WTC Photo Book Raises Ethical Questions
By Mike McPhate
Willie works the tragedy trade. Sitting on a red, plastic crate across from Ground Zero, the 59-year-old Vietnam veteran sells pictures of 9/11, including the grisly photo-booklet Day of Tragedy. One or two passerby berate him daily, said Willie, who declined to give his last name. “They say you’re making a living off of other people’s misery.” But he says he is a patriotic American and his work is nobody’s business.
In the five years since 9/11 many have criticized what seem like attempts to commercialize the tragedy. The scars of that day should remain private, some argue, not evoked in merchandise like movies, films, books, or t-shirts.
The issue of profiteering popped up again with last week’s release of Aftermath: Unseen Photos from a New York City Cop, which offers a stark, black-and-white exposé of first responders at the disaster site. City authorities threatened to sue for proceeds from the book, noting that author John Botte was on the clock when he took his shots.
"The pictures belong to the City,” Gerald Singleton, a lawyer with the Law Department, said in a statement. Botte responded with indignation at the notion that money was ever a motive.
Profiteers Emerged Almost Instantly
Even as smoke billowed from the Trade Center towers that early morning in 2001, some smelled opportunity. Within minutes of the tragedy, Web entrepreneurs snatched up internet domain names like attackonamerica.com, later demanding prices that reportedly reached $75,000. A month after the attacks, Columbia Records rushed to market a compilation of patriotic songs called "God Bless America,” selling more than a million copies. More recently, a Port Chester mint has been hawking coins allegedly made of silver recovered from Ground Zero.
Keith Miller, a city corrections officer who worked on the recovery effort, said he’s disgusted by 9/11 profiteers. A few days after the attacks, Miller walked past more than a dozen vendors selling hats, t-shirts and photos outside Ground Zero. “I did not understand why someone did not kick all their tables over,” he said.
Film makers who have depicted the tragedy have tried to appease such sentiments, often donating part of their proceeds to charity. About 60 percent of the take for Fahrenheit 9/11 reportedly went to charity. For United 93 and the newly released World Trade Center, 10 percent of early ticket sales reportedly went to charity, while star Nicholas Cage said he gave his entire salary to the Red Cross.
Anthony Gardner, director of the World Trade Center United Family Group, said many families have been supportive of the new film by Oliver Stone, but added it would have been a “major mistake” if proceeds from the film were not donated.
“I think [the reaction to profit-making] depends on the project,” said Gardner, whose brother Harvey died in the terrorist attacks. “People object to various projects that evoke 9/11, but some are well-intending.”
Whether to market tragedy is a matter of conscience, ethicists say. Patricia Werhane, director of the DePaul Institute for Business and Professional Ethics, said she found no fault with the sale of 9/11-themed products, only that such enterprises should remain decent, and avoid revealing people’s private lives.
“I wouldn’t think people were irresponsible if they sold 9/11 t-shirts,” she said. “I don’t think that’s so bad.”
David Decosse, an ethicist at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said artistic projects that deal with the tragedy, like the films United 93 and World Trade Center, can be a public service.
“Fundamentally, both of those movies are really trying to explore, in a way, this unprecedented national disaster, to help viewers try to grapple with what the meaning of this is in our lives,” said Decosse, who grew up on the Upper East Side. “Whether we like the film or not, those efforts help us as people, as citizens, to come to a deeper understanding about ourselves and our country.”
Such was his purpose, says John Botte. The photographer, who lost several friends in the terror attacks and suffered scarred lungs, said he hopes his book isn’t lumped in with “less than honorable” efforts to turn a profit like the Ground Zero coins.
“It was done to memorialize and pay tribute,” he said.