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Wednesday July 03, 2002, 23:33

Of note recently, and recorded in two different photographic formats (those being digital and film, the former being available for viewing online and the latter available for viewing in the comfort of my own home or wherever it is that I happen to be traveling with my photo album1), is the trip that I took to Germany where I discovered the price of fame and the excitement of the German circus.

The backstory itself is not particularly interesting. On September 11th, 2001, two airplanes were crashed into the World Trade Center Twin Towers in Manhattan, killing about three thousand people and causing unknown numbers of people to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome and countless others to have nightmares for months to come. In addition, the lives of most people in the developed world were disrupted in the form of heightened security and the loss of curb-side checkin of luggage at the airport2. That morning, I found myself on the roof of my apartment building taking photos of what I considered to be an event of great historic importance and uploading them (the pictures) to the World Wide Web as the towers crumbled to the ground killing rescue workers and others in a spectacularly horrifying finale. In the months following, numerous people contacted me about using my photos (which are freely viewable on the aforementioned World Wide Web) including a book designer, the editor of an elementary school yearbook, and, of particular relevance to this story, a German events promoter who was putting together a 9/11 photography exhibit and wanted to use my photos in it.

Thinking that nothing would come of it, and excited at the prospect at having my photos shown internationally, I agreed, and sent over some of them (and, in retrospect, should have sent more, as they would have added quite a bit to the exhibit, but hindsight is 20/20 and this fact will simply get filed away in my the far reaches of my brain as an example of a time when it would have been useful to give more than was initially requested of me). A couple of months after that, having moved to London and living a life of relative luxury (or, at the very least, one of relatively little structure), I was reminded of my submissions and once again made contact to see whether the event was actually going ahead as originally planned. To my surprise, the preparations were in full swing, and I was invited to Essen to take part in the press conference a day prior to the official opening of the exhibit. After realizing that I could, in fact, rearrange my one prior commitment (that I had finalized mere days earlier, as is often the case with conflicting engagements), I agreed to be flown to Germany to attend the press event and be paraded around as one of the photographers featured in the exhibit: a real, flesh and blood New Yorker who lived through the events of That Day and could tell all about them.

And I began to feel like something of a fake. For though I was in New York on September 11th, and for I have had nightmares about it and for though I had friends who thought they were the targets of anthrax-tainted letters, I was a good couple of miles away from the World Trade Center when it fell and my first instinct that morning was not to head downtown to be closer, to help, to document, to whatever, but was rather to stay uptown and wander the streets, vaguely trying to find some way of offering my assistance and otherwise being as shocked as most of the rest of the populace. Is that really a story to tell?

But I soon began to understand that there was nothing to tell. That, for the rest of the world, the events in New York and Washington, D.C. that morning are so foreign (literally) and so abstract that any tangible connection that people can have to those events make it all that much more real. In this case, I would be the connection. Simply by having been in New York that morning, a victim of circumstance, I would bring the events to them.

In one sense. In another sense, it was playing a game of "where were you when..." that we play when it comes to events of major historical significance. "I was on my roof watching the World Trade Center burning" sounds a bit more impressive than "I was sitting in my office watching the World Trade Center burning on TV." Although, I'd imagine, there are plenty of New Yorkers who could give the latter as an answer and not the former.

In any event, I ended up in Essen, giving a radio interview and having my photograph taken for two local area newspapers. Standing next to one of my photographs, the photographer arranged me for the best shot, then suggested that I stand next to the framed picture and drape one arm along the edge of it, gesturing to it with my other hand. Imagine a product model at a trade show and one might come close to imagining what was being requested and, via a translator, I indicated that I was not particularly proud of these images, that I was not particularly happy that I even had the opportunity to have taken them and that, if it was all the same to them, I would rather not be photographed in any way that might imply as such. The matter was quickly dropped and I was instead photographed standing in front of my piece looking serious. It was really the only available option.

And that was that. Most of the press was gone by the time I had my interview and then it was off to plates of finger sandwiches and smoking. Everyone smokes in Germany. And when they do smoke (which they do), they do so indoors, which is something that I have not experienced with such prevalence in quite some time. When asked if I wanted a cigarette (and answering in the negative), one native was heard to remark "of course you don't want to smoke, you're an American, you don't smoke..."

The final leg of the trip, after aborted attempts to go to both Holland and the Gasometer (the former due to traffic and the latter due to a private event), was spent in a circus tent in Dusseldorf watching acrobats, jugglers, and German clowns. The German circus is much the same as what I consider to be a traditional American circus, complete with ringleader in coattails and a Big Top tent and while it was a constant reminder seeing the words "Ausgang" listed over every opening in the tent, it was, at its core, a circus, and a welcome way to end an otherwise somber trip. One can only take so many reminders of so much emotion before it becomes too much and after my first night in Germany I had woken up in the middle of the night feeling quite odd due, most likely, to the resurrection of the memories of falling buildings. The circus provided a welcome reminder that life is, essentially, good.

The next day I was on a plane back to London, but my heart was still with New York, and will continue to be until long after I return.



1. The photo album to which I am referring is a very simple album, four photos per page (two on the front and two on the back) with a clear plastic cover. I paid a reasonable amount for it, in my mind, from Muji, a trendier-than-thou store here in London (and in Tokyo too I'd imagine) that sells housewares, luggage, suits and furniture. It's the kind of stuff that you'd expect when you asked your architect friend for a business card and she whipped out an unassuming yet stylish plastic business card holder, flicking it open at the top and shaking a card delicately out of it before returning it to a jacket pocket. Or the kind of organizer you might find when asking a graphic designer for a lunch appointment later that month (assuming, of course, that he didn't pull out a digital organizer of some sort -- analog is in, you see). Most of their products are what I consider to be quite over-priced (mostly because I've taken to converting everything to the increasingly weakened dollar and gasping in not-so-feigned horror when I realize that I'm actually paying one-and-a-half times as much for a particular product than the number actually reads) but these albums fall solidly in the range of what I would want to spend to keep a firm hold on my memories.

2. If it was ever thought that airport staff had no sense of humor before, let it be said that things are not much better now as, upon my return from Essen to London, in my confusion upon passing through immigration, I asked a security guard for directions to the trains to take me back to the city. "Where did you come from?" he demanded and I, confused and tired, stammered for a moment, trying to make sense of what it was that he meant (which airline? which gate? which country?). Frustrated, he snapped, "Look, it's really simple. You answer my question and I'll answer yours." "Germany!" I replied, fearing deportation if I got it wrong this time. He stared at me and then gestured to the far end of the room. "Through the blue gate," he said, and I felt his eyes burning into the back of my neck as I walked away.

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