September 11th Photographs
After hearing about the event of September 11th and watching the drama unfold on television, I was numb for two days. I couldn’t believe what was happening.
I wished I was a construction worker or a steel worker – at least I could help. I could volunteer and be useful. But I’m a photographer, not even a photojournalist – an artist. No one needed an artist at “ground zero.” But I didn’t want to photograph twisted steel anyway. The site looked like a war zone.
But it wasn’t about the building, as impressive as it was. It wasn’t about the mountain of rubble. It was about the people – those missing souls and the families and friends searching to find them – searching for any bit of information.
I went into Manhattan on the third day of the disaster. I didn’t try to venture downtown. Instead, I went to the National Guard Armory on Lexington Avenue. This is where relatives and friends came to fill out the reports and bring photographs and medical information about their missing loved ones. People went to the Armory – then to the local hospital – then back to the Armory again in a desperate search for information. That’s where I spent the first days.
I found myself with the news reporters and video crews from around the world. I spoke to the people looking for their missing relatives, and I listened to their stories. And, I made photographs of them with the pictures and flyers when I had the strength to ask.
This is not the kind of photography that I was used too. I found it extremely difficult. I could only go on listening to the stories and making photographs for a short period of time. Looking at the faces of many of the reporters and the network news people – they were not doing well either. I left the city emotionally exhausted each day.
During the first few days I also quietly photographed the “Missing” flyers that were posted throughout the city. The pictures on the flyers were of men and women – all like you and I – the average American, just people you expect to see on the street, at graduations, in their back yard, with their dogs and cats. They were all smiling for the camera – they were in a different place – in happier times. Now the flyers, with these personal snapshots, included the word “MISSING.” The flyers read, Please Find My Daddy, Hector Please Come Home, Brother and Sister Missing, Devoted husband and world’s greatest dad…, Have you seen my lovely wife…, and Family is Devastated.
It was raining one morning, the first bad weather after the tragic event. I watched a teenage girl who was soaking wet. She seemed like she was in a different world. While it was still raining she walked over to one of the police barricades and reverently removed a wet “Missing” flyer. It was for an older man, I assumed it was her father. She carefully folded the flyer and placed it in her backpack. She pulled out another copy and taped it to the same place. I couldn’t take a picture – it was as if she was in church lighting a candle for a departed relative. It was a solemn moment.
I spoke to a father who came from Rochester to look for his beautiful 28-year-old daughter. She lived in Jersey City and worked at the World Trade Center. With uncontrollable tears he said that he knew she was alive. “She had to make it out – she was so bright, so full of energy – so capable of taking care of herself.” He showed her picture. He was looking for anyone who could give him some information some hope.
Hope soon faded and the photographs, the “Missing” flyers, and personal notes soon turned into memorials. The hospitals, parks, firehouses, and anywhere that seemed appropriate became the site for a memorial. Posters, flowers, candles, drawings, and personal artifacts dotted the city.
The buildings were never on my mind – it was the people – the tragic loss of humanity and the countless family, friends, and loved ones that were left with unimaginably grief. That’s what the tragedy was all about for me. It was about human suffering on a large scale. I was at the epicenter of human disaster – no longer watching it comfortably at home on the television. It was raw and violent and emotionally draining. Like most Americans, I never expected it to be part of “my” life.
So, the photographs that I made are a personal reaction to what I saw. They are not about any one dramatic newsworthy moment. They are a quiet emotional reaction. They are about what I felt. These photographs are about the eternal human struggle to deal with staggering loss and personal grief.