Originally published on Fecal Face February 18, 2008
On September 7th 2001 while on a plane flying back to New York from Dar Es Salaam the previous 5 weeks flashed through my mind. I had been photographing everything from elephants fighting each other, to documenting street clashes to driving my friends through a storm of tear gas and burning tires during a riot. The reason to go back to New York was to shoot an Ad campaign. Part of the trip home meant changing planes in Johannesburg. The layover continued my preoccupation of being torn about flying home. While sitting in the transit concourse I watched a molten orange African sunset burn an unforgettable hole in sky outside the lounge windows. Every day in Africa delivers a unique visual which makes it so hard to leave. It is a constant razor's edge of tragedy and beauty. Leaving was if I was abandoning all that was poignant and tangible in my life. Yet, I felt I had to be in New York for a purpose.
Four days later, just after 8:47am on September 11th found me sprinting through the neighborhood of Tribeca chasing down the source of the worst sound I've ever heard in my life. The final destination was the World Trade Center complex, now marred with a gaping hole in the north tower. Within minutes of reaching the complex another plane began its suicide approach. It struck the Towers looming above me with a punch beyond description. In defiance of the fireball and ensuing shower of glass and steel I managed to click off a series of pictures. Within 10 minutes of leaving my apartment I shot the image that made the cover of Time magazine.
Over the next couple of hours I filled multiple rolls of film with assorted images of people leaping from the Towers and absolute carnage beyond words. Most of those images have remained in my archive silently frozen in memory of that day. What the images will never convey is the aural soundscape I have inside my head. It's hard to reiterate the screams and shouts of horror that erupted from the crowds of onlookers as they viewed the ballet of death occurring above the street that morning. Even now, which is over six years past the event, my ears scan any sound I hear out of the normal in New York. Is it a shout of pain? Is it danger? Did that sonic boom come from a jet in peril? Everything goes through an internal assessment filter making sure my perception is right. The day of 9/11/2001 completely stole my innocence, as it did with many others. Though I've seen many horrible things before then and many after, I've never been in a situation where I felt so helpless to contribute. There are many instances where I've passed up on taking pictures to simply to err on the side of helping, but that day was overwhelming. All I could manage to do was click the shutter to document something I had no cognition of and probably will never fully assess. I remember the policemen yelling at me that morning and encouraging me to keep shooting and keep documenting what was going on around us. They understood the importance. In the images of that morning I hoped to capture the dignity and grace of the people who jumped and to somehow define the decision they made with integrity and peace.
They are not easy pictures to look at, especially when our daily world is an oversaturated media landscape of manufactured realities and the new rising class of "celebritocray" - where disingenuous shock and awe on camera leads to fame and fortune. Stepping out of that bubble and looking at the tangible "real" of the actual moment between life and death is very hard, it forces us to come to terms with so many things including our own mortality. I simply hope these pictures pass on through the generations as an informative tool for future members of this planet to see and understand that all life is precious and beautiful. And yet to grasp how easily innocence can be snatched away in the blink of a second. -Lyle Owerko
© Lyle Owerko, all rights reserved
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