Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
Vanity Fair editor and former photography director at Life David Friend’s 2006 book Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11 is in no sense of the word light reading. It is draining in both volume and content.
Friend’s intention with the book is ambitious: discussing in detail the week of September 11 through 17, 2001, it seeks to show how digital photography and electronic news-gathering came of age during that period, how photographs helped shape our understanding of the week of the terrorist attacks, and to discuss people’s responses to images of the events. This happens in seven roughly 50-page long chapters (one per day). Friend mostly reaches his goals. The book is full of stories about how familiar pictures and videos – some of which were published or broadcast almost incessantly – came to be shot, about the people who shot them, and, in some cases, their curious afterlives. There is a broad spectrum here, ranging from first responders’ own pictures, to professional photographers’ and photojournalists’’ stories, and a large selection of amateur photographers’ tales.
This is both the book’s greatest strength and its biggest weakness. Sometimes Friend’s search for detail becomes overwhelming. The book goes on for nearly 350 pages with story after story, sometimes told in the form of short anecdotes that seem disconnected from each other (this happens mostly in the early parts of the book) and sometimes in longer narratives that are broken into different sections. (There are no subheadings – the only thing that signals a change from one story to the next is an empty line, but each new section does not, in confusing fact, change the scene.) By the time I got to the end, I was reeling from the sheer amount of detail that had been provided in one near-incessant, indiscriminating stream of facts, names, and dates.
This bring me to another minor complaint. Friend often goes outside the frame of the book, telling the histories of photography and moving picture technologies, discussing images of the war in Iraq, and stepping into other streams that might not interest the reader who comes to the book looking for information about images of 9/11 specifically. Not every digression from that fenced-in topic can be called distracting, however; a couple of such sections in particular are worth noting, wherein Friend discusses the changes wrought on news reporting by the largely improvised ways in which the networks covered the attacks and their aftermath.
Overall, however, Watching the World Change is an impressive book. I would recommend it, but I would also caution the reader to take the time to truly absorb everything that the book’s pages covers.