom who ensured no images were being repeated; with a story this large in scope and duration, it was essential that new images reflected new information. Like news content, images also should advance the story and not remain stagnant, Reksten said.
Connie Kim is a free-lance writer for Seattle publications such as Metropolitan Living and Tekbug.