Remembering 911

  Tripoli 10 September 2011

The burning twin towers are an image that has been indelibly etched on to my memory for life. I was in New York that fateful September on assignment covering New York Fashion Week and on the evening of the 10th I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams how the lives of so many would be irreparably changed for life. 
As I made my way down to the scene New Yorkers on West Broadway sat on the roofs of cars sipping coffees and watching the smoke rise from the towers after the initial impacts, some with binoculars.  But the calm was soon broken as panic took over when the towers collapsed one after the other sending billowing clouds of dust and debris across the financial district of downtown Manhattan. As others fled I fought my way through to where the firefighters were that had survived the towers collapse. The scene of destruction was nothing like I had ever witnessed before, firemen struggled with fighting the burning debris from partially crushed fire Engines amidst great shards of steel and concrete, all that remained of the World Trade Centre complex. Others sat in shock, exhausted, silent and motionless, the immensity and tragedy of the morning’s events had simply overwhelmed them. I walked out of ground zero caked in a caustic dust which burnt my uncovered skin struggling to comprehend what I had just witnessed . I was discovered by a colleague who managed to flag down a car who's driver kindly took me back to my midtown hotel where I was able to file my images back to London. The first words from my photo editor at the time Bob Bodman, were “thank god you are still alive”.

Over the coming days the strength and resilience of New Yorkers was undeniable as they fought fear and confusion to get the embattled city working again with most of downtown Manhattan's streets still closed to traffic and acrid smoke and dust clouds still rising from ground zero. The raw emotions of fear, shock and grief were slowly replaced with that of stubborn patriotism, perseverance and a community united. But there were also heartbreaking scenes as relatives of the missing posted photo flyers on the walls around the New York Armoury on Lexington Avenue, which as the days went by became shrines to the victims of America's most devastating terror attack.

Since that September morning I have gone over again and again in my head the events that have not only profoundly effected the lives of thousands across the globe but my own career and personal life too. Bearing witness to the attacks made me feel more akin to the inhabitants of New York than my own city, I felt I could identify with them far better than I could with my friends back in London, especially when it came to what I felt should happen next. Retaliation seemed a perfectly reasonable response at the time.

On the first anniversary of the attacks I went through my images again properly for the first time, tears welled up in my eyes as I flicked through the image files on my computer, there were obviously still emotions I had yet to come to terms with. To this day what happened that morning, still doesn’t seem real, more like working on a Jerry Bruckheimer movie set. I never saw a single body in the debris, it was if they simply disintegrated along with one of America’s greatest landmarks. Only the faces and emotions of the living immediately around me made me realise the stark reality of the situation. As I made my way to the burning twin towers that morning on foot a young woman approached me asking if I had a mobile phone that worked as her father worked in one of the towers and she couldn't get in contact. I explained that I didn’t have a working US mobile, she thanked me and carried on but remarked as she left “I hope you get your pictures”. I will never know if her father was one of the fortunate ones that made it to safety.

I have never once had to question the reality of what was to come next. In the 10 years since 911 I have documented the fallout in Afghanistan and Iraq, what is known in the West as the “War on Terror". The months at a time I have spent abroad in the Middle East and Central Asia amount to several years when added together. The images I have had published during this period have done little to contribute to the understanding of a somewhat misguided and poorly prosecuted war. Images that did such as those that were to come out of Abu Ghraib prison, taken by the sadistic guards themselves more than likely prolonged the suffering, but also rightly illustrated our own duplicity. Although I didn’t struggle with the morality of the initial campaign in Afghanistan I had deep reservations about the invasion of Iraq and it’s relevance to the war against Al Qaeda. Both started in lightning fast, largely successful military campaigns and then slowly descended into terrible quagmires, resulting in the death and maiming of 1000's of western soldiers and tens of thousands of innocent civilians.  Iraq may now be on the slow road to recovery after years of unforgivable suffering since the fall of Saddam Hussein but Afghanistan is still in a state turmoil , with a political solution still way beyond reach. Osama Bin Laden may now be dead but there is still no end in sight to the threat of Islamic extremism. 

More images can be seen in my Photoshelter archive below


melhm said…
Amazing Heathcliff, just beautiful words & awe-inspirIng photos - as always.
Really thoughtful mate. Nice work.
Very thoughtful and full of humanity. Thanks for sharing your feelings and images from this most horrid day.
Jenny Goodall said…
A thoughtful, poignant post
Jenny Goodall said…
A thoughtful, poignant post
Very nicely balanced between the objective and the personal. Well done Heathcilff.

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