PHOTOS BY RICHMOND LAM
WORDS BY JOE MCMURRAY
When my mom woke me up on September 11th, 2001, and told me that the World Trade Center had been attacked, I thought she was talking about the floor of the New York Stock Exchange; that place you used to see on TV all the time, filled with frazzled looking men yelling at screens and making incomprehensible hand gestures. Later, when I got to school that day, now aware that the World Trade Center meant the Twin Towers, my social studies teacher wrote ‘Osama bin Laden’ on the chalk board. It was the first time I saw that name. I remember she seemed serious, solemn, perhaps cognizant that the world for the children that were her students, for all children, was, from that day forward, destined to be different. We spent the class talking about Islamic Terrorism. Besides that, and the endless stream of images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers and later, the towers folding into themselves, I don’t remember much about that day. I remember it was warm and sunny.
It wasn’t until 2008 that I first went to New York, which is to say that I never saw the Twin Towers “in real life.” Nonetheless, the city’s pre-2001 skyline had been etched into my memory, and the absence of the towers, in combination with the knowledge and the imagery of the event, inspired a feeling of looking into a void. As I drove from the airport into Manhattan, I thought about what it must be like for people who had lived in the shadow of that previous skyline, of how permanent it must have felt; a feeling that was surely crystallized, ironically, by both the architectural and symmetrical perfection of the Twin Towers, and their sudden disappearance.
Richmond Lam’s pictures of people photographing the 9/11 memorial – the so-called Freedom Tower, or the twin reflecting pools – attempt to capture the feeling of our collective memory responding to the absence of a point of reference that seemed fixed; coded into our thinking by images of the most famous skyline in the world. We look at Richmond Lam’s photos and we wonder, ‘what are these people taking pictures of?’ It’s certainly a strange pilgrimage to make: to go and see where the towers fell; a journey made not to pay respect, or to reflect on the hard conditions of the global order, but to admire the profound difference between what we see in our heads and what we see in the world. A kind of test of reality itself, or, equally bizarre, to photograph the absence of something. To provide proof to ourselves that something isn’t there.
But then again, if 9/11 taught us anything then the teaching was in the lesson itself, which used the image, played on repeat from countless angles, as both evidence for the event (whether the official story or not), and as the catalyst for the War on Terror (and, inevitably, the state of the world today). Therefore, it makes an odd kind of sense for people to make their own pictures of where the Towers used to stand, since, in a world of images, any other form of documentation is inequivalent and perhaps even illogical. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to talk about reality in relation to 9/11, since language fails in comparison to the infinitely detailed images of the buildings exploding and collapsing. It might be better to simply remain silent on the issue – which I think a lot of people do – until we have the opportunity to see the absence for ourselves, take a picture or two just to be sure, and move on. Looking back, if all we see in these pictures is the sky, nothing – which of course we will – we will have successfully provided the only acceptable point (that of the image), however redundant, in the non-conversation of contemporary reality.
© 2020 The Editorial Magazine