Pictures of the burning World Trade Center towers, images seared in minds around the U.S. and the world, quickly came to define the Sept. 11 attacks in graphic fashion. And it’s not hard to see why: those images shocked a nation, sowing grief, sorrow and anguish among Americans—including, as never-before-seen, behind-the-scenes images have shown, the nation’s leaders.
On July 24, the National Archives and Records Administration released 356 photos shot on Sept. 11, 2001, by Vice President Dick Cheney’s official photographer David Bohrer. The publication was the result of a decade-long fight by Frontline producer Colette Neirouz Hanna to gain access to the images. The photographs, shot as Cheney and other members of George W. Bush’s administration sought refuge in the President’s Emergency Operations Center underneath the White House, don’t reveal anything we didn’t know about that day’s events. Still, they provide insight into the emotional state of the country’s leaders at these unprecedented trying times.
“There were many pictures of the event itself,” says Fred Ritchin, a photography critic and the Dean of the School at the International Center of Photography in New York. “But, until now, we didn’t really see the response of the people in power and how they felt about it. These photographs make it much more tangible and visible. We can really feel what is being felt.”
“You can see the grief and anguish on the Vice President’s face,” adds Neirouz Hanna. “Being able to see these photos for the first time is a remarkable and important contribution to the historical record.”
Yet the photographs remained concealed for almost 15 years. “We’ve been reporting and producing films about September 11 and its aftermath since day one,” says Neirouz Hanna, “and in order to help illustrate a lot of the scenes in these films I would look for these photographs and make countless requests to the Bush administration and Cheney administration. We were just consistently denied.”
According to the Frontline producer, the administration held onto the photographs until January 2009, at which time they were transferred to the National Archives and the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. After an expected five-year embargo, all documents were made available under the Freedom of Information Act.
But, an administration’s rebuttals often come from a desire to portray the office of the presidency and vice-presidency in a positive way, especially when you take into consideration the power of an image, as Ari Fleischer, the former White House Press Secretary for George W. Bush, tells TIME. As a result, political concerns will dictate the type of pictures that are released by White House staffers. “There’s a political element to make the President look strong, decisive, in charge,” says Fleischer. “Unless it’s for humor, you’ll never see any White House release pictures that make the President look bad.”
Michael Davis, the Lead Picture Editor for the White House from 2001 to 2004, remembers arguing for more behind-the-scenes photographs to be disclosed on Sept. 11, but, he was convinced otherwise. “They were considering so many different things that I don’t know where the notion of informing the public [fell] on the hierarchy,” he says. “I remember having a meeting pretty late that night with the [President’s] Chief of Staff and the Communications Director, and the decision was not to release any images of the president that night because releasing photos of him on that day would have drawn attention away from what needed to be [focused on] and that was the victims and what was happening in New York and the Pentagon. I completely agreed with that.”
Even though no images would be released that day, the staff photographers continued their work. Now, years later, the images they were able to capture can add a new layer to public understanding of that dark moment in history. For example, one picture of CIA director George Tenet listening to the President’s address to the nation communicates a feeling that many officials might have tried to hide at the time: “The look on Tenet’s face really said it all,” explains Gordon Johndroe, who served as Deputy Press Secretary for the President from 2001 to 2003. “[It shows] what a long, stressful and unbelievable day it had been. And at that point, they are waiting for the President to finish his speech and walk back to the bunker because they had another meeting. Tenet knew he wasn’t going home any time soon.”
The released photographs also offer the closest look at Vice President Cheney’s emotional state on Sept. 11. “The decisions being made down there involved life and death,” says Fleischer. “For instance, the decision that the President made on Air Force One – and that he and the Vice President discussed – authorizing the shoot down of civilian aircrafts, and the moments of doubt when a civilian aircraft went down in Pennsylvania; a photographer caught that. Think of how searing, how gripping, how vivid and emotional and unscripted all that was.” And that’s what Bohrer’s photographs convey, adds Jared Ragland, a White House Photo Editor and Digital Imaging Specialist who joined Bush’s administration in 2005. “These photographs capture the emotional timbre of that morning and then throughout the day. You see these emotional responses. You see these looks of sadness, bewilderment, exhaustion. You see that human element.”
Looking at Bohrer’s images, there’s little doubt that Sept. 11 had a profound impact on the people who spent most of that day in the White House’s bunker. “That was the day that changed him,” says Johndroe, in reference to Vice President Cheney. “I think you begin to see the transformation that day, the anguish on his face.”
For Ari Fleischer, these images highlight not just the power of history to shape individuals, but also the power of photography to shape history. “It shows [people] what that day was like as if they could be there today,” he says. “That’s what photos can accomplish, and particularly on those momentous days like Pearl Harbor, like D-Day, and like Sept. 11. Our nation wants to remember and photos help people to remember.”