TERRY PRONE: Dust Lady’s death stirs debate on muddied morals of news images

Backlit by a yellow hue, the picture had an air of infinity to it, as if the Dust Lady were one of the lava shapes in Pompeii, writes Terry Prone

THE Briefcase Man. The Dust Lady. Each was captured by press photographers in the direct aftermath of the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Because we hovered over every photograph coming out of Manhattan in those days, we almost came to regard the two of them as personal acquaintances. They loomed out of a landscape made cinder-snowy by burned office papers floating, lighter than air, ploughing through inch-deep ash silencing their steps.

She was empty-handed, her palms held upward in a a gesture of baffled terror. Backlit by a curious yellow hue, the picture had an air of infinity to it, as if the Dust Lady were one of the lava shapes in Pompeii. She seemed stamped forever with horror and despair. The Briefcase Man, on the other hand, seemed unbothered and busy, as though this unprecedented attack was just an interruption to be coped with. As though he was demonstrably on his way back to a normality that was expecting him by a particular time.

After a couple of years had passed, journalists went back to find the Dust Lady and the Briefcase Man, and found each to be living lives that might have been predicted by the photographs taken on the day of the atrocity. The Briefcase Man was back in business and happily so, using the briefcase he had carried on the day, because no damage had been done to it, wearing the suit that had been greyed by dust, because, once it was dry-cleaned, it looked and felt fine. He was a man sustained by his own ordinariness and his capacity to fit the extraordinary into it and subsume it.

The Dust Lady, on the other hand, was not doing well at all. She was in the depths of depression and her journey through the slough of despond didn’t look like it was going to finish any time soon. Her misery and the fear she associated with anything that happened suddenly near her was matched with her fear of any plane spotted flying overhead.

This situation had been complicated by drug dependency which had, in turn, led to her losing custody of her children. She was undergoing therapy and as time went on, she was to get clean and sober, but it came as no surprise to learn, last week, that she has died of stomach cancer. The prediction of a relatively early death was present even in that first mustard-shaded shot. This woman was never going to survive what had happened to her.

Most of those who pored over that photograph in the last few days never remember the Dust Lady any other way than as a capitalised, tautologous picture and sentence. She was emblematic, rather than individual. She unwillingly personified 9/11 and had her name erased in favour of a caption: The Dust Lady. She was depersonalised instantly and forever, and yet the shot of her was one of those emerging from that terrorism that was not subject to censorship. Many others were subject to censorship.

On the days following 9/11, the video of people within the twin towers jumping to their deaths ran on TV stations all over the world. Now, it would be difficult to find a television station that has not signed up to an agreement that, amid all the footage from that day, what should not be broadcast is the footage of those who jumped.

This rubric is a small contradiction in terms, in that a book written by Dan Rather was published a few months after 9/11, called What we Saw, and that book incorporated a DVD of the visuals of the day, including footage of the unfortunates who leaped rather than burn. In theory, the pictures could be uploaded and (grimly) “liked” and shared, but they aren’t, partly because people, other than the conspiracy theorists who flourish like mint gone wild in a garden and the tourists in New York visiting Ground Zero, have moved on from the event and everything to do with it.

Our sense of what “the people out there” should be allowed to see and what they should not be allowed to see is a curiously nuanced and arguably contradictory sense. This was pointed up after the killing, last week, of a TV presenter and her cameraman by a disgruntled former colleague who subsequently killed himself.

The killer, before taking his own life, uploaded to the internet footage that he had himself taken of the killings while the killings were in progress. The footage was removed with remarkable celerity once it became clear that a murder/suicide was what was involved.

On the face of it, the removal of the footage made perfect sense as a means of preventing, or at last not encouraging, copy-cat shootings, particularly in view of the killer positioning himself in a continuum of recent highly publicised killings.

While he may have interpreted his action as part of a race war initiated by the young man who shot down people in a black church, the reality would seem to be that this was a difficult man incapable of forming solid relationships who wanted the fame generated by killing colleagues in the middle of a live broadcast.

Accordingly, goes the theory, the footage he took during the murders should not be given public exposure since it might encourage others and anyway glorifies the killer.

The curious thing is that it wasn’t just the killer’s own footage that was censored. In the immediate aftermath of the killings being broadcast, news websites, worldwide and here in Ireland, had video clips which had been taken by the official cameraman from the TV station, who died at the site.

The footage incorporated the sound of gunfire, although something about the audio pick-up lightened the aural impact of the shots so they seemed trivial, until the camera showed the shock of the two women in shot and then itself fell to the floor.

No viewer, seeing it for the first time, could be absolutely clear what it was that they had vicariously witnessed, which is why, about an hour later, I went back to view it again. The clip responded to instructions and started to play, then suddenly went black. White letters were superimposed telling viewers that distressing footage had been removed.

Now, if the objective was to prevent people from being surprised by unsought pictures of brutality, no newspaper the following morning would have run shots of the killings on their front pages. But they did. Again, if that was the objective, reversing the order would have put the warning up, not in the middle, but in front of the footage so that viewers could make a choice.

We saw footage of the recent stunt plane crash in Britain that took 11 lives. Repeatedly, we saw it. Yet footage — which simply showed two women being startled, then falling in a blur of motion complicated by a dropped camera — were considered unacceptable. Prurient, even. What, precisely, are we being protected against?


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