Monday, September 12, 2011

Listening to the Voice

"Twisted Steel" (C) 2011, Miachelle DePiano
You cannot interview an inanimate object, but that does not mean the object cannot talk to you. And just because the inanimate object talks to you that does not mean that it says the same thing to you that it says to another human being. But sometimes, there is a magical moment when in the gathering of a mass of humanity, you can see that the object’s voice and the object’s message is heard clearly by all gathered in its presence.

In June, 2011, I had a magazine assignment to go photograph a fundraiser for the city of Gilbert’s 9/11 Memorial held at Gilbert Fire Department #1. The fundraiser was pretty normal: a pancake breakfast cooked by city officials and fire department leaders; families eating and fire department tours (touted as the “Taj Majal” of fire departments); and people buying raffle tickets for various items and ordering dedication bricks.

I walked outside to see the piece of steel beam from one of the Twin Towers the city acquired for the memorial. It was secured on a trailer, with the United States flag and the Arizona flag posted between the trailer and the bed of the truck towing it. I knew I needed to capture the right shot. I knew I needed to depict both the damage from that awful day, and the strength that remains. The result is the image used at the beginning of this post. A few families came out to see the beam and take pictures of each other beside it. I was no different; I took pictures of a few people for the magazine.

I walked away, knowing I had to be present for the unveiling of the memorial. I needed to know if we as Americans still remember that day. I needed to know if the beam was talking to us all, or if the decade since the attack had worn away the memory and the feelings, much as time softens our individual memories.

Yesterday morning the weather was perfect. The heat had abated some due to the evening monsoons that rolled in the previous evening, and I imagined it was much like September 11, 2001, before American life was forever altered.

My husband and I initially stood to the right of the memorial area. The main structure and three walls were covered in drapes. I left my husband to start taking photographs. I focused on the Gilbert Fire Department Pipe and Drum corps. Finally, the time arrived for opening remarks and prayers. I took a few photos from the back of the crowd, and waited. When it was nearly time to unveil the memorial, I moved back to the right area where my husband stood, and captured the moment as each drape was lifted from the segments. The drapes revealed three granite walls with the names of all who were killed on that day, and in the center, stood the beam, mounted on a concrete post which stood in a pile of large rocks. The memorial was designed to be touched and felt, and the crowd seemed to grow tense waiting for the ceremony to end.

Finally, the ceremony was over, and the crowd moved as a unit to walk through the memorial area and touch the beam.

I moved in, knowing these were the photos I wanted to capture. Being short in stature, at times I found myself resorting to just raising my camera high and hoping for the best. At times I lowered my camera, and attempted to capture people reaching out for the beam.

And reach out they did.

As I stood there, included in that moment of time yet separated from it due to my magical black box, I was deeply moved by the hands reaching out. Young hands, old hands, hands of all races and textures.

It was one particular gentleman that broke loose the tears I was fighting back. He was a little taller than most of the crowd, and was able to reach up with both hands, and clasp the thin edge of the beam with them, almost as if he were grasping the beam and praying. I captured his grasp quickly, and I walked away. The emotion of it all was too much.

What I witnessed was the beam talking to us all, and we all heard the same message:

Remember me, remember us, and be connected.

In that throng, we were all connected. We could touch the beam, and be connected to those who died on a beautiful September morning just like this one. We could touch the beam and be reminded of what was taken from us, a joyful innocence that life is good and we were invincible. We could touch the beam and be reminded that life still is good, and that we still are strong, if only we connect to each other.

By nature I am an oxymoron when it comes to humanity. I am cynical, believing that mankind is short-sighted and self-centered, yet I always look for the good in people, believing it exists if we just let it out. For one hour, I was rewarded for my hopefulness. For one hour, I saw the good in us, the desire to remember what our nation stands for, regardless of race, politics or religion.

I do not know how many who attended the memorial unveiling, or any other unveiling in our nation, woke up this morning still deeply touched by yesterday’s events and the events of 10 years ago. I look at the chatter I see on FaceBook, the media-driven “news”, and the cynic in me has returned. But I am hopeful. I am hopeful that regardless of the economic troubles we are facing, the upcoming political elections, all the issues that seem to divide us as a nation, I am hopeful that all of us will revisit these memories, visit the memorials, and listen to the voices of those silent, stoic, inanimate objects:

Remember me, remember us, and be connected.

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