It was around three in the afternoon in the UK, and I’d just got home from school. As I always did, I put on the television to watch my favorite shows before heading to soccer practice, only this time none of them were on. Instead, news reporters stood in front of a blazing New York skyline as the city went into a state of emergency. “Mum, New York is on fire,” I shouted as she frantically made my pre-soccer snack. I knew the magnitude of what had happened but was too young for it to sink in. When the clock struck half-past four, I switched off the TV, picked up my ball, and headed to practice.
Going Back to September 11th
Eighteen years later and now a grown man, my emotions better connect to the pain, the hopelessness, and the strength of New Yorkers. As someone whose life centers around the photographic process, I’m indelibly interested in the role photography played in the events–both on that tragic day and in the aftermath. I’ve spent hours looking at stills, trying to piece it all together. I aimed to find a photobook that not only spoke of the unbelievable scenes but of the impact it had on the people of the city. After reviewing the more obvious contributions from the likes of Magnum, I came across a book that I found more engaging. It was less in line with mainstream media’s sensationalizing version, and more connected to real people with real stories.
The September 11 Photo Project is a community-based effort that tells the story of the events that day and the impact it had afterward. Founder and Editor, Michael Feldschuh writes:
“I witnessed the fall of the burning towers and the death of thousands of people just blocked 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 save them – I have never felt so hopeless in all my life.”
I’m, of course, an advocate for the freedom of the press. Without it, we would not know what was happening in the world. But the fact remains: mainstream media is a business. And tragedies such as September 11th make money. That’s why news broadcasts, papers, and books are littered with the most emotive photos, the ‘Falling Man’ being the best example of this. That photo brings eyes to the product, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
This Is Not a Mainstream Book
It’s clear from reading it, The September 11 Photo Project isn’t about telling the most eye-catching story; it’s about telling the truth. The images in this book are not only from seasoned photojournalists but from anyone out that day who had a camera. Nobody was creating photographs with big media bosses in mind; they were documenting what they saw and how they felt.
“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 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.”
Although challenging, I wanted to approach reading this book as if I had never come across the attacks before. I wanted it to be the year 2101, and the scene would be of me finding a book that told a story that nobody had told me before. I wanted photography to take me back 100 years and thrust me into the center of the chaos and despair.
This book does precisely that. I feel nervous while reading it. Looking at the two towers in flames, the people frantically working through the streets of Manhattan, and the debris suffocating the ground beneath it all bring a lump to my throat. I feel anxious, almost scared of the events that will unfold as I turn the pages.
A Story of Pain and Hope
Because of the enormous contribution from photographers, the book offers different perspectives of the two burning towers. The one that impacted me the most is an image of people getting a game of early morning tennis. As they hit the ball back and forth, the twin towers stand in the background, billowing thick smoke. It’s a powerful image, witnessing people carry out their everyday activities while events that would completely change the world unfold in the background.
Amongst the emotionally charged images of pain and destruction, there’s another narrative developing – togetherness. The destruction chokes me up, but the way people came together brings a tear to my eye. You have a city of people binding, with a smile on their face and a voice that says, “We will not give up.” People who would otherwise have ignored each other in passing on the street are hugging, holding, comforting, and lifting each other up. In a story of almost complete darkness, there’s a bright light. This community-based project highlights what New York became that day, a community that responded as one. The photographs are simple: they do not concern themselves with shutter speeds or complex angles – they invoke emotion. The September 11 Photo Project highlights the importance photography has in recording the world.
The Power of Photography
The September 11 Photo Project is a fascinating account of misery and strength. It’s important, and should hold a highly regarded spot in the recorded history of those events. Spending time with this book taught me just how much 9/11 impacted the world and the people of New York. As I went about my day 18 years ago kicking soccer balls in a goal, people lost almost everything but their hope. Photography taught me about my own privilege. It told me stories of people on the ground, families of those involved, and the perspective of each photographer who contributed to this book. We should never take photography for granted: it remains one of the most powerful tools to ensure people never forget all that happens in this world.
My thoughts go out to all of those affected by the terrible attacks on September 11th, 2001.
You can purchase The September 11 Photo Project on Amazon.