September 11th – Ten Years on

Ten years ago, most photographers still captured events using film. I was a Fuji man. Only the devil used Kodak! Manually focussed lenses were still the norm. In my agency we had about 8 letters a year from wannabe photographers and not 8 crappy emails a week from idiots that we get today including those who take picture from positions in the crowd and subsequently set up a website and brand themselves as sport photographer.

Life was good back then. I was personally gearing myself up to take yet another trip to Japan before the 2002 World Cup to document but before that, the UEFA Champions League was starting again. At that time I worked with Scott Wilson at EMPICS. We were good. Very good. We could process film faster than anyone else and as long as I had the shot, it was almost a certainty that pictures would be published in hungry thriving national newspapers.

Ten years ago on September 10th 2001, a photographer could take all the hand luggage he wanted on an aeroplane including packs of ready made chemicals, film scanners and of course big heavy expensive lenses.

The events in the USA on September 11th 2001 changed all that. Sadly, things have never been the same since.

I had been out the night before drinking. I had got to bed VERY late. Half of the reason was because I knew that I had a night flight to Athens the following day and for body clock reasons it was best to stay up and get used to the time difference.

Normally my house is filled with music or at least has the TV on in the corner. For some reason today it was all quiet. I was planning on meeting Scott at about 8pm. Two hours before my predicted departure from home, my mobile telephone rang. It was my boss Neal.

Uncharacteristically he asked how I was. Perhaps he had not spoken to me since my man flu a few weeks ago but I assured him that I was OK. In a bizarre fashion he told me to look after Scott when we traveled to Athens this evening and if I did not feel comfortable going, then there was certainly no pressure on my flying.

I listened and was very puzzled as he continued to remind me on how I was the senior photographer and should anything happen, then I should use my experience and look after Scott.

In my then customary telephone frank manner I just stormed the conversation by saying, “What the fuck are you on about!?”

In all sincerity I had no idea.

Neal then proceeded to tell me about the Twin Towers being hit by planes in New York. I had been to New York – knew the Empire State building and the Statue of Liberty but I was not familiar with the Twin Towers.

I stopped Neal once more. “I’m off to Athens….” he then cut me short and continued about the Pentagon being hit. He asked if I had seen the Pentagon being hit.

I said I had been out the previous night and had not watched any TV. I assumed there had been a film on or something that had caught his imagination.

I simply did not have a clue as to why he was calling me and said so in not so many frank words!

He told me to put the TV on. As I did, Sky News showed a plane going into a sky scraper. Now I knew what the Twin Towers were. I had seen them before, in real life but only knew them as the World Trade Centre in lower Manhatton.

I was silent as I thought I was watching a movie but it was Sky News.

I now understood the phone call. I regretted not having the TV on before. My news journalistic background told me that this was something big even though I had only known of it for about 12 seconds.

Neal told me to get to Luton Airport straight away as most of the flights had been cancelled or some were going early.

By 8.30pm I was with Scott at Luton. The airport was quiet. Ghostlike. Everyone was cautious and slow. There were no family holiday tourist type people panicing over travel. It was quite nice actually!

We got to the check in desk and were told that we HAD to check in everything because of new government legislation passed only hours ago.

We explained that we had state of the art scanning equipment, computers and lenses containing glass more fragile than crystals. We were told scissors were banned – Scott put them in our clothes!

Some how we put the scanner in a suitcase and wrapped our jackets around it to keep it safe. My lenses went into the hold. We were both worried. Very worried. Almost petrified. Neither of us had never done anything like this before as we had always carried these valuable items on board with us.

We were told that our flight was very empty. We could see that not many passengers were flying that evening. Items were being removed from passengers in the security section and put into plastic bags then bound up and put in the aircraft hold.

We had to remove our shoes as we went through security. We had never done this before.

We eventually got on the plane, it was only 20% full. All people were talking about was the Twin Towers and slowly today was being branded 9-11.

Normally when we went to Athens we would sleep but today we were kept up by people chatting about one thing and one thing only. We sailed through the normally hectic Athens Airport and got a cab after checking that our luggage was OK. The scanner was safe.

We got to the hotel and CNN provided us with information we had missed prior to leaving the UK. We now knew who Al Qaeda were. We understood why knives and scissors were not allowed in aeroplanes in case they were used by hijackers.

It was getting close to 10am. Neither of us had slept. We decided to get into our hotel beds but kept CNN on.

Then my mobile telephone rang again.

It was UEFA asking if I had a number for Sir Alex Ferguson!

Unfortunately I replied NO! Apparently the hotel Manchester Untied were staying in had banned incoming calls as the playing staff and coaches were asleep. I was then told a big secret and was asked two times to tell the UEFA official that I understood what he was saying but I would not tell anyone.

UEFA had decided to cancel the UEFA Champions League for that day. They needed to tell Manchester United but simply could not contact them! I did however have the phone number of the Man U photographer John Peters who I instantly called.

Sounding like I do when I’m half asleep I said to John I’d call back in two minutes and let him wake up first. That I did and I got a more awake person on the other end of the telephone upon my second call!

I told him the news and said that Ferguson had to contact UEFA urgently.

Twenty minutes later I got a call thanking me for my efforts but I was still not allowed to tell anyone until it was officially announced.

Scott was good at keeping secrets and we ordered a spaghetti bolognese each for a mid morning breakfast/lunch as we were still glued to CNN.

Without being able to call back to the office we decided to get a return flight off our own backs and within 5 minutes had booked to return to Luton later that afternoon. Subsequently the office called saying that they had heard that the UEFA Champions League was going to be cancelled along with all the horse racing.

There was simply no sport going on.

Myself and Scott both looked at each other wondering if the other was thinking the same as I called Manchester United once more in their airport hotel to ask what they were up to. They were going home too. We got the OK to go and visit them so got a cab and arrived just after midday. There were no TV crews. No photographers. No journalists. Just us.

First Sebastian Veron and Giggs left the hotel and got on an awaiting coach. Then Keane and Ruud van Nistelrooy. Beckham tried to avoid us but Mr Ferguson was very diplomatic and smiled and waved as I took pictures and Scott just watched from my side. Fabien Barthez left also and before long I had filled a roll of film and United were on their way back to the airport. My last frame was one of Mr Ferguson on his mobile telephone.

It did not feel that we had captured a world exclusive but we had. Very leisurely we returned back to the hotel. By this time we were getting tired so in true form we got some more food which resulted in more Spaghetti and strawberry ice cream on room service.

We processed the film together. I did the washing up and dried all the equipment as Scott dried the film. Without any words spoken  – we were still glued to CNN – and the first negative was placed in the scanner and scanned in to the computer.

The caption read…”Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt leave the team hotel after all European Cup matches were called off after the tragedy in the United States”

At this time we still didn’t know the significance of 9-11, the label of the Twin Towers or anything. On CNN people were still calling it a tragedy so we copied them!

We scanned in and then sent a picture of every Manchester Untied player that I had taken a picture. A third spaghetti order was placed on room service as the office began calling us back to already say that we had saved the day for the sport pages in the UK and Europe.

Sport had been cancelled. This was a news story about sportsmen affected by 9-11.

If memory serves me correctly we got over 50 newspaper publications in Europe during the following days.

We got a flight home and I was in my local pub at about the time the game should have been kicking off.

All I could speak about was the hullabaloo at the airport on how we could not take ANYTHING on board an aeroplane anymore.

Subsequently the picture editor from VG – Verdens Gang in Norway personally thanked me for the picture of Solksjaer as it was the only image that involved a Norwegian affected by 9-11! Laurent Blanc was plastered all over the French press as images of Osama bin Laden got on the front pages.

As a result we then started to drive more when working in Europe and only flew long haul.

Because of the travel restrictions, I was almost forced to turn to digital photography as it involved not taking a very fragile film scanner with me in the hold of an aeroplane.

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3 responses to “September 11th – Ten Years on

  1. Great story, we want to hear more from you.

  2. Hi Matt, Interesting take on events. How people responded to 9/11 and how their lives changed as a result is often lost against the backdrop of New York. It brought about so many things that before would have been completely unacceptable.
    It certainly speeded up the progress of digital – and the internet. In my blog I describe how newspapers suddenly realised that this was an event recorded by the public on a scale previously unknown and then published on personal blogs and websites that we had no idea how to access. Analog media lost its crown that day, and has been chasing ever since.

  3. Thank you, enjoyed reading this. TG

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