When my son Max was 12 years old, planes flew into the World Trade centre.
We lived in Manhattan, and while his younger brother was just four years old, Max was old enough to be completely engaged in the events of the day swirling around him.
As Amy Weisser, Director of Exhibition Development at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum said the other day; “Max is probably the last generation of children now coming of age with authentic memories of 9/11.”
For anyone born after 1989, the memories would be ‘implanted’, placed in the collective consciousness by stories, media and the early historic documents of the time, like the best-selling ‘9/11 Commission Report’.
For New Yorkers Max’s age and older – there’s been a sense that we have ownership of the story, the feelings, the memories, in ways that others can’t claim. I have to confess that in my travels over the past 9 years, I’ve found myself in conversations where people tried to share their memories of 9/11 with me and I tried to listen.
But no matter how compelling the stories of stranded air travel, or Americans watching the the events on CNN from hotel rooms overseas, I couldn’t help to think of the powerful impact of proximity.
No matter how powerful the memories of my fellow countrymen – the poignant, pungent, painful smell of the burning towers seemed, for me, to be the dividing line between those of use who experienced the attacks and those of us who experienced the attacks on broadcast television.
And so – as I’ve spent the past two and a half years photographing the process of designing, planning, and building the ‘National 9/11 Memorial and Museum’, I find myself conflicted.
“Why?”, I often wondered, “were all these people with folded tourist maps standing at the corner of Liberty and Rector Street? What did they expect to see behind the construction fence? What did the massive empty sky mean to Americans from the Midwest? For tourists from Europe and Japan?
I understood that the site’s powerful draw – and believed the projections that the site will be the largest tourist attraction in New York when it opens – drawing, by some estimates, 8 to 9 million visitors a year.
This summer I found m
y connection to the legacy of 9/11 challenged as the so-called WTC Mosque controversy turned from a local news story into one that made the front page on local papers across the country.
My first reaction was that I wanted to go down to the construction site, then walk the two blocks to the site of the proposed Muslim community centre, and ask all of the protesters to show me their drivers licenses.
Were they from New York? State or City? Or were the protesters bussed in to turn a local zoning question into a national political debate?
Around the same time, Max – who s now about to turn 21, took a journey cross-country. From New York to California and back by train.
He texted me from Denver: “btw, people talk about 9/11 out here all the time. They call it a defining moment.”
And that made me think. Of course it was. For everyone. And not just for Americans. America represents something to people all over the world – and the attacks were meant to challenge those ideas.
My original plan was to photograph, videotape and chronicle the rebuilding without sharing any images until the museum opened. The project was to be private, personal and not public. But after Max’s text I showed handful of pictures to some people. The impact was profound. No matter now many, or how few images I shared – the last question they asked was “can I see more?”
No detail was too obscure. The colour of the slate on memorial pool walls. The etching of the names in bronze metal parapet – memorializing the 2,982 people who lost their lives. Each image seems to fill a spot that was empty. Each piece of detail about the elements of the Memorial and Museum fills a place where a bit of artifact replaces an absence.
The next year is going to be a hard one for New Yorkers. We’re going to need to find a generosity of spirit – a willingness to welcome visitors from around the world who will surely come to the site to try and understand what happened, how they feel, and what we as Americans believe in.
Manhattan isn’t a town that is overly sentimental, and we’re not built to look back. But 9/11 is our story – and we need to both own it and share it.
The WTC Mosque protesters aren’t going to be the last folks to arrive by bus, or plane, or car – and engage 9/11 in a debate about the past and the future.
They should and they will. What the museum’s designers and curators understand is that 9/11 is both a series of historic facts, and a open ended question about how the events of 9 years ago will shape the future, and be see by future generations.
The open debate, dialog, and discussion that the site will engender is part of what will make it both important and uniquely American.
This is a story that belongs to all the people of the world. And the sooner that New Yorkers embrace the fact that what happened here touch many beyond Manhattan Island the sooner we’ll be able to prepare for the massive influx of visitors -more pilgrims than tourists. They’re searching for the same thing we are.
Steven Rosenbaum ‘s photo journey of the design, development, and construction of the National September 11th Memorial and Museum is the first of a three part project that will include a photo book, a documentary film, and a book project.
The photo book will be released on 9/11/11. The images are from an article published in this weeks issue of New York Magazine.
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