Today is September 11th, 2012. The sky is as bright blue as it was this same morning 11 years ago. I suppose that morning started much the same as mine is now. I’ll have coffee, make breakfast for my daughter, get her ready to go to school, and then take my morning walk before going to the office. I think at some point in the day, everyone will have to recall the date for something – writing a check, making an appointment, etc – and if they hadn’t remembered this anniversary, they will. Our national need to remember this has been the impetus to create landmarks that are places of honor and awe.
So for this reason, I’m interrupting my “Selling Photography” series for the moment. I want to share with you some of the images related to the 9/11 Memorials that I visited recently.
The plan for the day was to drive to Liberty State Park in Jersey City, NJ and visit Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Time permitting, we would take the ferry to Battery Park, on the southern tip of the island of Manhattan, and walk the few blocks to ground zero, the 9/11 Memorial on the site of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Though with no idea of how long the first part of our day Ellis Island & Lady Liberty would take up, having learned that passes are needed to visit the 9/11 site, we reserved 6:00 pm slots. The water taxi that would take us back to Liberty State Park, and our car, and onto the rest of the trip, only runs until 7:45.
Approaching the entry way to Ellis Island, I was surprised to find a considerable and very visual 9/11 Memorial constructed on the grounds. Positioned in such a manner as to take the place of the twin towers that once stood across the river, the silver walls of the memorial were etched with the names of the victims of the attacks who were from New Jersey. At the entrance, mangled steel girders act as reminders of the magnitude of the wreckage and the impossible temperatures that resulted from the airplane fuel that burned, manipulated, and eventually compromised the strength of the metal.
As a photographer, I was pleased with the balance and reflective properties of the walls. As a visual artist, I felt the gap left by the fallen towers. Despite having been to New York City very few times prior to that day, I was like most people who saw the towers as cues of the Manhattan skyline and were able to recognize the city because of them. The memorial in Liberty State Park underlines the missing architectural element in the skyline. As a human being, I thought of how the abrupt change to the sights that a person sees every day can wear on the brain and become an emotional trigger. If every day, you wake and go about your life with a particular landscape surrounding you and suddenly that landscape is altered, you and that life are altered as well. If the alteration is the result of a violent, deadly attack, one that left the world around you devastated, the gap itself, when recognized by the brain, even on a subconscious level, can’t help but take the next step into recalling the event and again suffering from it.
Once at the 9/11 Memorial site in New York City, at ground zero, the surroundings are peaceful and reverent in a way I didn’t think would be possible in the middle of the city. The sound of the cascading water is deafening and silent at the same time. The question I replayed as I walked around the grounds, trying as best I could to take it in and feel it, was how do I capture this? How could I possibly create an image that would encompass everything this site is? My answer is that I couldn’t. I couldn’t envision a way to bring it all into the small space of a single photograph. The ground beneath my feet was too much. I tried to imagine how deep it went when the towers stood there on top of the garage and shopping levels below grade. I could certainly recall the images of the debris, but really have no grasp on how immense in size and scope the cleanup was. I wondered about the dust that settled eventually and what it contained. I recall being deeply affected by the visual of the masses of paper falling from the buildings before they fell, how reports showed rescue workers wading through tons of paper, and the sounds of people hitting the ground after making the unfathomable decision to jump rather than stay, that jumping was a better option. When each tower crumbled upon itself, how far into the earth was it driven? Where has the dust settled? Like a volcanic eruption, did debris particles get carried over states or continents? Looking through the chain link fence on the side of the memorial grounds that remain under construction as the new One World Trade Center is being built, I wondered about the workers who come to this site every day, park their cars, and walk across the dirt lot to the work zone. Do they recognize what they could be standing on? The impact of the impact is something I can’t begin to understand.
After the realization that me and my camera could not possibly see all that is there at the 9/11 Memorial, I decided to turn my focus on the stories of the people who died there that day. I was especially affected by the names that were followed by “and her unborn child.”
This woman, Vanessa Lang Langer, was four months pregnant. She worked in the South Tower as an office manager on the 93rd floor. After getting down and out of the tower, she was crushed when the tower fell and was found a mere ten feet from the alley between towers IV & V.
This image will stay with me.
Another moment that day we visited struck me with the reality of how this event has changed the world.
This is the new One World Trade Center as it stands under construction. It was uncomfortable for me to take this photograph of it as an airplane flew past. I felt that it was inappropriate to shoot that juxtaposition in that place but also thought that as an image, it defines it in a way that I couldn’t have otherwise.
My feeling is that the image of an airplane flying in the direction of this tower, and the emotions it evokes, are a reflection of how much this tragedy has changed us.
In any other place in any other time this airplane would be just another airplane flying over Manhattan, but the knowledge that the same thought or perhaps the non recognition of just another airplane flying over Manhattan on that day 11 years ago, and what a common occurrence it is and was, makes it that much more definitive of the shift in our national and worldwide perceptions of normalcy. How the whole world can change when something so normal and accepted as air travel becomes something else because of the actions of a few.
I count myself as fortunate that no one in my life was injured or died as a result of those actions. I also, however, count myself in as a human being who can’t help but be changed by that day.
To those who did have people in their lives who died that day, please know that this one woman in Maine is thinking about you today. Wishes of wellness, understanding, recovery, and love to you.