Film Research

9/11: The Audio-Visual Record

Today marks eleven years since the terrorist attacks that changed the world.  I’m not going to dwell on the facts, or repeat the stories that we have all heard before, but I do want to share one perspective on the event.

My day job involves sourcing archival footage for many different types of television productions.  One of the projects I worked on last year was a documentary about some of the survivors of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  It was an interesting experience to spend a decent amount of time researching the audio-visual record of that day, talking with those who were there and then watching the tragedy unfold over and over from many different perspectives – all from the guilty comfort of my office.

Photo taken by ‘TheMachineStops’ Flicker
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

In my profession it isn’t unusual to be called upon to trawl through footage of some of the more tragic events in human history – be it war, natural disasters or terrorist attacks.  I suspect it might be similar for anyone with an interest in history as it often seems that stories of suffering and the extremities of human behavior demand more interest and attention than stories of peace and normality.  Few people want to watch a documentary about the day that everyone ate ice-creams and played croquet but there is always an audience for yet another documentary about Auschwitz.

Of course it isn’t all gloom and doom as out of some of humanity’s darkest moments can also emerge stories of courage, selflessness and beauty.  That is in part what keeps me sane when watching countless hours of imagery of how horrible humans can be towards each other.  I’m also driven by the thought that it is better that such stories be shared through whatever means possible so they won’t be forgotten.  It may be a little naïve to believe that humanity can collectively learn from past mistakes and abandon the seemingly inevitable temptation to solve problems with aggression; but I do believe that the archiving, protecting and sharing of stories is a key part of any hope for a better future.

As an audio-visual historian I often conduct research on how a specific event was recorded.  One thing that has always interested me is how the technological driven change of audio-visual recordings and archival material impacts our experience and understanding of events.  This is true even for a tragedy as recent as the 9/11 attacks.

Here are some examples of mediums for creating and sharing media which are commonplace today but weren’t around on September 11th 2001.

Camera Phones – They played a crucial way in how we viewed the Boxing Day Tsunami, 2005 London bombings and even the execution of Saddam Hussein, but camera phone recordings are notably absent from the audio-visual record of 9/11. While prototypes were floating around as early as the late 1990’s they weren’t in active use by the population.

YouTube – Not only were there less cameras in the pockets of onlookers but those who did shoot video were much more limited in the ways they could share it.  In 2001 there were few avenues for sharing videos online and audiences mostly relied on traditional broadcasters.  YouTube wouldn’t arrive for another four years and the authors of the inane dribble one sees in the comment sections had to rely on talk-back radio to reach an audience.

Facebook and Twitter – The way we exchange information and share opinions has been revolutionized in the last decade.  Imagine reading tweets from people stuck in the towers or messages of grief shared on Facebook by those missing loved ones.  Had Facebook and Twitter been around eleven years ago then I suspect the way the news of the tragedy spread would’ve been very different.  When Christchurch was rocked by the devastating earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 it was striking to see how quickly social networking spread news compared to traditional broadcasters.

Inflight Internet – Some of the most heart breaking recordings from the 9/11 attacks are the phone messages and emergency calls from those who were on-board the hijacked planes.  Had those passengers had smartphones and inflight internet access then not only would there have been many more desperate messages from those on-board but perhaps the passengers would’ve also been better informed of what was happening and may have even been more likely to fight back against the hijackers.

High Definition – In 2001 the majority of both amateur videographers and professional news camera crews were filming in standard definition formats.  There were only a couple of crews who filmed the 9/11 attacks in high definition and that footage remains relatively unseen.

It is hard to believe how quickly the way we capture and share media has changed or how different the record of the 9/11 attacks would be if witnesses had access to the technology that we do today.

To extrapolate this, in my opinion our visualization of historical events is tainted at its core as unless we experienced events firsthand then we instead conjure up imagery based on the cinematic portrayals or archival sources we have viewed.  Images are powerful and have repeatedly revolutionized how humans experience international events, but they also only record one version of the truth.

Film-makers, writers and historians often look for a new way of telling the same story.  A different angle.  A unique perspective.  This is of course a manipulation of sorts, but the very way that important events are recorded is a sort of manipulation as well, a manipulation of light into a way that can be shared and kept.  All we can do is make the best possible use of the available resources to share those moments with those who weren’t there.

In the last eleven years there have been some remarkable efforts made to collate the audio-visual record of the 9/11 attacks and preserve them for future generations.

The Internet Archive has collated recordings of television coverage from many different networks and made it available on this easy to follow timeline.  It is fascinating to be able to watch the news as it was broadcast live by the main U.S. networks as well as many international broadcasters.  I am sure that this will prove to be an invaluable record for future scholars.

The Internet Archive also runs one of my favourite toys, the Wayback Machine which has actively been taking snapshots of websites since 1996.  In short it is almost like a kind of time-machine that lets you view websites as they were in the past.  Here is a fantastic slideshow of what news websites looked like on 9/11.

Another project that I have to mention is The CameraPlanet Archive.  The owners of this collection ran a television production company in New York and on the morning of 9/11 had a number of kits all ready to go on a planned shoot.  As the events unfolded in Manhattan they sent the cameras out with any available crew.  Afterwards they advertised for people with video of the tragedy and/or the WTC in more peaceful times to come forward.  In the pre-YouTube age there were limited avenues for the public to share their own videos and the CameraPlanet Archive did a fantastic job collating material and they continue to make it available to documentary producers.

In summary it is interesting to look back at how the way that we view the world has changed so much in only eleven years but as always it is up to film makers, story tellers and scholars to work with the records of media that were available at the time and share those resources with new audiences.  Hopefully some of them will learn something from it.  I know that I have.

To finish on a slightly lighter (and geeky) note – no major event could ever go down in New York without at least a few interesting artists recording it in unique ways.  These are the ones I found the most intriguing.

  • A stereoscopic photography enthusiast took this set of 3D photos.

The audio-visual record of major events is never exactly what you might expect.  Who would’ve thought that among all the cameras pointed at the blue sky that morning there would be a webcam installation, a 3D camera and a vintage camera straight out of the mid ninetieth century.  Proof that the visual record of historic events can often include the unexpected.

© Lemuel Lyes

P.S. Apologies for the lack of posts lately, I’ve been busy attending to the needs of serial killers, shipwreck survivors, massacres, natural disasters and some very hungry killer whales.  All part of the day job!

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