Visiting the Visitors: Photographs at the 9/11 Memorial
On the day of the attacks, twenty years ago, we were all counseled to stay away from downtown. Among so many other shocking moments that day, that one sticks out in my mind: when the official advice came over the TV to “evacuate Lower Manhattan.” (How would you even do that, I wondered.) Over the next days, civic resources were strained well past their limits, and officials admonished us: If you don’t need to be downtown, let the first responders do their work. Don’t come to gawk. I didn’t go below Canal Street till December, en route to (of all things) a corporate Christmas party, and the pile was still monstrous and stinking when I peered around a corner and saw it. It didn’t matter that I’d been looking at it on television for three months, and smelling it whenever the wind blew north. Face-to-face was different, and I said “oh, god” and fell apart.
The crisp angular bronze of the memorial has long since replaced that twisted mess. Stand there for awhile, and you notice that the New Yorkers move through, their heads down, without looking. That’s a natural human reaction—they’re simply going to the office, after all, and even the most awe-inspiring physical environment, the Parthenon or Niagara Falls or the Forbidden City, becomes just another piece of the landscape when you live with it daily. This place exists mostly for everyone else, those who are coming here specifically for it, and the photographers Shaughn and John have made it a project to record their reactions. Which, it must be said, cut a wide swath. There are posers with selfie sticks; family members looking for names; parents with indifferent kids who don’t want to be there; the people who bow their heads. Some visitors treat it as a not very lively amusement park, crassly. Others know exactly what they’re looking at, and act accordingly. Shaughn and John saw it all as they made their pictures: “It’s a little difficult to describe these photos without sounding judgmental,” Shaughn says. “And while it is obvious that some visitors push the boundaries of ‘right and wrong,’ many people are respectful of the space and the meaning behind it.” For better and for worse, this place—ten years into the memorial’s existence, and another ten years after the fire rained down—has become, like the room that once existed a quarter-mile above this spot, a place where you go to see the world.