Read an Excerpt
The September 11 Photo Project is an open forum for display of photographs and words in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The project began as a grass-roots effort to collect material from anyone who wished to participate. By allowing people to bear witness to the expression and pain of others, the project hoped to promote understanding of the tragedy on a human level and to begin a healing process. Our philosophy was simple: display, without exception, every set of photographs and words participants submitted; and welcome all who wished to see them.
On October 13, the gallery opened with approximately two hundred photos in a four-thousand-square-foot gallery in SoHo, New York City, less than twelve blocks from Ground Zero. In the weeks and months that followed, the expanses of white wall space were covered with more than four thousand photographs and written notes from community members from New York City, America, and the world. More than forty thousand people came to display their work or look at the photographs and read the thoughts of others.
This book represents the project's effort to bring the gallery experience to those unable to see the exhibition in person. The photographs are grouped, as they were in the gallery, by contributor, not thematically or chronologically. Photographs that were accompanied by text have been presented together wherever possible. The following pages reflect the diversity of the SoHo gallery's walls and the project's conviction that no submission is better or worse than any another.
The Heart Is the Truest Eye
When a humanbeing is confronted with pure evil, sometimes the only course of action is to bear witness. From the first moments of the attacks on September 11, many people felt compelled to start recording what they saw and thought, They took photographs, made video and audio recordings, and relayed news to all they could reach by telephone and computer. A heaviness marked those moments, the mixture of pain and confusion as the mind struggled to make sense of the unfathomable. No one person can completely understand the events and implications of that day, but through a collective eye, the views of many may lead to a new understanding for all.
On September 11 I was shaken out of bed by an explosion -- the second plane striking the World Trade Center. I witnessed the fall of the burning towers and the death of thousands of people just blocks from where I live. I had taken my camera with me that morning and in a crowd of people took photos while in deep shock, fearing for the lives of those trapped and the rescue workers rushing to help them. I have never felt so helpless in my life.
Thousands of people began taking photos of their communities as a way of making sense of the events around them. The grief, shock, fear, and anger was overwhelming, and crowds gathered spontaneously in public squares around the city. The squares quickly became shrines to the missing and the dead, filled with thousands of candles, photos, flowers, and signs. The atmosphere was filled with foreboding and confusion; people with cameras were everywhere. Within days, however, many of the items that composed the shrines were being destroyed by rain or removed by the city for historical preservation. The objects placed there were the different voices of a community that had witnessed an atrocity, and in the destruction or removal of the objects their purpose was undermined.
By September 20, public vigils were growing, and I had an idea. Why not create an indoor public space, safe from the elements, where anyone could put up a few photos with words of his or her own choosing that no one would sweep away, censor, or remove? I found an empty, partially demolished four-thousand-square-foot gallery in SoHo, just twelve blocks from Ground Zero, and asked the owner for permission to open the space to the public. He agreed instantly, and with the help of construction workers, who donated time and materials, three weeks later the gallery was ready. The September 11 Photo Project was born.
The public shrines had vitality and urgency -- their emotional authenticity lay in the open nature of what was occurring. No one limited what was placed there; no one curated what was given; no one judged certain objects or statements better than others. The public was left to grieve and bear witness. The September 11 Photo Project embraced this ethos. To keep true to an egalitarian spirit of community and healing, the project made a crucial decision at its inception -- it would be the contributors who chose what photos and words to include, not the organizers, and the project without exception would display every contributor's work. I began handing out flyers in public squares, asking everyone I saw with a camera, "Are you taking pictures in response to the tragedy?" I asked anyone who was to mail me up to three photos accompanied by any thoughts he or she wanted to share. I spoke with more than five hundred people that first weekend in Union Square, where thousands had gathered, and everyone had a story about where he or she had been on September 11.
I called on my friend James Murray, an artist and New York City firefighter, to help organize the opening of the project. We set guidelines to capture the essence of the outdoor shrines. All contributions would be anonymous unless signed. Each contributor's works would be hung together so that the installation would read as a series of personal testaments. We rejected suggestions to group the contributions thematically or temporally. The work would be clipped to the gallery walls in a simple fashion without glass between the photos and the viewers. In contrast to the instant "preservation" efforts of city institutions, we would not treat the contributions as relics or artifacts, but rather as their creators had intended, as objects for direct display for all to see. We would not exploit these personal offerings -- we would not sell copies of people's photos or words. The integrity of the project space depended on its not being seen as either an art museum or a photo gallery for shopping. We would not even accept donations in the gallery space; instead, we asked would-be donors to give directly to the New York City Firefighters Burn Center Foundation, an all-volunteer charity run by firefighters with which Jim is associated. We wanted people to come to a place of refuge and simply bear witness to the accounts of others, to begin coming to terms with the mind-numbing horror. We hoped that visitors would come away with a deeper understanding of what had occurred and a clearer sense of how to respond to the tragedy.
The gallery opened at 26 Wooster Street on October 13. We started with two hundred photos and six volunteers. Visitors -- mostly curious neighbors out walking their dogs -- began coming the night before the gallery opened. At a few minutes past midnight on October 13, our first official visitor came: a man from San Francisco who asked to see the exhibit that night, before his 6 a.m. flight home.
In the three months that followed, more than forty thousand people visited the gallery, and the number of photographic and textual submissions grew from two hundred to more than four thousand.
The contributors ranged in age from nine to seventy-seven, their photographic experience ranging from casual to professional. What they all had in common was the need to share their stories or thoughts. We were stunned by the broad response of the visitors -- people from all parts of society came to see the project or contribute their work. Survivors, bereaved spouses, police officers, Ground Zero workers, firefighters, EMS personnel, construction workers, children, and tourists from all over the world visited the project. Many came, at first, just to look, then returned with contributions of their own to hang on the walls. We were overwhelmed by the diversity, creativity, and quality of what the contributors gave. We received color and black-and-white photographic prints, digital prints, collages of photographs, and photographs that had been manipulated digitally or physically with photo oils or paint. Some contributors shot in the style of photojournalism, consciously or not, focusing on the timing and composition of the images; some used photography as a tool of documentation (from its use on the missing person posters to pictures of the missing posters themselves, this was an attempt to capture what was); and others used photography as a means of personal or artistic expression. In a similar way, people chose many different forms of writing -- from simple captions, to descriptions and stories, to poems and essays.
What began as an effort to create a community space to preserve the culture of the outdoor shrines had become a multifaceted experience. Some view the project as a healing exercise for the community, others as an important historical body of photos and stories, and still others as a community-building exercise, or even as an exercise in self-expression through art. In the future, it will likely be used to study what happened in New York and how New Yorkers responded: while the project displays submissions from around the world, its intimate temporal and geographic connection to what happened in New York City on September 11 is undeniable.
The project can be experienced on many levels. Each individual image is its own world. Each grouping of photos with text represents one individual's viewpoint. Each wall of the exhibition becomes a collective testament from a group of individuals. From each perspective the meaning of what is there changes, and this shifting perspective is a powerful element of experiencing the project. The project also changes daily, as new pieces are constantly added. This makes for a dynamic and growing process that parallels our society's developing reaction to what has occurred. Every visitor found a particular set of images to be most powerful. With more than four thousand photos, looking at each even for a few moments would take more than a full day, but instead of being systematic in their approach, people were drawn to what spoke to them. Everyone's experience was a distinct and private one.
More than moving images or unadorned photographs, images combined with text have emerged as a powerful medium for understanding the atrocity on a human level. Moving images are engaging, but they do not give us time to think -- we are too busy processing each unfolding moment. The still photograph, in contrast, gives us time to reflect upon what we are seeing; it is a moment frozen before us.
For some contributors the image alone sufficed. It is possible for viewers to look into some images and immediately make a connection to the subjects of the photograph, though it may be painful or difficult to view the raw suffering. On further reflection, it may be possible to make a connection to the photographer as well, by imagining what it was like to see that scene and take that picture. For some contributors words provided an important context in which to view their photographs. Together, the images and words become a testament. Reading the words while looking at the images invites the photographer into the viewer's experience. It was for this reason that the photos and words of each contributor were hung together, to foster an intimacy and understanding between the viewer and the contributor.
The project is preparing to move to Washington, D.C., for March and April 2002, where it will continue the work of displaying and collecting work relating to September 11. While nothing can replicate the experience of viewing the installation of the project, this book reflects an effort to convey it honestly. Each contributor's photos and words have been grouped together on the pages that follow, and attempts have been made to represent as much diversity of content, style, and point of view as possible. There is no particular order to the photos; some are shown as they were on the walls of the gallery, others enlarged with the words of the photographer next to them. Some contributors felt that only their photographs could speak for them, and their photos are shown without any text.
The decision to make this book presented a dilemma for the project; from the start we avoided anything commercial. Listening to the participants and visitors to the project settled it for us. They said that if a book could help fund a tour of the exhibition and bring even some of the experience to those who could not see it, we had to do it. We agree.
Has the project become a memorial to the attacks of September 11? Is it a moving shrine? Not exactly. It is not a memorial or a shrine to any one person; rather it has become a means of bearing witness to the pain and to the profound shift in our reality that has taken place since the events of September 11, 2001.The September 11 Photo Project. Copyright © by Michael Feldschuh. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.