The Public Face of 9/11:
Memory and Portraiture in the Landscape
Journal of American History, 94 (June 2007) 183–92
On September 11, 2001, when people began hanging store-bought flags and decorating both private and public property with memorial artwork and displays, handmade flags, and slogans, I knew I was looking at the beginning of a powerful grass-roots response to a national tragedy. But it was then too early in what became a five-year photography project for me to grasp what I came to understand six months later: Americans were talking to each other. They were speaking out loud in public on their cars, houses, and places of business, on their bodies, and anywhere else they could find the space. Two years after the attacks, after I had seen a broad range of artistic expression, I understood that the response was an overwhelmingly visual one and so pervasive that the outpouring of sentiment carried Americans into rare territory—a place where private emotions tied up with terrorism and loss met mass public expression. The result is a new memorial vocabulary surrounding the 9/11 attacks that, in addition to including many phrases and symbols, also includes two new American icons: the World Trade Center towers and the image of three New York City fire fighters raising the American flag in the ruins of the towers.
Because there was such a wide variety of memorials displayed in so many places immediately after the attacks—some of them moving around on motor vehicles and human bodies—I knew I would need to have a camera with me at all times if I wanted to capture this seminal moment in history. So, since September 11, 2001, I have been traveling with my camera every day, recording the heartfelt and idiosyncratic ways people have been making memorials to display their sorrow, patriotism, anger, and, in some cases, wishes for peace, unity, war, or revenge. What I have recorded is poignant and not always pleasant. Over the course of five years, I have compiled a large assortment of American vernacular responses to the attacks—from the inner city to rural areas, from the spectacular to the banal. I estimate I have taken over fifteen thousand pictures. By design, many of my photographs document the passage of time and the particularities of the 9/11 artwork; occasionally, they depict intimate and revealing moments in the life of a neighborhood.
I have traveled the East Coast from Maine to northern Virginia and parts of the Midwest, making stops at Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the Pentagon, and ground zero in New York City. It has been my goal to capture the essence of the artwork and displays I en countered as elements in a broader landscape. Across the landscape, people were expressing different emotions and opinions. The things they were saying and the ways they were (and still are) saying them may have been offensive to some, but the language and artwork were comprehensible. The new memorial vocabulary of 9/11 allowed Americans to speak to each other freely, openly, and sometimes profanely. Many of the pictures in my collection were taken in less than ideal circumstances. I photographed what I saw, and I never passed something up because I thought it was ugly, contrary to my beliefs, inconvenient to locate, or difficult or dangerous to photograph. I have tried to present the 9/11 memorial response I saw as woven into the fabric of the landscape and indeed the fabric of daily life. Working this way allowed me to produce, with as little mediation as possible, a transformative document that functions by recontextualizing memorial images as they become part of the landscape. The photographs I took depict a national dialogue and present a unique chronicle and portrait of post-9/11 society as seen through the American vernacular.
Each day, to give myself structure and keep things interesting, I set guidelines to work by. One day I photographed only cars and trucks; another day slogans and speech; a third memorials; and a fourth handmade flags. Certain days were reserved for one neighborhood or street. On other days I followed up on leads people called in to me. Many days, by design there were no rules, and I allowed impulse to direct me. The self-imposed structure helped reduce the number and types of decisions I had to make. For example, as a rule, I always attempted to locate art and objects I noticed when driving. While traveling on a highway, if I saw a large sign or mural far off in the distance that did not appeal to me, or if I felt unwilling to take the time to find it, my method of operating compelled me ultimately to track down that object and photograph it anyhow.
I realized early on that my working method led me to places where I would not have normally ventured or been welcome. More often than not, particularly during the first eighteen months after the attacks, both in New York City and within a 150-square-mile radius around the city, people were generally jumpy, suspicious, and unhappy to see a photographer around their property. I traveled with an eight-foot ladder, a cell phone, business cards, a photograph of my wife and daughter, a small portfolio of my September 11-related photographs, and pepper spray. I left in place a small American flag that an unknown person attached to the rear bumper of my pickup truck.
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Because there is an inherent tension when an unknown person enters a neighborhood and begins pointing a camera, I did my best to stay clear of confrontations with people and dogs. I relied on instinct to tell me whether to knock on a door or approach people when I noticed them watching me. When a person was in close proximity to an area or object I wanted to shoot, I introduced myself and explained what I was doing. I also made it a point to ask questions at diners, gas stations, American Legion posts, and fire and police stations. Those conversations and street encounters led me to obscure and novel objects I would not have found otherwise. Sometimes these chats enabled me to uncover the history or authorship of what were mostly anonymous art objects and displays. Over time, I came to understand how my luck ran: One wrong turn unearthed a good opportunity for a picture. A second wrong turn usually resulted in a great find. The next turn invariably meant trouble.
I have looked at the Internet and other media to compare the memorial artwork and displays I photographed with vernacular responses from parts of the country where I did not travel. Based on the similarities I noticed, I believe that my collection represents a composite portrait of a nation publicly coming to grips with a horrifying and shocking attack, while trying to understand its new sense of vulnerability. The public art and memorials that arose immediately and spontaneously were executed almost entirely without government sanction and financing.
To get a better understanding of the overall content of my September 11-related photographs, I apply different notions of portraiture to their imagery and iconography. That permits me to interpret the collection as an aggregate portrait of our nation’s public response to the September 11 attacks. Portraiture as I define it occurs on several levels, from the personal to the local to the larger collective. Looking at enough pictures allows us insight into a people responding to, and recovering from, a national trauma.
In addition to producing two new American icons, the 9/11 murals, memorials, flags, and tattoos have given rise to several subcultures expressed in genres that stand as worthy of serious investigation. The World Trade Center towers, prior to the attacks, were a symbol of the greatness and wealth of New York City, of America, and of the wonders of modern engineering. They had not yet become the iconic American image and national symbol of identity they are now. The other icon, the image of the three New York City fire fighters raising the flag shortly after the attacks, is an obvious and direct reference to the flag raising at Iwo Jima. It has appeared on a postage stamp, on T-shirts, postcards, posters, and in just about every nook and cranny of our popular culture.1 The towers, the flag raising, and the genres of 9/11 murals and tattoos will be at the center of my subsequent discussion of portraiture.
As I added more and different types of vernacular responses into the mix of my collection, I realized that the visual response to 9/11 could best be understood by assigning a hierarchy. I view each response expression as part of a continuum defined by the level of commitment necessary to make and display it and by its degree of permanence. This hierarchy accounts for differences within modes of expression.2 As I began to look closely at the symbols people were using, it appeared that they too could be understood within a hierarchy. Although the American flag is ubiquitous, it is often used as backdrop or decoration. The towers were used constantly as an icon and have become part of a novel recurring arrangement of Americana that consists of the American flag, bald eagle, and World Trade Center towers.3 Based on my collection, it seems to me that the importance of both Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty has diminished. When Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty are employed separately or with the grouping described above, they are often less prominent or shown as injured or weakened.4
The responses people made were determined by the way the attacks affected them. Some people were more creative than others. Starting at the bottom of the hierarchy of responses to 9/11 that I have identified are expressions that were quick and simple to execute. Public statements of this type were basic acts of pride and belonging. If you had no conception of yourself as an artist, you might purchase a flag, a patriotic bumper sticker, or a bumper sticker that depicted the World Trade Center towers and stated “We Will Never Forget” and place it on your car. Or you might attach a larger flag to your house or hang it out of your apartment building window. If you felt the need to say something publicly without having to make art, arrange a display, or hang a flag, you might use your local church or firehouse’s exterior signboard to add a phrase such as “God Bless America” to a preexisting advertisement for your organization’s annual fund-raiser. Your sign might end up saying, “God Bless America Roast Beef Dinner.” Such roadside chatter was always simple and direct.5
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People also made displays on the exteriors of their garages and places of business using available imagery from media sources. If you wanted to bear witness to 9/11, honor a friend or relative connected to the attacks, and help others understand the randomness and horror of the tragedy, you might cut out flags, portraits of the dead, and assorted images depicting the violence of the day from your local newspaper and make an arrangement. 6 If you could not find a flag to purchase, you might, as three sisters from Brooklyn did, buy red, white, and blue fabric and create a flag by wrapping it around a tree in front of your house.7 Or, like a person in northwestern New Jersey, you might flip over your picnic table, paint a flag on it and leave it in your front yard. Further up the hierarchy of responses, people produced large-scale flags and quilts and decorated and painted cars, trucks, barns, and houses with flags and other Americana and 9/11-related imagery. 8 At the top of the hierarchy of 9/11 expression are two genres in which I have taken a great interest: murals and tattoos.
Although many of the small, handmade memorials touch my heart, I am most drawn to the murals and tattoos. The success of 9/11 murals and tattoos varies widely when they are evaluated simply as works of art, and a mural or tattoo is not necessarily any more meaningful or powerful than, say, a small memorial or portrait left on the side of the road. Still, the murals and tattoos demonstrate a level of sophistication and commitment not seen in most other types of 9/11-response artwork. They very often mix icons, religious symbols, portraiture, and roadside chatter. They also emit a unique aura because they are so difficult to execute in terms of scale, design elements, composition, and logistics. Because a mural is so large, so much paint and material is necessary, and permission is gen erally required to paint on someone else’s property, a mural poses interesting questions: How did it get here? Was it commissioned? If so, who paid for it? Who made it and why? Tattoos pose similar questions and ask others as well: Did it hurt? Are you sure you will want it in ten years?
I think as a group the murals and tattoos I documented will have an enduring impact as markers showing how we constructed our post-9/11 memories. It is within them that people have most vividly borne witness to the attacks, declared their own authenticity— their personal connections to the deceased, to the attacks, to their country, and in many cases, to the World Trade Center towers themselves. Although all 9/11-response material is rich in content, it is the murals and tattoos that will lead scholars, particularly folklorists, to the central imagery and iconography that have emerged from the attacks.
The vernacular response to the attacks and the murals and tattoos in particular present a composite portrait of a nation that uses the World Trade Center as a metaphor for itself. Most images of the towers I have seen depict them standing tall as if they had never come down or had been rebuilt. If the towers are depicted as under attack or in ruins, and they seldom are, they are part of a narrative triptych of towers up, towers attacked, and towers down. By standing tall, the towers embody a characteristic we claim for ourselves. This denial of the towers’ collapse into ruins or the appearance of rebuilt towers suggests we possess a certain steadfast strength. The towers are the central folk icon to emerge from the attacks, and they are represented in many ways: as two burning candles; two crosses; or, most commonly, as a paired fireman and policeman, always side by side; or, most significantly, as a pair of black-silhouetted firemen. (See figure 1.)9
We have anthropomorphized the towers, given them a life and a death. In fact, most postcards of the towers and a few murals I have seen have the dates 1973–2001 on them. 10 The listing of inclusive dates makes the postcards similar to prayer cards for a deceased person passed out at a wake or funeral. In vernacular murals and tattoos, the towers do something many desire for themselves in the moment of death. They go to heaven. In several murals and tattoos, the towers are depicted as in heaven or in an apotheosis, ascending to heaven.11
Figure 2, a portrait mural dedicated to the memory of the New York City fire fighter Tommy Schoales, suggests a collective portrait of our nation. Commissioned by members of his South Bronx firehouse, this memorial is Schoales’s prayer card. He looks out at us from behind the skyline—a place beyond—the fireman’s prayer to the left. The American flag makes contact with Schoales’s helmet and also pushes forward out of the picture frame to contact his written name, thus connecting us to him for eternity in body and spirit. The mural’s composition is balanced by the placement further to the right of two black stick-figure firemen who stand in for the World Trade Center towers in the skyline. These two pillars of strength who have become the towers are us. The figure on the right has no arms. He is part tower, part human. The figure closer to the flag has arms, because he needs them to rescue an infant. This apparent reference to an image from the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, like the flag itself, connects all of us to our shared past, our mutual vulnerability and grieving, and asks us to see the goodness in ourselves and in the firemen of New York City in particular.12
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The notion of a composite national portrait is useful but general. It is possible to be more specific and to talk about the local by observing who lives in a neighborhood with public 9/11 artwork and murals. Figure 2, showing a Muslim woman walking past a large 9/11 mural, is a portrait of the Bensonhurst neighborhood in Brooklyn, known as a largely white, Italian area. Its demographic is rapidly changing. Much has been made over the centuries of the United States as the melting pot. This photograph speaks to that ongoing romantic notion but nevertheless confronts the viewer with a jarring juxtaposition suggestive of the complexity of life in New York City and, indeed, America post-9/11. We see a moment in time that reveals a deeper layer of our society. This picture not only captures a Muslim woman on the way home from the store, head bowed and eyes disengaged from a stern bald eagle that appears to be staring her down, it also portrays a neighborhood in New York City as a diverse place where people from different walks of life with different sets of beliefs have to live in and amid the aftermath of the attacks. We confirm this by observing the man on the bicycle behind the Muslim woman. We see two different people, two ways of life, yet interestingly enough, they both hold the same unifying blue plastic bag. One year later, when I revisited this mural, I was compelled to photograph it because someone had painted scars on the eagle’s face and written, “Fuck all the injustice” on the flag. Four and one-half years past the attacks, people were still talking to each other in public. After many years of being little used as a symbol of identity, the eagle has undergone a resurgence. In the vernacular visual dialogue I have seen, it serves several functions. The eagle protects us, avenges our collective loss, and as the inexorable spiritual force that it has become since 9/11, it carries away the souls of the dead.13
Since the time of early American seafarers, there has been an American tattoo culture that has allowed discrete groups of people to use iconography to declare a connection to like-minded people and communities.14 Although the tattoos of our contemporary popular culture are clearly a broader-reaching phenomenon and not limited to men, the basic historic notion of what a tattoo does rings true now. A tattoo functions as a personal badge of identity and belonging—a mark of one’s intimate feelings and affiliations. I see the 9/11 tattoos as both signs of sacrifice and important elements of identity in the new vernacular license we have granted ourselves since the attacks. Many people who had never previously considered getting tattooed chose to do so. They did this because, regardless of the directness of their connection to someone who died, they felt so connected to the national trauma that they needed to bear witness, commemorate, and ultimately make a personal statement to memorialize the attacks and sometimes specifically to honor those who died. Such sacrifice turns a tattooed person into a living memorial. In effect, a 9/11 tattoo removes a commemorative book, magazine, or object from the coffee table and a family portrait from the wall and onto a body. But whose body is it?
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I have gone to great lengths to make contact with and to convince people with these tattoos to allow themselves to be photographed. Sometimes it took two to three months or more of phone calls and screenings by friends or family members before I could meet and photograph a tattoo subject. In the case of figure 3, of Lenny Hatton III, I was vetted by a succession of police officers and a Federal Bureau of Investigation (fbi) agent before I finally met him. His father, Lenny Hatton Jr., the only active fbi agent to die in the at tacks, is memorialized on his back. This full-back tattoo, which features a portrait of fbi Special Agent Hatton as a young U.S. Marine, along with his dates of birth and death, was a design collaboration between subject and tattoo artist. A visually complex tattoo, it depicts disparate motifs and combines them into a narrative about the attacks and Special Agent Hatton’s life. For the purpose of memorializing the attack and proclaiming his father a hero, the grieving son gives over his back. The left side of his back says, “My hero in Life, A nation’s in death.” The ever-present World Trade Center towers in the New York City skyline across his shoulder blades anchor the content of this memorial and connect the father’s death to the horror of September 11. The seal of the fbi and the marine portrait show the father’s status. The iconic image of the three firemen raising the flag in the rubble of the towers confirms Lenny Hatton Jr.’s sacrifice by referring to the heroism of the New York City fire fighters. A light of hope shines through the sky, drawn in by the power of the cross in the middle of the younger Hatton’s back. This glowing light pierces the evil dragon of terrorism so prominently displayed on his back and slays it. With the strength gained from the sacrifice of his father and the firemen, coupled with the power of the marines and the fbi, good triumphs over evil. The son has in effect made himself a 9/11 folklorist, a living memorial, and a prayer card for his father.
Figure 4 is a portrait of a former New York City fire fighter whose brother Dave, also a fire fighter, died in the attacks. He faces the camera, direct in his gaze, jaw set in the same position as his brother’s, who is memorialized on his left leg. The fireman exposes three tattoos on his body and wears a memorial 9/11 bracelet on his right wrist. On his left arm is a standard fire fighter’s tattoo, which identifies his affiliation. The tattoo on his right arm resembles his other arm tattoo, but it is relevant to 9/11 commemoration because it honors six of his fallen comrades from a firehouse on Monroe Street in Brooklyn. Each firehouse in New York City that suffered losses on 9/11 came up with a way to declare its authenticity. Six people from the Monroe firehouse died, and they became the Monroe Six. Seven fire fighters from another firehouse in Brooklyn died, and that group came to be known as Seven in Heaven.
The tattooed portrait of “Brother Dave” is commanding and beautifully realized. The subject of this portrait refused to take off his sunglasses, fearing that his eyes might detract from the powerful statement of love, devotion, and remembrance he put on his leg. In addition to declaring his connection to the New York City Fire Department and memorializing his brother, the subject also memorializes the attacks and the towers in the way “9-11-01” is inscribed under his brother’s portrait. The two digits that make up the number eleven are also a depiction of the World Trade Center towers, complete with the wellknown antenna. What we see is a portrait of a dignified man making multiple memorial statements, very much aware that he has used the power of his affiliation and connection to the 9/11 attacks to make himself a living memorial to the dead.
The September 11 attacks were a world-changing event, and the overwhelming vernacular response to them will be studied and dissected for decades to come. In reaction to, and in protest against, the senselessness of mass murder we have put a face on the attacks. 15 We have permanently inked portraits of the deceased and depictions of the World Trade Center towers on our bodies and made ourselves living memorials to the September 11 attacks.16 We have depicted and remade countless small- and large-scale models of the World Trade Center towers.17 By doing this in public over and over, we have not only redefined the towers as a national symbol of identity in the here and now but have also turned them into a metaphor for who and what we may become as a nation in the future. The 9/11 murals (the likes of which in scale and quantity have not been seen since the Works Progress Administration [wpa] murals of the 1930s and 1940s) and tattoos are not an accident of history. They are, much like the World Trade Center towers depicted in them, now part of the vernacular visual language that has emerged since the attacks. Five and a half years past 9/11, perhaps the only thing our deeply divided society seems to agree on is a passionate and determined commitment always to remember the attacks.
Jonathan Hyman is a New York-based photographer living in Bethel, New York. On the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, photographs from his archive of September 11-related documentation appeared in solo exhibitions at the World Trade Center Memorial Museum in New York City and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. An independent lecturer, he was most recently visiting artist for the American studies department at Rutgers University.
Photographs that appear in the print version of this article are called figures. All photographs referred to here as images may be viewed via the image collection page.
Readers may contact Hyman at arthoops [at] verizon [dot] net.
1Image 1, Jonathan Hyman, “Mural with Silos: Warwick, New York,” photograph, 2001 (showing mural by Rocco Manno); image 2, Jonathan Hyman, “Flag Raisers Old and New: Bronx, New York,” photograph, 2005 (showing mural by Chris Ramos); image 3, Jonathan Hyman, “Flag Raisers with Bud Bottle: Bethel, New York,” photograph, 2003 (showing sculpture by Ted Walker). In images 4 and 5 we see two types of hand-made flags: three tiny flags executed in an extemporaneous manner versus a gigantic and fastidiously realized flag. Although both are handmade flags, they are two very different expressions.
2In images 6 and 7 we see two different types of tattoos, though both are memorials and both declarations of individuality and belonging. Image 4, Jonathan Hyman, “Flag Shoes: Aurora, New York,” photograph, 2004 (showing artwork by Frank Baker); image 5, Jonathan Hyman, “Flag House: Kent, Connecticut,” photograph, 2003 (showing artwork on house by Kevin Sabia); image 6, Jonathan Hyman, “T. C.’s Back: Manhattan, New York,” photograph, 2003 (showing tattoo by Rico); image 7, Jonathan Hyman, “From the Heart: Queens, New York,” photograph, 2005 (showing tattoo by unknown artist).
5In lectures based on my 9/11 photographs, I coined the term “roadside chatter” to describe such memorials and other side-of-the-road written expressions responding to the attacks. Image 10, Jonathan Hyman, “God Bless America Roast Beef Dinner: Hurleyville, New York,” photograph, 2001.
8Image 13, Jonathan Hyman, “Picnic Table: Northern New Jersey,” photograph, 2001; image 14, Jonathan Hyman, “9/11 Flag at the Pentagon: Arlington, Virginia,” photograph, 2003 (showing quilt by residents of Bucks County, Pennsylvania and Hunderton County, New Jersey, curator and keeper of the flag Thomas McBrien); image 15, Jonathan Hyman, “Let’s Roll Truck: Manhattan, New York,” photograph, 2002 (showing artwork by Espo).
9Image 16, Jonathan Hyman, “Clown with Burning Towers: Queens, New York,” photograph, 2003 (showing mural by Meres); image 17, Jonathan Hyman, “Johnny Perna’s Hot Dog Truck: Staten Island, New York,” photograph, 2003 (showing artwork by Jimbo).
10Image 18, Jonathan Hyman, “Memorial Postcards: Manhattan, New York,” photograph, 2003; image 19, Jonathan Hyman, “9th Street Memorial for wtc Towers: Manhattan, New York,” photograph, 2005 (showing mural by J. Fishler).
12A famous, indelible image from the Oklahoma City bombing is of a fireman rushing the lifeless body of one-year-old Baylee Almon toward an ambulance.
13A firehouse door in Staten Island depicts the eagle carrying away the souls of fallen fire fighters in the form of their helmets. See Carolyn Marvin and Jonathan Hyman, “Rituals of the Wall: The Murals of 9/11,” manuscript in preparation (in Jonathan Hyman’s possession); and image 21, Jonathan Hyman, “Eagle on Firehouse Door: Staten Island, New York,” photograph, 2003 (showing mural by unknown artist).
14Ira Dye, “The Tattoos of Early American Seafarers, 1796–1818,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 133 (Dec. 1989), 520–54; Simon P. Newman, “Reading the Bodies of Early American Seafarers,” William and Mary Quarterly, 55 (Jan. 1998), 59–82.
15Image 22, Jonathan Hyman, “Memory of Your Smile: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” photograph, 2006 (showing mural by Samuel Byrd); image 23, Jonathan Hyman, “Angel’s Circle: Staten Island, New York,” photograph, 2003; image 24, Jonathan Hyman, “Angel’s Circle Detail: Staten Island, New York” photograph, 2005; image 25, Jonathan Hyman, “Firefighter Peter Bielfeld Memorial: Bronx, New York,” photograph, 2002 (showing mural by Israel); image 26, Jonathan Hyman, “Roland, Mural Detail: Brooklyn, New York,” photograph, 2006 (showing mural by Meres and Topaz); image 27, Jonathan Hyman, “Paula Morales Missing Flyer: Manhattan, New York,” photograph, 2002; image 28, Jonathan Hyman, “Port Authority P.O. Memorial Mask: Bethel, New York,” photograph, 2004 (showing mask by “Liberty” Gorgi Dukov).
16Image 29, Jonathan Hyman, “Diana’s Back: Brooklyn, New York,” photograph, 2006 (showing tattoo by Carrie- Anne Cross); image 30, Jonathan Hyman, “I Survived: West Nyack, New York,” photograph, 2006 (showing tattoo by Joel Johnson); image 31, Jonathan Hyman, “Towers on Brocha at Ground Zero: Manhattan, New York,” photograph, 2006 (showing tattoo by unknow artist).
17Image 32, Jonathan Hyman, “Snow Plow: LaPorte, Indiana,” photograph, 2005 (showing artwork by Jerry Elkins and Derick Jackson); image 33, Jonathan Hyman, “Tombstone with Towers: Grave of Cindy Anne Deuel, Patterson, New Jersey,” photograph, 2004 (showing artwork by Tony Sgobba); image 34, Jonathan Hyman, “Tinton Falls Towers: Tinton Falls, New Jersey,” photograph, 2006 (showing sculpture by Jared Stevens).