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Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs

Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs

On the 20th anniversary of the attack on New York’s Twin Towers, we revisit Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs, the first crowd-sourced exhibition of its scale dedicated to images of 9/11 and its aftermath, with thousands of photographers—amateur and professional alike—exhibited together. Here’s how it happened. 

      Lower Manhattan before 9/11 © Charles Traub, Courtesy Here is New York

It started with two, then with four. Michael Shulan, a writer who owned a storefront on Prince Street, was on the phone with the photographer Gilles Peress, then at Ground Zero taking photographs for The New Yorker in the wake of the devastation of 9/11. Together, they had an idea: a crowdsourced exhibition from all who witnessed the attack. They called Charles Traub, a photographer and professor, and Alice Rose George, a photo editor and curator, and together, the four founders made a plan of action and reached out to their networks for more help. Like cells dividing, the network of volunteers and organizers expanded exponentially. Soon, Here is New York: A Democracy of Photographs sprung to life, opening its doors on September 25, 2001, a mere two weeks after the attack. Half memorial, half exhibit, with a flood of images pouring in from amateur and professional photographers alike, the storefront was dotted with just-donated images clipped on to hanging wires, like laundry lines. “It was about anybody and everybody that had something to say about this tragic day,” says Traub. “The four organizers were not really organizers—we were catalysts, or interlocuters. It sort of just grew into its form by osmosis.” 

Borrowing the title from E.B. White’s paean to the city, Here is New York, the ever-growing, ever-changing exhibition hung anonymized inkjet-printed photographs from the September 11th attack and the days following. Around 400-500 images would hang at any one time; as the exhibition went on and a plethora of new photographs came in, older photographs would be swapped out for new ones. Lines formed around the block, and celebrities and politicians began to descend at 116 Prince Street to pay their respects, too—but they had to wait in line with everyone else. 

Lines of donators in front of 116 Prince Street © Here is New York, Courtesy Here is New York
People grieving at 116 Prince Street © Here is New York, Courtesy Here is New York
President Bill Clinton visiting 116 Prince Street
© Here is New York, Courtesy Here is New York

The organizers decided to make and sell prints from the show for $25 a piece, raising money for the Children’s Aid Society to help the affected. Over the course of its run, Here is New York raised somewhere over a million dollars, and presented nearly five thousand images from nearly three thousand contributors. A website with a digital gallery soon followed; tallying together the number of in-person and website gallery visits, it’s perhaps the most viewed exhibition in history. 

“No one had any intention that this would last more than maybe two or three weeks,” Traub says. “It was a spontaneous grassroots thing where we simply invited people to give us pictures, and we decided collectively that we would hang them on each wire. We wouldn’t make any kind of separation between whoever brought something in, whether you were a professional photographer or a streetcleaner or a schoolkid. They were all printed the same size, and because of the evenness of the way they were made and the borders were all the same, it gelled into a whole bigger than the sum of its parts. That’s what made it a democracy of image-making—and it would not have worked had it just featured professional journalists.”

Visitors at 116 Prince Street © Here is New York, Courtesy Here is New York
Firefighters at 116 Prince Street © Here is New York, Courtesy Here is New York

Here is New York can be revisited in form today; in 2002, it was turned into a book, an almost 900-page tome filled with images of devastation, confusion, grief, and love. True to the original concept, each page is left without a notation of the photographer’s name; there is an index in the back of the book where you can hunt down the attributions, if you’re so inclined. But flipping through the pages, it’s impossible to discern which photographs are from the many professional (and in some cases, quite famous) photographers, and which photographs are from regular people who simply had a camera on hand that day. “Sensationalism usually gets focused upon by a journalist, or the perfection of the photograph. Sometimes these so-called amateurs’ pictures were better than the [professionals],” says Traub. “There’s a different kind of sincerity.”

“This wasn’t about a given photograph or a given image, it was about the collective synergism of all of these images and what they represented,” he continues. Each image is compelling in its own right, even if the meanings of some, or their connection to 9/11, are less clear at first glance. In one image, hanging paper cranes are jolted so strongly that they look mid-flight in the photograph, their white outlines blurring with the movement. It comes a few pages after a picture of people falling from the sky, the burning remains of the building towering above them. 

The Falling Man © Richard Drew, Courtesy Here is New York
9/11 from the Brooklyn Bridge © Richard Rutkowski, Courtesy Here is New York

Here is New York reflected the duality of tragedy, how it can be both profoundly personal and universal. There are photographs of trinkets, and photographs of footprints in the snowy ash; a reminder that we all lost something that day, though we each lost differently. “There were all kinds of other notations that needed to be made about grief, about overcoming this moment,” says Traub. “And that was the hope that the nation shared for the future.”

Pamela Griffiths, a photo editor and artistic consultant, was in her Tribeca loft when the planes hit. Everything shook. “People were in shock, but everyone was running to get a camera,” she says. She didn’t take a photo that day. But a few days later, looking out her window across to a warehouse, she saw construction workers raising a flag so large it almost covered the building façade. “It was a message that we were going to come back,” she says. “So I took out a roll of black-and-white film that was about ten years old, and I shot it, and then I forgot about it.”

Firemen with Tears, September 11, 2001 © Jeff Mermelstein, Courtesy Here is New York
Police officer near Ground Zero on 9/11 © Ken Schles, Courtesy Here is New York

Griffiths is one of the roughly 250 volunteers who helped organize and run the “Here is New York” exhibition. She worked in the photo intake department, alongside a few other volunteers in a makeshift assembly line: photos would be dropped off, scanned, printed, and hung on the wires. “It was like their bearing of witness,” says Griffiths of the people who brought in their photographs. “We tried to take a picture from everyone who brought one. Everyone was welcome. It really was a democracy of photographs.” And with each drop-off came each person’s individual story: what they saw that day, who they lost, what they were feeling in that moment.

“I feel like we were the memorial before there was one,” says Griffiths. “People needed a place to go. Some people would come back week after week and just stand there silently. Sometimes you would talk to them, and maybe they lost someone; sometimes maybe they just wanted to be alone.”

Griffiths rediscovered her photo of the flag coming up the face of the building, billowing in the wind as the men below, dwarfed by the flag’s majestic size, raise it with all their might. After some nudging from her fellow volunteers, she brought it in for inclusion in the show. It hung alongside photographs of the towers on fire, photographs of people covered in ash, and photographs of wailing faces. There hung her photo, with its message of resilience. “Everyone I worked with, the volunteers and the photographers, we’re still kind of a family,” says Griffiths. 

American Flag © Pamela Griffiths, Courtesy Here is New York

“It could not have happened with just a good idea,” says Traub. “It had to have people who have know-how and people who are willing to put themselves on the line for that, and there were endless numbers of people who just did it, and they assumed responsibility, and made things happen. And that was the glory of the moment. That was the idea that this was the community of New York coming together and there were all kinds of people, from firemen to lawyers to civil servants to the sanitation workers just coming to do what they could do. And that was a shared moment of grief—but also of community, of civic pride, shared experience, shared emotion, and shared hopefulness that New York, and this nation, would overcome this.”

Looking back through the book, one of the striking aspects is the number of signs and protests as the nation debated whether to go to war. In the face of loss and tragedy, many of the images show people who were pleading for peace. Not all, however. One sobering image shows a chain-link fence with an American flag strung up, and next to it, plastic cups pushed through the links, spelling out the words: KILL ‘EM. 

Statue, September 11, 2001 © Jeff Mermelstein , Courtesy Here is New York​​​​​
Ground Zero © Aristide Economopolous, Courtesy Here is New York

Here is New York debuted a mere week or so before the United States officially began the War in Afghanistan. Just shy of a full two-decades there, the United States withdrew from Afghanistan last month, ending what seemed to be a never-ending war; it’s impossible to look at Here is New York now without thinking of our current situation.

“We have to put 9/11 into context of the tragedies that caused it, and also the tragedies it begot,” says Traub. “And I think for a brief shining moment—” he pauses. “People could imagine what it was like in, let’s say, Beirut with the bombings. Hopefully witnessing the overall collective we’ll begin to say: ‘Well, maybe I can identify with someone who has suffered such tragedies.’ We never wanted it to represent the notion of our exceptionalism to these kinds of tragedies and horrors.”

Ground Zero © Richard Falco, Courtesy Here is New York
Firefighters on Ground Zero © Mario Tama, Courtesy Here is New York

It’s perhaps indecent to suggest that anything positive came as a result of 9/11, but anyone who was there and survived will tell you the same thing: there was a sense of community in New York like never before. The whole country seemed to come together, and people became kinder to one another. Here is New York and its myriad volunteers are another manifestation of that. Traub lists countless other people, from lawyers to postal workers, who pitched in to help where they could. 

It’s a wonderful thing to hear about. But to a younger generation growing up in America’s current climate, this sentiment of complete togetherness and solidarity is perhaps incomprehensible. “I’ve always been proud of our country, I’ve always felt we did things right. Growing up, every year there seemed to be progress. And I’ve always been optimistic that we can overcome things. And I still have a degree of that,” says Traub. “But given the divide of this great civil cold war we’re in, I have my doubts that we can be the great nation that we would like to think we are.”

People offering their help during the days after 9/11 © Jake Price, Courtesy Here is New York

Today, Here is New York is not only a reminder of what was lost, but of the power of community. Something as simple as a snapshot can bring people together, and as Griffiths and Traub explained, the photographs didn’t have to be academically good in order to be meaningful. But it was important to give people an outlet to share their experiences, to grieve together, and to be a little less alone. A photo from outside the exhibition shows a piece of paper tacked to the window, with a simple text: “here is hope devastation life death shock horror unity heroism fear disbelief anger love courage sadness grief compassion spirit new york”.

A piece of paper tacked to the window at 116 Prince Street © Here is New York, Courtesy Here is New York

By Christina Cacouris

Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.

More information on Here is New York.

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