Images of Destruction

While the authorities initially prevented photographers from filming the carnage at Ground Zero, Joel Meyerowitz got the green light to document the process of rehabilitation.

Of all the thousands of photographs that arrived on newspaper editorial desks on 9/11, the most shocking was one by Richard Drew of the Associated Press. This is the image of a falling man, plummeting to his certain death, head down, against the backdrop of one of the towers of the World Trade Center. The photo, which was published worldwide, elicited many reactions and much debate. The ombudsmen of two newspapers in the United States had to publish statements justifying the publication of the picture, following angry reactions from readers who complained that they didn't care to see such scenes while eating their cornflakes.

9/11 - Meyerowitz

What did they want to see? I don't know. But there is no doubt that beyond the symbolic damage to the status of the United States, the story of 9/11 was above all a human one. The terrible thing in Drew's photo is the incomprehensible aesthetics and horror of seeing someone seconds before his death. We look and we imagine ourselves, if only for a fraction of a second, in that situation. This is the power of the photograph. But we are immediately saved. We do not see death itself, but we feel its full power.

This was the biggest photographed trauma in the history of the United States. Immediately after law-enforcement agencies managed to get organized, the area of the disaster was closed off and sheets of green canvas hid the mass grave. News photographers in particular were forbidden from entering - ostensibly, to preserve the privacy of the victims. In fact, the United States did not want to see the face of the disaster and the shocking photographs in the newspapers anymore.

Only one photographer, Joel Meyerowitz, the winner of many prizes and a very impressive person, was allowed to photograph as much as he wanted. The initiative for this documentary project came from Meyerowitz himself. When he arrived at the site for the first time, five days after the disaster, a policewoman forbade him to take pictures and threatened to confiscate his camera. At that moment, it occurred to him that he had to document what was going to happen at the site. He contacted the United States government, presented the idea, received the necessary authorization - and eventually even was granted funding from the State Department. He began taking pictures on September 23rd.

Over the course of eight months, Meyerowitz took about 8,000 photos, with a large-format camera. The beautiful images (Meyerowitz is one of our generation's greatest photographers ) do show destruction, but mainly the beginning of rehabilitation of the site. Thirty-five identical exhibitions of a selection of his photographs were sent all over the world, from Jerusalem to Islamabad. The photos also represented the United States at the Architecture Biennale in Venice in 2002.

This was how the United States tried to preserve the disaster: by presenting the ruins in beautiful photographs full of pathos. Meyerowitz's work presents the official American narrative of rehabilitation, resurrection and heroism. Of the beauty of the photographs from within the horror, Meyerowitz says, "Beauty brings hope."

There is no doubt that this is what the Americans would prefer to remember. Nevertheless, the real-time photographs from the disaster will never be erased from the world's collective memory. These are the immediate images of the destruction and death, and nothing can take their place.

When I visited Ground Zero in September four years later, the sheets of green canvas still concealed the site. They were already shabby and full of holes, and one could peek in at what now looked like a gigantic construction site. Thousands of people from every corner of the earth, including the Arab countries, continue to visit the site, trying in vain to experience the horrific past.