Empty Sky – The Pilgrimage To Ground Zero

I wasn’t there on that day, but flying home to New York City eight days later, the area around the former World Trade Center was still smoking. It was real. As I walked around the periphery, I felt a strange resonance. And as I looked around me, the people that felt compelled to come down to the site all seemed in a state of shock. The site has now become an uncomfortable tourist attraction, but during the first three months after the attack when these photos were taken, there was no platform built—people would make their way to the area, drawn like magnets to Ground Zero, for their own reasons.

They would crouch down, stand on cement barriers and snake their way around the site, hoping for a glimpse into the forbidden zone, the sacred burial ground. Peeking through holes in the tarp, anything to satisfy the need to see something of the debris, perhaps for their own confirmation of the unbelievably horrific images, which tortured us over and over again.

On Church Street every clear afternoon at about 3pm, the light from the sun flashed brilliantly into your eyes, making it hard to see. People would lift hands in front of their faces, trying to shield their eyes to glimpse the empty sky in front of them, like an unconscious salute to where the towers used to stand. But the buildings weren’t there, and you felt the wind and the light hit your face and you were instantly reminded. And then there was the smell. Even months after that day, there was an unforgettable burning smell that lingered. On some days it was so thick, it was hard to breathe.

I started to take pictures because that is what I do—not really knowing why but understanding that the people before my camera and I were all experiencing an unprecedented time and place. People would cry, people would pray but mostly they would look toward the emptiness, alone with their thoughts. And while the people aimed their cameras at the barricaded fences, with only the smallest of hints as to what they were prevented from seeing, I would photograph them, preserving their bewilderment and grief at that difficult moment. But they didn’t seem to mind or care that I was in front of them, if they noticed me at all.

At the beginning there was a “no photos” policy instituted around the periphery of Ground Zero. They even planned on ticketing those who dared photograph this sacred burial ground and crime scene. But the people who came wanted to record the scene, which was mostly tarp and “Do Not Enter” signs on fences. They were not there to disregard the sanctity of this place. They wanted to preserve their moment of sorrow for what happened, and for all the innocent lives lost.

As the days passed, less of the debris was visible to those making the pilgrimage to the scene. The rescue and later salvage operation was operating at an astonishing speed. The intensity of expression seemed to lessen as less and less of the debris was visible. I began to see a strange disappointment on the faces of those who came and really couldn’t see anything but fences and barricades and police guarding the site. But the police and firefighters who guarded and worked the site—the new rock stars—didn’t seem to mind talking to the people who showed up. We were all in this together. I thought it astounding that almost as quickly as the rescue squads sped in, so too did the hundreds of vendors selling anything and everything with the Twin Towers on them. Some people didn’t like the fact that people were profiting from this event but no one could stop it—this was America after all, and in a strange sort of way it signaled the beginning of a return to a normalcy which would be slow in coming.

I stopped photographing this project soon after the platforms were built and opened to the public on December 30, 2001. People would line up for tickets and then line up for hours more to view the big hole where The Towers used to be. It was different now— the intensity of reaction had dissipated. Like many who came to the site, I wanted to close my eyes and imagine a world on September 10th. But even with your eyes closed, you feel the wind and the light. Nothing would be the same again.

STEVE SIMON

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