A Life-Long Devotion to Chronicling the Truth — Alumni Profile, David Friend ’77E

As editor of creative development for Vanity Fair, David Friend ’77 uses eloquent writing and striking photography to inform his readers about the most news-worthy topics of our time.

David Friend '77 aims to separate facts from fiction and share the truth through writing, photography, and film. Photo courtesy of Celeste Sloman.

David Friend ’77E has been on a mission to uncover the truth since his days at Amherst. Friend began his journalistic endeavors at The Amherst Student, but since then, he has worked as Vanity Fair’s editor of creative development for over 20 years and was previously Life Magazine’s director of photography. As he has developed his extensive writing, editing, and photography repertoire, he has covered some of the most newsworthy events of his lifetime.  

Growing up in the Chicago area, Friend hadn’t even heard of Amherst until a family friend recommended it. He decided to apply and got in from a public high school. Friend feels he made the right decision. “I had a wonderful four years there, made lifelong friends and stayed in touch with a number of professors,” Friend says.

Friend’s Days at Amherst

As an English major, Friend found lasting connections with his professors. He was mentored by Armour Craig, an esteemed English professor who would go on to become the interim president of the college. Friend particularly enjoyed Craig’s class on the influential Irish novelist James Joyce. He also studied under the novelist Robert Stone.

“I took two or three writing courses from him and we remained friends for years. And I published a couple of his pieces years later when I was at Vanity Fair.” He is also still in touch with Stanley Rabinowitz, whose Russian literature course he loved, and Bill Pritchard, an English professor still affiliated with the college. Of course, his strongest connection to an Amherst community member is to his son Sam Friend ’10, a jazz musician in New Orleans.

In addition to taking classes, Friend further explored his passion for writing by becoming the editor for A Review — a literary magazine at Amherst which featured poetry, short stories, and photography. He also drew cartoons and wrote cultural pieces and satire for The Amherst Student. One time, he even went to Washington and covered the trial of Jimmy Carter's budget director for The Student. While drawing cartoons may seem far removed from his later work doing journalism at Life magazine and Vanity Fair, drawing was only one facet of Friend’s exploration of journalism.

Friend created his own course with then-President Bill Ward and Classics Professor John Lee Moore, to learn about pitching and writing stories for national magazines. Within this independent study, he wrote jokes for the National Lampoon as well as poems and serious journalistic pieces for his local newspaper and other places. During his junior and senior years, Friend also interned at Newsweek through the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) program.

Friend’s Successful and Extensive Career

After Amherst, Friend moved to New York, “to try to be a starving novelist,” but became, “more starving than a novelist.”  He came to realize that, even living with friends, he couldn't make rent. While this is not an uncommon plight for writers, Friend was able to use the connections he made at Amherst to change his situation.

“I sort of created a job for myself,” Friend says. Using a clip portfolio full of work he had written at Amherst, he applied and got a job as one of the nine reporters Life magazine hired in 1978. He was the second youngest person on the staff.

After working as a news editor at Life, Friend became the director of photography, which enabled him to spend 10 years traveling the world with photographers doing picture stories. In 1982, he visited Beirut three times to cover the Israeli invasion, and went to Poland, which had been put under martial law in response to union protests. He interviewed Russian prisoners of war held by the Mujahideen in 1983 during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Over the years, he has covered, “basically everything,” ranging from the Middle East to national and international politics, Americana, and even Hollywood news events. Friend thrived on the incredible variety of subjects he was able to cover, saying it was “really wonderful to work in a general-interest magazine.”

Friend worked at Life for 20 years, then switched to Vanity Fair after he was hired by his Life colleague Graydon Carter. He has spent the last 23 years doing stories for Vanity Fair as both an editor and a writer. He no longer works on photography, but he continues editing alongside the magazine’s new editor-in-chief Radhika Jones. Friend recently worked together with Jones on Vanity Fair’s “Women on Women,” a book he describes as, “women writers writing about women.”

In addition to his work at Vanity Fair, Friend has delved into movies and television in recent years. His work on the CBS Documentary 9/11 earned him an Emmy. The documentary centered on the footage of the attacks captured by two of Friend’s childhood friends. “They were the only people to videotape the first plane going into the first tower, and the second plane going to the second tower, and had both buildings fall on top of them and survived while filming. They also focused on the life of a firehouse that was very near the World Trade Towers,” Friend described. CBS still airs the documentary every five years.

Looking at 9/11 through Film and Photography

Friend’s work on 9/11 is not limited to the documentary. He also wrote a book about it called “​Watching the World Change: The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11.” His writing illuminates different facets of the global response to the attacks than the earlier documentary. “The book I wrote was my own idea,” Friend explains. “It was the story of the brothers taking that footage, but it really was a history of photography through the lens of a week in time. It looks at September 11 [through]16 of 2001, and talks about the transition from traditional film and videotape to digital photography and digital news gathering for television. So it's a whole look at how basically the attacks were also a significant event in the history of photography as it was changing.”

Since there are now 20 years of individuals born after the 2001 attacks, Friend posits that photography can help them gauge the tremendous impact of 9/11 that they couldn’t experience first-hand. He describes that, “People are deniers of many things in life, but through pictures, we can see the reality of what happened that day. And no matter what conspiracy theorists or purveyors of fake news would have you believe, this really happened.”

The premise of Friend’s book is that the way in which individuals can view photography and images has fundamentally changed since the attacks. The first change Friend observed is the introduction of cell phone cameras, which didn’t exist in 2001. He described how, instead, people captured 9/11 from many different angles through the use of surveillance cameras, civilian photographs, and network footage. He believes that “had there been cell phone cameras, I think, despite all the horror of that horrific day, it would have been even worse in terms of what was conveyed. The images of people up in the burning towers would have gotten out, making it even harder to take in. So, we didn't see what went on inside the buildings, but we all sort of came together nationally.”

Friend sees the internet’s growth as the second major technological change since  9/11. He said that, “Even though it [the internet] existed, 95 percent of people got their information that day from television, newspapers or radio. Only 5 percent went on the internet to get their information.”

He notes that as a result of its rise over the past 20 years, the internet now gives people the capacity to tell lies about 9/11. He says, “They will begin to insist on crazy things and try to undercut the baseline truth…So while the Internet provided instantaneous information, which was helpful, it also warped people because it also gave a platform to crazy people to serve their own purposes. So, there was a boom in conspiracy theories such as the one that 9/11 didn’t exist.”

Friend explained that the third technological change after 9/11 was the rise of social media. He noted that it barely existed at the time of the attacks; MySpace and Facebook became popular a while later. Friend posits that, “In addition to all the good things that social media facilitates, it allows different groups to communicate falsely to one another. It gave rise to people who could easily use networks to promote false narratives.” He notes that the platform of social media can be detrimental to journalism itself. Friend offers Trump’s use of Facebook in the 2016 election as an example of how social media can alter history.

Takeaways from a Lifetime of Journalism

As a result of these technological changes, Friend observes that both true and false information spread more readily online and in the media. He urges students to use their own reasoning to separate the truth from the fictions that are constantly spreading in today’s society. “Part of what Amherst teaches students is to have deduction, creativity, inclusion, but you have to search not only for beauty, but for truth. It’s hard to determine what is truthful when you have these all competing narratives, because it all seems subjective, but there are certain underlying truths of history and science. It's incumbent upon your generation to try to get to the truth.” While this may seem like a daunting task, Friend posits that, “The evidence is there to chronicle.” Using almost every facet of journalism: writing, editing, photography, and film, Friend has successfully enlightened his readers for decades and will continue doing so for years to come.

Friend coordinating the 1998 Alfred Eisenstaedt Awards for Magazine Photography at Columbia University