Every year, I make sure that I visit the 9/11 memorial. I’m a perpetual tourist I admit. But my visit to the memorial at this time of year is more of a reverential tradition. I pay tribute to the fallen: heroes and victims alike. I never get tired of it. I never forget it. I wasn’t here in New York when it happened. But like billions of people around the world, there was a nerve that was stricken on that fateful day. It wasn’t only in America that change happened. It was a ripple effect that was felt around the world. And like of the old cliche goes: and the rest was history.
Everytime I visit the memorial, I see different faces and different nationalities speaking in different tongues, gathered around the two reflection pools, saying prayers, laying flowers or spending quiet moments to pay their respects. But as time goes by I got curious. Why are people really there? Is it because out of curiosity? Is it because they consider it as a tourist attraction? Is it because they think it is a park? Or were they really there because of a deep personal reason like I have: the feeling that part of your humanity died with those almost 3,000 victims of the terrorist attack.
Just to clarify, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum (formerly the WTC Twin Towers / Ground Zero) is not a park or a tourist attraction. It is actually a cemetery. Underneath those pools are the remains of the those who have died. I knew this from the very moment I arrived in New York City. Actually the first place I’ve been to when I first visited New York (aside from Time Square) was the 9/11 Memorial.
20 years ago, I was a student nurse and I just got out of my shift. As my usual routine when I get home, I watch the news. Then I saw on CNN the image of what appears to be a burning building. I began receiving text messages from friends asking me if I was watching the news. I have two friends at that time living in New York and I was particularly concerned if they were safe. My former superior in the seminary, holy priest as he was, was cursing on text messages and was so angry when the twin towers collapsed. Like many other people on that day, I remember vividly where I was.
This year for the 20th Anniversary, with my Camera on hand, I went to the 9/11 memorial and I asked 20 people if I can take their headshots. I chose 10 people gathered around the North Pool and 10 people from the South pool yesterday at sundown. It wasn’t easy. Taking photos was the easy part. Asking them and disturbing their moment of silence was the challenge. I know that most of them were emotional, and asking them to pose for the camera, I felt, was kind of intrusive. Yet, in the spirit of being a true New Yorker, all of them willingly posed for my camera. Of all the people I asked, only one refused. She was probably a tourist (I thought).
I did not only take photos, I also engaged in a little bit of chat to get to know them and also asked them my proverbial question of sort, which was the main reason why I did this project in the first place: WHY ARE YOU HERE?
I have no standard of who to choose to participate. To be honest I was actually relying only on my guts and intuition. I have a ticket on a ferry going to New Jersey at around 7:40 pm to capture the Tribute to Light on the other side of the Hudson, and I was in a bit of a hurry. Aware of where I am, I walked slowly around each of the two pools, hoping my guts would tell me who to choose. Out of the 20 I interviewed, 6 of them had a connection with the Memorial. 3 were actual survivors and 3 of them have friends and relatives who died in 9/11.
I deliberately excluded their names from this project for a variety of reasons. Some of them would like to stay private, some didn’t actually gave their names and most likely, I forgot and lost their names in the process (bad journalism) because of the circumstance I was in at that moment.
If a picture paints a thousand words, then let their faces launch a thousand thoughts:
THE SOUTH POOL
She was living in Brooklyn and was working in the WTC at that time. When the first tower was hit, she was inside the subway near the WTC. She got out of the train station only to witness what she said she would never forget and is still vivid in her mind. She is one of the many survivors who lived to tell the tale. After the attack, she moved out of state. She came back to visit for the 20th anniversary to pay her respects to fallen friends and colleagues.
He is a Japanese Businessman who visited New York. He doesn’t speak English but he understood what I asked of him. After the shoot, he asked me to record him on his phone via video of him paying respects to the fallen. He took a bouquet of flowers from his briefcase, and did a bowing namaste gesture over the waters of the pool. I did not asked him what he meant with what he did. I already knew. Like music and mathematics, respect is a universal language that doesn’t need translation.
I asked his mom if I can take his photo. His mom asked him if he wants to. He enthusiastically posed. He was there with his mom. He wasn’t the sole kid his age who was there. Dozens of parents and grandparents took their children and grandchildren in the 9/11 memorial to teach them what happened 20 years ago, making sure that the next generation would never forget
He was a biker from New York and a proud member of the Yonkers MC – NY. He was there to pay his respects to the victims of the attack.
He was paying tribute to the name on the pool who is the daughter of his best friend. He went to the memorial to honor the memory of her friend’s daughter.
He was a former Paramedic Surpervisor and a detective in one of the law enforcement agency of New York. At the time of the attack he was sleeping in his home in Queens when he received a radio call. He went to the Twin Towers to help with the rescue. When he arrived at the scene people were jumping off the towers and human body parts were falling from the building. He was unloading his equipment in the corner of Vesey and West street (the present location of One World Trade Center) when the police asked him to move his vehicle to give way for the fire truck that was coming from Newark. He parked further a few blocks along West street. As he was walking back, the South Tower fell. He didn’t make it into the lobby of the tower. He is alive right now because of the police who asked him to move his car. Sometimes delays and hassles serves a purpose.
THE NORTH POOL
He was in elementary school in Cleveland, Ohio when the attack happened. He vividly recalls that he was walking the hallway of the school when they were asked to go back to their rooms and sit quietly while their parents are notified to pick them up. While waiting, he recalled the silence and calm of the school as they waited for their parents to arrive. He is now living here in New York and is a Flight Attendant for American Airlines. He came to the memorial to pay his respects to his colleagues who perished on that faithful day. What I forgot to ask him was, did 9/11 influenced his decision to become a flight attendant?
She has a French accent and she told me she only been living in New York for four years and she always visit the memorial every year to pay her respect.
Her father was an FDNY 20 years ago. On that day, her father’s colleague swapped duty with his dad. So her father was at home when the attack took place. Her Father’s colleague didn’t make it and was part of the 300+ firemen who died that day. She was at the memorial to pay her respect. If the swap didn’t happen, her father would have been at the WTC and there is a likelihood she wouldn’t exist today. She’s 19 and was born after the 9/11 attacks. She’s not the only teen who frequents the memorial with her friends every year. The torch of history is being lit for the next generation so that the country will never forget.
She was with her husband, silently standing around the North Pool. She was the last one I asked for a photo. She was calm and serene and willingly posed for the camera. Her husband stepped aside. I noticed that her eyes were misty and wet. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what her eyes were conveying. I asked her one question very gently if she was there for a relative or a friend. The most powerful words I heard that day is what she answered: “I was here”. I didn’t asked another question. I gently pat her shoulders, told her “Thank you so much and God Bless you” and I left her and her husband out of respect.
As I walked towards West and Vesey street to Brookfield Place where my ferry was docked, I slowly formed an answer to my own question. The ferry was moving away from Manhattan towards Paulus Hook just across the river, and I was looking at the Tribute of light getting more vivid and bright as the boat moved further away, when I finally made a conclusion.
People who come here doesn’t see this as a tourist attraction or a park or a place to mingle and be.
They go to the Memorial to pay their respect and commemorate the victims of that fateful day. There is an invisible connection with everyone no matter what race, religion, or age they have. Even those who weren’t even born yet or who was thousand of miles away when the attack happened, find meaning and connection with the victims. It’s like a gigantic web that was formed on that fateful day. Truly amazing. Reinforces the theory of collective empathy.
Although, if this was a statistical study, my sample would be irrelevant for lack of sufficient and convincing data. And yet, out of the twenty people I interviewed, taken photos and chatted with, amazingly enough, not a single one of them was clueless or doesn’t know the meaning and relevance why they were there. Even the youngest know why he were there and what happened on that day.
As a photographer, I am never partisan. I make sure I set aside politics and take photos as history unfolds regardless of my personal preference, that is if ever I have any. But quoting Person #14 during my chat with him, he brings power to truth: This is the day when we all come together as one and as Americans.
Before the attack, and even up to now, New York City is home to 8 million people, with 180 languages and dialects being spoken and the only place on earth where Jews, Sikhs and Moslems live peacefully and harmoniously in one neighborhood. I Love New York More Than Ever – Milton Glaser
The World is truly a Big and Beautiful Apple.