How to deal with difficult feelings about a photographic subject

I suppose every American has some baggage around 9/11, even those of us hundreds or thousands of miles away.

While we were in New York I couldn’t figure out how I felt about visiting the new World Trade Center and the neighboring memorial. Ambivalence gave way to curiosity, which yielded to revulsion. Then ambivalence returned and stayed. But visiting the site was on the must-do list for Margaret’s teenagers, who accompanied us. So off we went.

World Trade Center

I took just a few photos, and only these two are worth a darn. Above is the new World Trade Center, and below is the waterfall in the north pool of the memorial site directly to the south.

9/11 memorial

These photos offer no connection to the place. This could be any tall building; this could be any man-made waterfall. I think it’s because I didn’t want to be connected to this place. And the memorial felt sterile to me.

We walked from there a couple blocks to St. Paul’s Chapel. Margaret knew only that it was a 1766 church among the lower Manhattan skyscrapers, and that therefore she wanted to see it. We didn’t know its special, critical connection to the aftermath of 9/11.

St. Paul's Chapel

We learned that for eight months St. Paul’s Chapel was an aid and comfort station for everyone working the recovery. The building was open around the clock; volunteers fed and prayed with the workers and various doctors came to tend to their medical needs. Musicians even came to play for everyone.

Despite being so close to the collapsed towers, St. Paul’s survived without even a broken window.

St. Paul's Chapel

Even though this is still a functioning church with services every Sunday, memorial panels full of photographs line the north wall inside. I wasn’t prepared for that. I had hoped to get away from my feelings about 9/11 by just enjoying and photographing the architecture here. The only photos I took of the memorials are two photos of patches from police and fire forces around the world. They were sent here in a show of solidarity and mourning for their injured and dead comrades.

St. Paul's Chapel

The rest of my photographs were typical-of-me architecture shots, trying to record a solid sense of this building. Back in Indiana there are no buildings from 1766. It was a great joy to experience this one.

St. Paul's Chapel

It is a lovely church, perfectly maintained in every detail.

St. Paul's Chapel

We stepped out back and found a graveyard. In New York as in Indiana, churches used to bury their dead out back. It was surreal to see these very old gravestones amid the towering buildings all around. It was even more surreal to learn that in 1766, St. Paul’s Chapel was the tallest building in the city. I loved imagining a time when that would have been true. Apparently, the church was surrounded by orchards!

St. Paul's Chapel

St. Paul’s Chapel is a stunning building. But I recognized that because I couldn’t escape 9/11 here, I wasn’t connecting to it in the ways I normally would. And then I came upon the bell.

St. Paul's Chapel

It was a gift from the city of London to the city of New York after the attack, a symbol of friendship and solidarity across the oceans. This is where it all connected for me: this tragedy had worldwide reach, and it affected everyone who heard of it. There’s no shame that my feelings about 9/11 remain unsettled, uncertain. I cried here for a minute, quietly.

I shot my Canon S95 raw, which meant a lot of post-processing in Photoshop when I got home. It takes a little time to tweak each photograph for its best look. It gave me time to process not only my feelings about our visit to these sites but also more of my feelings about 9/11 itself. While processing photos, I slowly reviewed the day and thought about each scene, including those I didn’t photograph. That time and space to think, alone in my quiet home office, let me find a little more peace.

One photograph I didn’t take was of one of the pews. A few years ago St. Paul’s removed most of its pews, replacing them with individual chairs arranged in a U. But a couple pews remained in the back. In this church so perfectly maintained, the pews were gashed and gouged and chewed up — by the heavy shoes and gear of the recovery workers who rested on them. These pews remain as a memorial.

It was emotionally difficult to follow the news stories of the recovery work in the months following the attack. I dealt with it by dissociating from it. But seeing those gouged pews made those people and their experiences real. And so I don’t need a photograph of those pews; I’ll never forget them.

Canon PowerShot S95, shot raw, processed in Photoshop.

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15 responses to “How to deal with difficult feelings about a photographic subject”

  1. J P Cavanaugh Avatar

    In my only visit to NYC (in 1986) I entered the city by train from New Jersey. It went under the river and stopped at a station under the World Trade Center. My first act as a tourist was to take the elevator to the top and gaze out over the city.

    At the time, the building struck me as a sterile, modern skyscraper that had no charm at all. Now, I remember it wistfully and think about all of the souls who were lost there that day. I’m not sure how I would react to the new building there.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m not surprised to hear that the original WTC was a blah office building. But after the towers fell, suddenly everybody realized how much a part of the NYC skyline they were.

  2. Dani Avatar

    I hadn’t wanted to go to the 9/11 Memorial but it was on the band trip itinerary last November and, after all, I was a chaperone. A profound heaviness came over me as I stepped off the bus. It was like I could feel the presence of the lost souls; haunting and chilling. The youngest of the band kids had not been born until after 9/11, yet they were so solemn and some even cried. Even as adults, it is hard for us to wrap our heads around what happened back in 2001, but to see the effect the memorial had on these young people was quite moving. One of the pictures I took while there was of the students looking through the glass into the museum. Actually, it is of their reflection. Even though I recognize the faces, it is rather ghostly as if they were the faces of those who perished looking back at us.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It was a national trauma. We all have ongoing things to process from it.

  3. divetrash Avatar

    Those chairs weren’t there last time I was in St. Paul’s a few years ago, I admit, it was still the battered pews. There were also many more displays regarding 9/11. I suspect most of that has been moved to the museum now. As I’ve told you, I haven’t been to the new memorial or museum yet. The three times I escorted friends to Ground Zero and to St. Paul’s was quite overwhelming enough. While the site itself and the construction going on, didn’t really strike a nerve, I never made it longer than 10 minutes in St Paul’s before I had to excuse myself and go wait outside and cry. Even just your pictures of the church, brought tears to my eyes. There was really only one time, that the pit (as we called it) really got to me. When they reopened the PATH station at Ground Zero, I had to be in lower Manhattan, so I took the WTC PATH line from Hoboken. To enter the station, the train had to circle the big empty pit and since the building was no longer there, we had a full view of it below ground level. It was eerie and haunting. Scott, had a different view of the pit, When the rescue and recovery effort was finally ended. they had a ceremony with speeches and such, to mark the occasion and thank the workers. Scott had to spend most of the day down in the pit hooking up PA’s and microphones and doing the sound. A very tough day for him. And come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever taken a picture down there.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      An early draft of this post mentioned you and your experience, but the post got too long and I chose to cut those paragraphs. The point I made in them, though, was that you, my friend, have the right to feel that way for as long as you want. Anybody on Manhattan that day does.

  4. DougD Avatar

    I share your feelings. Mrs DougD and I went to NYC for the first time while the 911 Memorial and the new WTC were still under construction. Never having been there before, and having no personal connection to anyone involved, it was hard to imagine that there had been two big buildings there, and now there wasn’t.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yeah. I just can’t imagine the cognitive dissonance of most New Yorkers who saw that gap in the skyline the next day. Holy cow.

  5. George Denzinger Avatar
    George Denzinger

    I was in Manhattan in the the early 1980’s; it was a fantastic place for a boy from small town Ohio. We went to the top of the old Trade Center, walked around the top of the South Tower, sat on the Observation deck and looked down on the tower and the city. It was a time I would never forget.

    When 9/11 happened, I was in Indiana of all places. On my way driving to Chicago for the annual Print show. I remember the Chamber of Commerce weather, how much I loved being back in the Midwest in early fall (I had just moved back two years earlier) and then the horrible phone call from a colleague informing us of what had happened back East while we were driving to the City of Big Shoulders.

    We stopped at a motel in Michigan City, Indiana to see what was happening. We arrived at the hotel in time to see the North tower fall. Having been there, I thought of the people in the offices and the people on the planes. It was awful.

    If I go back to Manhattan someday, I may or may not visit the new WTC. I prefer to remember it in all of it’s early Reagan era glory, where it stood as a beacon for all of us to find our way through lower Manhattan…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I don’t think I ever need to go back to the WTC. I’ve had my fill.

  6. Sam Avatar

    Great post Jim! I still can’t get myself to go and take shots of the new Freedom Tower up-close. I just do it from far away. I understand that time heals and we move on, but the memory of the Twin Towers and the tragedy that brought it down is still heavy on my mind when I’m near the area.

    Sadly, one of my favorite photo stores, J&R right across from St. Paul’s went out of business and also left a void for me. The area will never be the same again.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      We walked right by J&R’s on our way to the Brooklyn Bridge. I only knew of them from advertising in magazines, and they loomed kind of large on the mail-order audio scene. It was surreal to find their bricks-and-mortar location, and even more surreal to find it closed.

      1. Sam Avatar

        In its heyday, it was really a super-store that took up the whole block! Everything from cameras, electronics, even a Tower Records styled music department. I guess in this internet market, it’s hard to compete, but in its day it J&R was a lot of fun.

  7. Dawn Avatar

    Hey Jim. I enjoyed seeing the photographs of your trip to NYC. My favs were the bridges of Central Park and these. I esp. like these because of your story and your willingness to open up. You know I like that stuff. Well done.

    1. Jim Grey ☕️ Avatar

      Thanks so much Dawn! Trying some new approaches here on the blog; glad they’re resonating with you.

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