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September 11 Photo Exhibition Staggers Chicago - 2002-02-04

Hundreds of millions of people throughout the world have seen pictures and videotaped images of the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington. Thousands of photographs of the attacks, the aftermath, and the cleanup have become part of an impromptu exhibit in New York. Now, part of the exhibit has been taken on the road.

New York City firefighter Jeffrey Straub works about five blocks from the World Trade Center site. He says on the morning of September 11, he and his colleagues were among the first to respond after hijacked jetliners slammed into the Center's twin towers.

"It was surreal. When I was walking down toward the Trade Center for the first time, I thought I was dreaming. I thought, 'This can not be real.' Steven Spielberg could not make something up like this," he said.

Several hundred police officers and firefighters were among those killed by the impact of the planes and eventual collapse of the towers. What those on the scene and those throughout New York saw that day, and have seen since, is part of a photographic exhibit titled, "Here is New York: a democracy of photographs."

Writer and exhibit organizer Michael Shulan owns a building about 20 blocks from the Trade Center site. He says one small act triggered what became a flood of photographs.

"I had an old picture of the World Trade Center, which I had bought at a flea market. The day after September 11th, I taped it up in the window and a crowd of people collected to look at the picture. It was that crowd of people looking at the picture which gave us the idea to put up more," he said.

He and three colleagues invited New Yorkers to submit their September 11th related photographs to be part of the exhibit. What began with a single photo in a storefront window has grown to more than 4,000 images.

We knew that the pictures were powerful and the response would be powerful. Obviously, we were not prepared for this. But it makes sense. People are looking for access to information, which is not edited. People have always taken pictures.

Photographer Charles Traub, who chairs the graduate photography program at New York's School for the Visual Arts, is another organizer of the exhibit. He says more than 300 volunteers have helped process the photographs. Each image is scanned into a computer and reproduced on a sheet of heavy paper.

"We got volunteers coming in from everywhere: School of Visual Arts, the streets, and it just grew. It just grew as an organic, community response. Photographers from all over the world who were in New York gave us pictures, schoolkids, everybody," he said.

The photographers are not identified on the prints. In Chicago, each picture hangs from one of the many long wires strung along walls or along the ceiling of a downtown gallery.

Some photographs show the Trade Center towers before the attack. In one photo taken on September 11, a child watches television news coverage of the event. Another photo shows a woman watching the burning buildings from her apartment window while talking on the phone. There are countless pictures of rescue workers.

Chicago Fire Commissioner James Joyce calls the exhibit, "moving."

"This is pictures of anything and nothing. Everyone has to look to see what they see in the pictures. You see the dazed look on the firemen's faces and it makes you wonder what they are thinking about," he said.

In one photograph, exhausted New York City firefighter Jeffrey Straub rests against a burned-out car. He says he does not know what he was thinking at the time.

"If a team of psychiatrists were to try to analyze me that day, they would need a team of psychiatrists for themselves after they got done with me," he said.

More than 300,000 people have seen the display in New York City. Thousands more are expected to see the 1,500 photos in the Chicago exhibit during its two-month run.

Exhibit co-creator Charles Traub says even though he has seen many of the images many times, they still touch him.

"My mouth fell open. This space is different than New York. There are 500 more images here and there are images repositioned, and new relationships between them, which is what this is all about. It is just incomprehensible and yet one feels connected to it over and over again and that is what I think the public wants," he said.

He says even people who were no where near New York on September 11 seem to want a better understanding of what happened that day.

"They do no want to forget this event. They want to use it to be cognizant of tragedy, of what terrorism and what terrible radical ideologies can do to hurt people," Charles Traub said.

Exhibit organizers plan to show some of the photographs in Berlin, Germany, as well as other U.S. cities.