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Anthropological Quarterly 75.1 (2002) 187-203

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A Need to Look

Katja Heinemann

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I photographed the collapse of the Twin Towers from Jersey City's harbor, across the Hudson River, about five minutes from where I live. After the first tower fell, I briefly went home, where I saw what I had just witnessed reproduced on TV. I sensed that my experience of watching the tower fall was being supplanted by the repetitive, numbing loop of imagery on CNN, accompanied by the pundits' analyses of what it all supposedly meant.

I arrived back at the harbor just as the second tower fell. By this time, evacuation efforts had begun and people were being ferried across the river to safety. A young woman, in shock, covered with dust, told me about seeing people jump from the towers to their deaths. Her testimony brought home how removed I felt from what was happening across the river. [End Page 188]

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Like many others in Jersey City, I was commuting to lower Manhattan when the attacks occurred. We were unable to cross into the city that day.

All afternoon, as the Manhattan skyline burned, people came to the waterfront parks to take in the sight. It was a bright, sunny fall afternoon. For the first time since Pearl Harbor, war had come to America, yet a mile of Hudson river created a sense of detachment. Although we were eyewitnesses to the events unfolding in time, I felt as if we were watching a special news report on high definition TV, about a place far away. [End Page 192]

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"No pictures! Show some respect—this is a crime scene."

Police officer guarding the perimeter of ground zero.

In the weeks following September 11, the restricted zone around New York's financial district became increasingly smaller, and public access to Lower Manhattan was gradually returned. Yet by the time the general public was allowed into the areas bordering ground zero, barriers had been put in place prohibiting people from looking at what was left of the World Trade Center. First, as an impromptu measure, police parked vans in such a way as to obstruct the view. Later, the New York Police Department erected fences covered with tarpaulin and posted signs threatening to confiscate cameras.

And yet people kept coming, with camcorders, cameras, to see the remains of the towers for themselves. By now, the jagged, leaning steel structures, reminiscent of Europe's destroyed cathedrals after WWII, of any city ravaged by war, had become a familiar image to everyone. Making the pilgrimage down to ground zero—with its acrid smell, its dust, its immediacy—was obviously important to many. Was recording it a way to pay their repects? [End Page 196]

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Immediately after September 11 families posted photographs of the missing which, it seemed, had been torn from family albums. They appeared at hospitals, train stations, bus stops and at the centers where the victims' families gathered. The flyers, together with other spontaneous memorials—the flowers and candles at Union Square and Washington Square Park and the walls of remembrance at fire houses—tied the rest of the city to ground zero. New York had been visually altered. [End Page 198]

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Katja Heinemann was born and raised in Germany, where she studied Political Science in Berlin. After coming to Chicago through a Holocaust awareness program that sends volunteers to work for community-based social service organizations, she decided to stay in the U.S. to pursue documentary photography. She was a regular contributor to Chicago Magazine and is working on a long-term project documenting the experiences of children growing up with HIV and AIDS. A freelance photographer, she relocated to New York in the summer of 2001.



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