Essay, Photography, Travel

How to deal with difficult feelings about a photographic subject

First published 3 June 2016. 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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17 thoughts on “How to deal with difficult feelings about a photographic subject

  1. I have not been back since 9/11, and my feelings come from my memories of being in and around the original towers about 15 years before they came down. I remember the view from the top floor and from 9/11 on I have been able to imagine being in the place where victims died. I am not sure I want to add any more experiences from that place, which has changed so much.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    I was living in DC when the jet went into the Pentagon, and not far from there either. There was a residential neighborhood overlooking the Pentagon, and people had started to place remembrance objects around the site nearest the overlook. Can’t remember what street anymore, my boss took me there. I shot a series of pictures of the items, including close-ups of individual objects, on 35mm color negative. Not really a format I use much, nor a film I use much; but it was just with me, a nice old Nikkormat.

    I’m not really “that” type of photographer, mostly paid to do high-end pictures of product items for advertisement; but somehow thought I should take those photos. I occasionally look at the contact sheets, but never have had them scanned or blown up. It was a weird time in my personal life, and added this national crisis and the sounds of tactical jet fighters and helicopters flying around all the time; It’s not that it’s “painful” to revisit, but something I don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about.

  3. tbm3fan says:

    First off I was born in New York City like my parents and some of my grandparents and great uncles and aunts. Was in and out of the city till the age of 12 when we moved to Los Angeles. My last visit was in 1980 to see my grandparents up in Parkchester, the Bronx. They were horrified when I said that the next day I was going to walk from the Empire State building all the way to the tip of Manhattan in a criss cross pattern over the streets and avenues. I lived to tell them that. Many of my photos are from the top of the WTC at that time including the church and the cemetery. Haven’t been back since but one day will so my wife and son can see the place. I maybe a Californian now but in many ways I am still a New Yorker ( I can curse like one) and the pull is strong.

    • I’ve walked from Central Park to the Brooklyn Bridge, but I did it more or less along the river so a straight shot. I’ll bet your photos from atop WTC are spectacular.

  4. I had the good fortune to visit New York and St. Paul’s about ten years ago and I loved that old church very much. I think it’s only natural to still have a lot of unsettled feelings around 9/11. It really did change everything. I often find myself still grappling with it as well.

    • tbm3fan says:

      What I remember the most that day was that my mother called me that morning and she was clearly crying on the phone. I went holy sh_t as I had never seen/heard that in my life. She told me to turn the TV on. She is a born and bred New Yorker who still had many high school friends living there uptown. Sadly she remembers nothing today.

    • Thanks Steve. I have a friend who works in Manhattan and was at work already that day when it happened. Whatever our experiences are, I can’t imagine they touch those of the people who were in NYC that day.

    • I have a friend who walked all the way to Hoboken from Manhattan that day. She still works for the same company and still takes the PATH train in every day.

  5. Dani says:

    Have you been to Philadelphia? You might enjoy the old buildings in the historical area: Independence Hall, Betsy Ross’ home, Christ Church, Elfreth’s Alley (which I think may be the oldest existing neighborhood in the US? Houses were built in the early 1700’s and the street is cobblestone), and Ben Franklin’s printer shop. Been to Philly twice on band trips. The area they call the “Old City” is pretty awesome.

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