September 12, 2013

Alan Chin in Lower Manhattan: 9/11 Turns Twelve

At the time, many people noted what a spectacularly beautiful day September 11, 2001 was in New York City, with a hint of crisp autumn leavening the cool late summer sunlight, and with that westerly wind that would blow the smoke towards Brooklyn. The twelfth anniversary yesterday, by comparison, was one of the hottest and muggiest days of the year.

With temperatures in the nineties and no breeze at all, people walked only slowly and with great effort. The air was so thick and dense that ornithologist Andrew Farnsworth, monitoring the Tribute in Light Memorial for the risk of migrating birds getting fatally dazed by the powerful beams, said that they were staying away this year.

If there were ever a more appropriate way to mark the passing of the legions and the silencing of the trumpets, for one moment, at least, it was being around the World Trade Center. The attacks, however – if not the ongoing political fallout – are finally passing into history. I watched as parents had to explain to their children what the occasion was and why the site is important.

The Fire Department, I noticed, gets a little more sanctified each year with all the military-style ceremonies. There was a changing-of-the-guard at Firehouse Ten mirroring that of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington. The only difference is that the firefighters don’t carry rifles. Next door at the bar, they drank Bud Light and flirted with their wives and girlfriends.

If I am in town for the anniversary – as I have been most years – I come to photograph and to indulge in my own memories. Good hack and lensman that I am, I fight for access to restricted areas, mostly unsuccessfully, quietly bemused that the young men and women in uniforms who see journalists as intrusive adversaries have no idea that, the dozen years back, I was here too. I don’t bother to tell them or argue too much.

Because like actors in a play, we all have our scripted roles: they have to go by the book, conserving the enshrined mythology. I have to try to take pictures I haven’t taken before. The families of the victims and the tourists and the VIPs and the religious fanatics and conspiracy theorists all dutifully perform. At the end of the day, we all go home. It’s better if we don’t interrogate our assignments too much.

Michael Ahern, the boss of the Tribute in Light Memorial, runs the operation from the top of a parking garage next to the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel. While he was trying to decide if he would allow me to photograph, he pulled up a famous Tang Dynasty poem on his laptop, “River Snow”, by Liu Zongyuan:

A thousand hills, but no birds in flight,
Ten thousand paths, with no person’s tracks.
A lonely boat, a straw-hatted old man,
Fishing alone in the cold river snow.

And with that, he was ready to switch the lights on as the sun set. Ritual is created, history served.

–Alan Chin


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Alan Chin
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