NINE/ELEVEN:20 — Watching In Wait

There’s a perspective I find most chilling. One that suggests a continuity, history—motion. It’s the history that interests me less now than the motion, a view that captures a streaking, tearing trail with a sense of purpose, a destination and a predestination, the creeping culmination of an unstoppable, inevitable process: the realisation of terror.

This eludes capture in most instances, at least to my satisfaction. It has to feature the second impact. It’s surprising the first was caught at all, and what was reflected: a documentary crew’s well-focussed cameraman, explosions off-screen or trapped in the distant corners of tourist frames, seen by their cameras but not by their operators. But as the North Tower burnt, many now had a trained vision, ready to contain a moment in time. Something had happened, it was happening, it was burning, and whether they knew it or not, they were shooting with a feeling of nervous anticipation, foresight heavy in bated breath and, eventually, screams of relief.

None could be expected to see the path that led to this moment, let alone photograph it, but those who did would see the choreography of the day. Tower 1, struck mid-morning, the day ahead paused to question what had happened, staring into the depths of smoke, eyes right where they should be, right where they’re about to be met in well-directed cataclysm. Pull the camera out slightly and there’s the path, you see it coming, you feel the terror of impact before the impact, but are left unsatisfied, hanging for the seconds prior, unable to stop it, unable still to look away. Watching in anxious wait, only to have it confirmed, not with sudden eruption but with a creeping, worming, unnatural approach, trapped in a moment before being acted upon, knowing it’s coming.  

News cameras got the closest, as well they should have trained the rest of us. Sat in constant watch, repeated endlessly and “understood” via chyron and commentary, the constant, stomach-churning background drone of happening begging for more, such that it begs for a second plane. Many pointed South, most from a distance, CBS, NY1, and GOOD DAY NY!, depicting a skyline shrouded with the hazy blue of atmosphere, compressed by a long lens, seeing the true scale of the WTC, from Queens, the Empire State Building, and a helicopter over New Jersey respectively. 

For CBS, Flight 175 descends into frame, bearing down as if loosed from the sky, skirting around the buildings and seemingly, based on the angle of approach, hanging in the air with only its becoming shrouded in shadow any indication of presence and trajectory. GOOD DAY NY! is most frustrating, a beautiful ultra-wide capturing all of Lower Manhattan before the camera zooms, the commentary bleating, unaware that they’ve briefly caught and lost a foreign object at the far right of frame. If you see it, you can count down the seconds before it reenters the close-up: then impact.

NY1 makes me uneasy, so it’s closer to what I’m after. The frame is composed, still, plenty of room in the lower third to declare “PLANE CRASHES INTO WORLD TRADE CENTER,” and display the time and weather. The left is threaded with smoke, the right a clear view of the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty, and a white streak of New Jersey. It’s from here that the plane appears. 

I’ve looked at this video for a while now. I had seen it before but never as clearly as in “9/11: 2ND PLANE HIT COLLECTION”, uploaded by user WTC911demolition. Still, the plane just seems to appear, not entering frame but precipitating out of digital vapor. I try to track it back, capture its entry, but it’s always lost in indistinguishable artefacts. The speck crawls across the screen, never becoming clear, just darker. It falls behind the North Tower, a trick of perspective has it there for too long, the clock ticks over to 9:03 and one second later (one second fast) bright orange disrupts the horizon. According to 911conspiracy.tv, this is the longest view of the plane to be captured.

The eeriness of the encroaching dot is one thing, eerier still is that it goes unseen by producers and host, the news reader rambling some stilted, empty speculation on the number of casualties, afraid to “jump to conclusions” and see what’s right in from him. Operating as he does, as his job dictates with a barrier to present truth, he doesn’t see it coming. It was there the whole time, and he refused. Those on the ground had better sight.

There’s plenty of shots from those just watching, in close-up, happening to capture an explosion or the briefest appearance of the second plane. Frustratingly, several of those tightly-framed angles will whip zoom out into a wide that would’ve stunningly captured the length of arrival, but we are more concerned with the towers: as we should be, we were directed that way and an actor should never miss his cue. 

Interestingly, close-ups on the North Tower only seem to arise when the camera is directly operated, held to one’s eye to get a closer look at the torn metal carnage, essentially recording on a telescope: put the camera down, on a tripod, leave it unoccupied for a moment, and it will frame both, and sometimes the entire landscape. It needn’t have to, only one building had been hit, so why contextualise, why so consciously frame? The gaze of anticipation is guiding the composition. Cameramen were likely operating as documentarians with very little distance, and still they pair up the towers. There’s a sense, just as both were built together, just as Eng Bunker perished at-will without his Siamese other-half, they knew one could not burn nor stand without the other. Imagine the South Tower standing alone: a mockery! An act of terror in its own right! The cameraman understands the inevitability, he feels the sharp turns in torn air and, on occasion, he sees it.

Chris Hopewell was shooting from 475 Kent Avenue, Williamsburg, his clip recognisable due to its screams, a shrieking wailing, multiple women seemingly writhing in agony at what they had witnessed. His camera’s perspective is typical, towers centre (although it is the South Tower that is true-centre, the burning North is to the right third), close enough that the plane only receives about 30 frames of screentime. But the clip opens with exclamations “Truly unbelievable” “What’s this other jet doing?” “What the hell is that?” before, on cue, the plane enters frame and they all, for that heavy second, fall silent. Silent anticipation, frozen terror, witness to the inevitable …  screams of relief.

Portentous, silent anticipation is the constant. Naka Nathanial worked for the New York Times and says he saw the plane coming. He operates as a professional, the camera zooming out as the plane approaches, the delayed roar through the air but otherwise silence, before impact: “Holy shit! Holy shit! Oh my God!”. 

Another professional behind the camera is responsible for an angle taken below the Brooklyn Bridge, still throughout the only movement a zoom following impact. Here the plane not only enters frame right, but enters beyond the bounds of the island, and the angle is so low that the plane seems to be flying between buildings as opposed to above them. There’s a composure to this footage, which is unusual and as such it is on occasion attributed to an Al Qaeda sleeper cell—this is, apparently, untrue, its true author Richard Numeroff, videographer, uploading the clip himself to Vimeo among his showreels. He notes in the description he made it a habit to shoot Manhattan from Brooklyn, and that that day he was “shocked” into shooting as the first plane hit (compelled, surely), finding then the second. His vision is hypnotic, devoid of sound, more purposeful than others, prepared to match a greater composition. Strangely, the version he uploads is not full, cropped slightly so the plane seems to appear from behind a building, and mute where a sound version exists (though lost behind private and “unavailable” links). 

Then there’s a clip that scares me. Credited to Holy, or perhaps Holly, Biné—her copyright plastered (and perhaps misspelled) over the low-quality footage, at some point ripped and time-stamped—starts with the towers out of frame and the plane in focus. There’s one similar, from Park Foreman (sold exclusively to CNN), opening on the plane in close-up. But there it’s shot with unease, jolting and shaking and catching up to the plane, trying to keep it in sight, and most notably attempting to follow through, as if he couldn’t say for sure whether the plane would enter, come out, fly around: he sees the inevitable, but he’s shaken by it, unable to fully comprehend it. For Holy, the footage seems to begin before the plane does. They both sit in a brief frame of stillness, as if the camera is prompting, pulling right, banking right, prompting the plane to follow, unnaturally slow, gently finding its way past each building it does not hit, its trajectory destined. And before it reaches the tower, Holly stops, she frames them, and sits waiting for arrival. It’s as if she knew. She, more than any other fully contains the aura of anticipation, the awareness of the inevitable. At some point she saw a plane approach knew, without hesitation and without hope, to consign the moment to history.

The capturing was central to the consignment, and it was the ability to be captured that is so compelling. I’ve spent years looking at this disaster, and the urge doesn’t let up, it’s never satisfied. My recent compulsion towards these particular pieces of footage, depictions of trajectory, is my attempt to know the horror of choreography, to see what went unseen, to feel what was seen, but was unable to be stopped. Though I can’t feel that moment of hanging desperation, not truly, my response is more awe, awe at the dance, awe at the way the chins of a city we grabbed and thrust toward fire. It’s an awe that it was captured at all, and an awe that it was missed. It’s an awe at knowing there’s likely so much more, in basements and attics, missed in archives and lost in poorly tagged YouTube videos. It’s incredible that this was done.

It’s so incredible because terror is not worth seeing anymore. It’s relegated now to the British, to spice up an election cycle. Never linger, never make a psychic impact. It’s unimaginative, a dull thud indistinguishable from the hum of violence that defines most cities. Zach Langley Chi Chi describes this well on I’m So Popular, S02E05: INDIFFERENCE IN THE FACE OF DEATH. Artistry is lost. Even taking a bomb to a concert is mute, the show over, the lights up, carnage unseen. ISIS were the last great image makers, intentionally photographing their moments of sublime torture, mass murders and intimate slaughter. They were scions of cinema in a way few are at all today, framing with intention as laid out in Senses of Cinema’s review of Daech, le cinéma et la mort by Jean-Louis Comolli. And we know what the response was: these images are hard to find, never broadcast, and always shrouded with a cloud of criminal action against all those who view them—a product again of the British, seemingly hellbent on uncinematic terror.

So perhaps I appreciate it. I appreciate something that I can see, in seeing it, a composition of grand scale, not composed in-camera by the terrorists themselves, but brought into composition by the victims who’ve been struck by the compulsion. Compelled unknowingly and thoroughly to become a part of a design. Part of inevitable terror and the terror of the inevitable. It’s the images of the former that remain, contained within them a small sense of the latter. The towers fell and the event closed and there was your record, the immutable image.

— Alex is a curator/programmer and has a Twitter account.