New York City: The Year After

 
 
 

INTRODUCTION

 

The book "New York City: The Year After" contains images captured from 09/11/2001 to 09/11/2002 as part of a documental and at the same time personal, subjective and expressive study of the consequences of the September 11th attacks to the World Trade Center in the common people of New York City.

I was born in Madison, Wisconsin, where my father studied for a Master’s Degree in Law. Shortly after, my family and I returned home to Lima, where I lived until 1999 when I obtained my Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Sciences with a major in Journalism by Universidad de Lima. The year after, I started to study for my Master’s degree in Photography (MFA) in the renowned School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York.

It was my second year of studies and I received permanent orientation from my thesis advisor Stephen Shore as well as from Charles Taub, who recruited me to the ranks of the ambitious collective project Here is New York. At the time, I photographed mainly the neighborhood where I lived, Astoria, in Queens, considered one of the most diverse communities in terms of ethnicity and culture. Home to a multitude of Arab, Muslim and Southeast Asian families, for me Astoria became a small-scale version of the United States of America.

So, I decided to use street photography style in New York to create a record of the emotional consequences of the terrorist attacks in the people we see everyday on the streets or in Metro stations. As any other student, I had a very tight budget, which forced me to photograph great part of this project with a small “point and shoot” camera (a Yashica T4 with a Carl-Zeiss lens), and to buy cheap ISO 400 (Fuji Superia 400) film in drugstores along my way.

That fatal morning, I was in Astoria when I received an urgent phone call from my father. Ironically, he had learned about the attacks before I had, and worried, he called me to find out how I was. Astonished, I listened to him and could not believe the information he was transmitting to me. I had decided not to have a TV at home, so I went out to find a lot of people crowded in front of the window of an electronics store. Suddenly, in front of me were a group of 20 to 30 TVs, all of them showing the same mages: it was the second airplane crashing against the second twin tower.

For me, it was a flashback to the acts of terrorism I witnessed during the decade of the 80’s when I was a boy, and then a teenager. The carnage perpetrated by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) had had a deep impact in the minds of Lima youngsters of my generation, the X Generation of Lima, traumatized by such violence and at the same time overprotected by our worried parents. I immediately remembered the terrorist bombs that exploded when I lived in Lima. Those memories of death, destruction and indescribable fear were recorded in my brain, as well as the immense pain of the victims’ desperate relatives.

Minutes after, the main US news agency showed people “live” in Afghanistan celebrating the results of the attacks. I witnessed the broadcasting of those images first-hand. Month later, it was proved that they were archive footage recorded in a totally different situation.

During the days after the attacks, the city was practically dead. The streets and avenues of Manhattan were empty and desolate. For a while, my wife and I had to take in some friends who fled from there out of fear of another attack. Many photographers explored inside the great cloud of concrete remaining of the Twin Towers. Most of the books published after 9/11 centered on the tragedy and the attacks themselves. “Here is New York” and “9/11 by Magnum Photographers” were two collective efforts to tell a photographic story that was directly related to the attacks. This book, by contrast, explores the subtle but dense emotional fog that covered the great city during the entire year after. A distressing smell of death expanded both literally and metaphorically, during a period that was truly traumatic for the population of New York.

The role of the main corporate media was embarrassing. They continued to transmit the fear that something similar could happen again in the city. Thus, the media were incredibly influenced by the government and used for systematically manipulating the population, creating generalized fear and panic. They concealed the attacks in Afghanistan and the death of thousands of innocent people with fake news, such as those on Anthrax –it was then proven they had been fabricated in the United States- and then they contributed with the Bush administration to create a totally false link between Iraq (Saddam Hussein) and the September 11th attacks in order to justify the later invasion of Iraq. It was the same type of media lie as that of the inexistent weapons of massive destruction. I already had experience in distinguishing the political smoke screens created by the media en Peru during the times of terrorism.

This project also contains a visual and personal analysis of the growing nationalism1 (not to be mistaken with patriotism) that surged in New York during the months following the attacks, which signified a point break in the history of USA as a country. They were used for creating a great coast-to-coast nationalist campaign. “Either you are with us, or you are against us”, President George W. Bush literally said. And then, in the blink of an eye, the visual landscape of New York was transformed by hundreds of thousands of US flags and nationalist signs that covered the facades of houses, businesses, and cars, to an almost Baroque saturation level. The community expressed their pain through commercial merchandising such as posters, stickers, t-shirts, baseball caps, pizza boxes, etc. The disastrous combination of consumerism and nationalism was pretty graphic, not to say interesting. US corporations proceeded to use the disaster as publicity for their economic benefit. It was then when nationalism turned into a powerful and successful marketing tool; especially in commercial items featuring US flag designs.

Hollywood blockbusters were, of course, war movies, such as “Black Hawk Down.” It was not the first time the government used the Hollywood system as an effective tool: war propaganda was everywhere.

The slogan “United we stand” was used here, there and everywhere, aiming at obtaining the country’s unanimous support to Bush’s war efforts, fed by this terrifying and almost surreal nationalist sentiment. That campaign drove the entire country to a dreadful desire for revenge in defending what the media called “America’s New War” or “America Fights Back.” Such phenomenon must be observed: the flags that were initially raised as a symbol of grievance and compassion for the victims of the attacks to the WTC had changed in their meaning and turned -many months later- into a symbol of voracious desire for revenge. A US flag was no longer only a US flag. Instead, it became a visual icon to which, according to the context, we could attribute different meanings to it, generally of a nationalist and vindictive nature.

Nationalism can be dangerous especially when a country starts losing the values of freedom and democracy based on which it was built. Due to racial profiling, a very large number of American Muslims were arbitrarily incarcerated –with no communication with their relatives or lawyers- for no other reason than being Muslim. Security measures were overwhelming to the point that the US changed into some sort of Police State where nobody had the same rights or liberty than before. Infusing fear into the American hearts was an important purpose of the George W. Bush administration. And he was successful to the point of being allowed to sign the Patriot Act, through which the American people accepted the loss of many of their civil rights in the name of national security.

Photography is an artistic field that allows me to experiment and register the social landscape. It is a medium through which the internal emotions of the photographer are expressed. This investigation is a visual analysis of the complex introspection and isolation processes endured by the people who, like me, lived in New York during that year. It is a comprehensive look at the many faces of a social environment after a devastating structural shock, right from the epicenter. Part of my method was observing New Yorkers’ everyday life, to then carefully analyze the attitudes of the American people in relation to the tragedy. In this sense, the image of the old man watering his garden is very symbolic. It is a typical individualist American, isolated from the outer world and surrounded by his beautiful garden/patio up to its white picket fence, the frontiers of his valuable property. The US flag was also there, as it was almost everywhere. That image was the first one I took and it contributed to define the concept that would become the main topic of this book. From my point of view, (a very critic, personal and foreign -Peruvian- one) I described the complex atmosphere during that strange period when both the best and worst of the American society came to light before my eyes. Let us not forget the positive side: the immense compassion and solidarity of many Americans towards the people directly affected by the attacks. “New York City: The Year After” also contains photographic documentation of some of the rallies for peace that turned to the streets post-9/11, as well as some of the political reactions of New York residents.

From the time I captured the last photograph of this book, in which a seriously wounded American eagle menacingly observes a Muslim man, there is no end to war in the Middle East. One after the other, and all of them have been arbitrarily justified by the Twin Tower events. Suddenly, an unarmed Muslim/American citizen passes in front of it, representing the people of Iraq and the other Arab countries the eagle plans on attacking. Deeply hurt in its national pride, the bird looks tensely at its prey with immeasurable rancor. It is ready to attack, no matter what it takes. That eagle represents the sharp-beaked American birds of prey that famished and desperate will soon penetrate and tear the flesh of the defenseless Muslim people, dismembering, destroying and devouring the exquisite cadaver of Iraq.

This book intends to be a mirror where to look at ourselves as a society struck by terror with an intensity it had never experienced before and who, after many decades of living numb, woke up to see what happened in the rest of the world, beyond US borders, for the first time.

9/11 changed New York and the world, and not only during the year after, but it continues to change it until today, after no less than 20 violent years.

1Nationalism: 1 a) devotion to one's own nation; patriotism. b) excessive, narrow-minded or jingoist patriotism; chauvinism. 2 the doctrine of believing the interests of one's own nation, its security, etc. are more important than international considerations 3 the desire for, or defense of, national independence.