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11 September, 18 years later

Through the camera lens: September 11

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by Elaine Pringle Schwitter

September. 11. How can anyone forget those images, the videos, the live newsfeeds, the audios , the look on the faces of people on the screen as well as the people around us?

Those images were etched in my mind since the day it happened. Even though we hadn’t reach the age where every phone had a camera, every second person with a camera or a video recorder captured the scene, as it happened to share with the outside world. So, I’m sure individuals around the globe have an image or clip in their heads of the 9/11 attack. Mine wasn’t the planes entering the buildings or the fireball that ensued, but it was the individuals that were making a deadly choice. To stay and suffer the consequences of being in a burning building or to jump. Either way their fate was the same, but the decision had to be made. That’s what was stuck in my mind all these years and the terror, the sheer magnitude of such a decision.

by Elaine Pringle Schwitter
Photo credit Elaine Pringle-Schwitter

In later years, survivors from the twin towers gave their accounts of the day as it unfolded. If I thought the images of the falling people were engraved in my head, then the testimony of one of the twin towers survivors made the images more robust and evocative — if that was even possible! He talked about the miracle of his escape and his ignorance of what was going on. He said as he was making his way down before reaching the stairs he walked towards the windows in an office to try and gain some insight into what was going on. He saw a woman on the other side of the window. It was a fleeting glance, but to him it felt like things slowed down. Their eyes met and he was wondering what she was doing there. He later discovered that she was one of the Jumpers. She was one of those who made that decision to take control. Her final act of control in an uncontrollable situation was to jump and avoid the inferno. Presumably, her last sight of a human was this man and heaven knows her thoughts for the 10 seconds or so of her descent.

I have seen the documentary ‘The Falling Man’. Such a heart wrenching documentary that even now, as I write this column I am reliving the overwhelming sense of forlorn I had at the time. That editorial image, taken by associated press photographer Richard Drew, became a symbol of the despair of all those innocent people caught up in this tragedy. Images like that become iconic because it takes you there in a way that words cannot. That is the power of photography.

I had planned a visit to New York and was determined, with my capacity as a photojournalist, to change the dark images I had had in my head since 2001. Now it was time to make new images that represented the lessons learned from 9/11. The new images, through my camera lens, were going to convey a message of hope rather than hopelessness: fortitude rather than faint-heartedness and tenacity rather than irresolution. I just wanted to see peace in a place where I saw immeasurable carnage. A visit to ground zero and the memorial was in order. Now here I was taking back control of how I am going to remember New York going forward.

Little did I know that this would be my generation’s ‘Where were you when Kennedy was shot?’ question.

You know, this question is always asked when people talk about 9/11 – “Where were you when 9/11 happened” It was such a powerful event that people on a global scale misremembered the weather conditions of where they were and somehow meshed the weather conditions of their location with that of New York on that Tuesday morning. In New York, the story always starts with “It began like any other day…It was a lovely sunny September morning, the sky was blue and everything was regular”.  I was based in the UK, London at the time and it too was a normal workday, but the weather was dull, autumnal and wet.

We’ve all got vivid stories about what we were doing and where we were when we saw this tragedy unfold.  It was a story like no other, but let me briefly tell you mine and take you back to 2001 before we leap forward to the present day. 

by Elaine Pringle Schwitter
Photo credit Elaine Pringle-Schwitter

It was a workday; I was at work in Deloitte and Touche at my desk writing a report. It was just after the lunchtime period. Someone turned the Television monitor on in the open-planned office. Odd I thought as it was still normal working hours and why on earth was the TV monitor on with a bad ‘action movie’ showing. I was some distance from the sound so was wondering about the fascination with this ‘movie’. A crowd started to gather beneath the monitor. It was high up and allowed for people some distance, including me, to see the screen. Curiosity got the better of me, had to go over and take a look. So what was animating my colleagues? Then I saw.

Something black was approaching, not all of us noticed it. To be honest, I didn’t. Most not sure what it was – or couldn’t believe what is was.  There was bang followed by an enormous ball of flames that snapped us right out of our trance to realise this was no accident.

We scrambled to get onto phones to call friends and loved ones across the pond. In less than 30 minutes we turned from a comfortable juvenile bunch of corporate individuals looking at what we thought was a grave error of an inexperienced pilot, to a very frightened, confused and bewildered group of individuals who wanted to make sure OUR loved ones were safe and away from the carnage that was unfolding.

The South Tower Collapsed. Eerie gasped around the open-planned office could be heard, by that time many monitors were on. No one said a word. No gasps for the second Tower, when it fell. In that short space of time nothing more could astonish us. We were spent. All I can see in front of me, on the screen, were the remaining silhouette buildings of lower Manhattan engulfed in a greyish-brown cloud of smoke and debris that once were the twin towers.

by Elaine Pringle Schwitter
Photo credit Elaine Pringle-Schwitter

I have had those memories for 18 years and it was time to make new memories. My life and career had changed in the intervening years and now I can take control of the images that will to be etched in my mind when I think of New York.  

Back to present day. I arrived at Ground Zero. Funnily enough, it was a lovely sunny day, blue skies and not too hot. There was a lot of that unmistakable New York noise, a lot of tourist taking pictures, talking to one another, reading the engraved names of the fallen and debating the whole tragedy. It hadn’t escaped my attention that right here, where I was standing amongst the tourists, 18 years ago was a very different reality. I couldn’t help but have that time-travel moment while I was there. It was the scene of one of the worst day in American history and yet it brought out the best of America and its people. Now, all I could see, in 2019, was a beautiful day, a lovely poignant memorial, happy smiling people, greenery, animated conversations and colours, lots of it. . New York is unique with an urgent sense of living and living to the max. No other city in the world holds that for me. It is my long love affair with this city.  

It was time to get back to the now and to leave the past in the past. Make new images. So my work began.

Words like respect, togetherness, cherish and peace came to mind. The new images were being processed in my mind; positive images and wonderful poignant compositions were taken. For that period respecting the fallen, one felt a sense of togetherness with the world tourists; we all were cherishing our visit, cherishing the moment and importantly felt at peace. New York was my New York again — sanguine, full of life, spirited, vibrant and idiosyncratic. You just cannot keep a city like that down. ‘New York, New York so good they named it twice ‘- Gerard Kenny.

You cannot break New York’s spirit. As we are in the 18th year of the attack on September 11th, let’s take a moment to reflect on how the world has changed. Before my visit, I had yearned for the innocent years before 9/11, but at the same time grateful for what it has taught me. Life is transient. 9/11 awakened the humanity in many of us. We mourned with people that we didn’t even know and never met. It also taught me that I can and must take control back, if it was ever snapped away from me.

A dual British/Swiss citizen, Elaine is an award winning photojournalist and a cinematographer whose photographs have been published in numerous major newspapers and magazines. She has spent two decades in the corporate world at senior management level and now works with MTN Press on collaborations in the Swiss Region.

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