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Saturday, October 5th, 2002


The September 11 Photo Project

by Michael Feldschuh

A review by Leah Bobal

They were an elderly couple, standing in the middle of a street leading to what was once the site of the World Trade Center. "No, no, stand over there," he said to his partner, gesturing fervently in my direction. I scooted out of the way as his wife trundled over. I watched as the man turned toward her camera and smiled. The flash flickered gently over his face, masking the street that stretched behind him for two blocks into nothing.

"How can they take pictures, smiling like that?" I asked myself. Confused, I walked over to the sidewalk. It was lined with people reading messages left for those who were lost after September 11. Video cameras were rolling, cameras were clicking -- people were even laughing.

Almost a year after the World Trade Center attack, and throngs of people were lined up around Ground Zero. Spectators scaled the chainlink fence, the only thing that separated them from a few hundred feet of concrete and -- the unfathomable -- the big square hole. It was a zoo. There was even designated viewing deck.

The scene was indicative of the American way -- take something, anything, and make it marketable, attractive, consumable. Even the streets were lined with vendors selling American flag T-shirts with "I Survived 9-11" emblazoned on them. It was a few days before the first anniversary of the attack and the hype and curiosity were brewing.

Over the past year so many books have been published about the attack that one wonders if any of them are worthy of attention. There are already at least 20 books available with September 11th in the title, from Where Was God on Sept. 11? to 9-11 Terror in America. All claim in some way to "foster a better understanding of the world around us," or "educate people on the lives and losses of September 11." Sadly, few go beyond rehashing the same stories and photos.

The September 11 Photo Project is a little different. It is a visual collection of the over 4,000 images shown in the exhibit of the same name, held in a SoHo gallery on October 13, 2001. All told, more than 40,000 people visited the exhibit, and according to the publisher, the book "represents the projectís effort to bring the gallery experience to those unable to see it in person."

The photos in the book are organized as they were in the gallery space: by contributor. One of the founding rules of the project was that the exhibit include the work of all contributors. This factor helps set The September 11 Photo Project apart from other 9/11 books. Every type of photo imaginable, every style of writing -- from captions to essays -- is included.

Editor Michael Feldschuh says making the decision to publish the book was "difficult," as the group wanted to avoid anything commercial. However, contributors and visitors then realized that publishing a book could help fund a tour of the exhibit; thus fulfilling the mission of "building a new understanding from the ashes of what has been."

The first essay in the book, though short, captures so much in so few words by placing the reader at the very center of Ground Zero. Later, one color photo shows the aftermath -- a simple Payless Shoe Source box with a pair of dusty menís work shoes. On the cardboard top is scrawled, "I looked for you my union brother. I looked for you my baby brother!"

Of course, these photographs are reminiscent of those featured in other 9/11 books. And, as should be expected, many of the photos are of the towers crumbling. Truly, it is a haunting image of a terrible event. But I wonder if seeing that image too often -- and who hasnít already seen it a thousand times on the TV -- wonít inure us to the bigger picture.

Fortunately, the bigger picture is addressed in The September 11 Photo Project. One part of the book features photos taken in August in Afghanistan, then photos from the same photographer taken on September 11 in New York. The caption reads; "I went to Afghanistan to shoot a war. All was quiet. I returned to New York, and within five days the war was on my doorstep."

Another set of photos, taken in Maryland just days after the attack -- shows signs from hotels, restaurants and stores that read: " God Bless our Victims, God Damn the Terrorists" and "You Can Hide But We Will Find You."

All told, after absorbing the material collected within The September 11 Photo Project, it is more clear why that couple was taking their picture in front of the barren stretch of land that once was the World Trade Center. Like the creators of this important project, they too were trying to make sense of this tragic event.

The collection is currently on a nationwide tour. Anyone with a story to tell through photographs or words is welcome to submit material at www.sep11photos.org.

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