TOPICS > Arts

N.Y. Photographer Captures 9/11 Tributes in Unexpected Places

September 15, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
New York-based photographer Jonathan Hyman knew that the 9/11 attacks would alter the lives of Americans everywhere and it was his intention to capture the nation's vernacular response.
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, a story produced by our online team for our website as part of our 9/11 anniversary coverage.

We think it’s worth sharing with our broadcast audience.

JONATHAN HYMAN, photographer: My name is Jonathan Hyman. I am a documentary photographer.

I have spent the last 10 years, five years full-time, since — starting with the day of the attacks, documenting the vernacular response that people made through artwork in response to the September 11th attacks.

It was this kind of rare intersection that Americans in the past haven’t had much practice at. We haven’t been subject to wars very often on our own territory or attacks on our own territory. And I realized that there was this very interesting intersection between people who wanted to express their private emotions, but do it publicly.

And so once I was realized what I was going to do, I made a conscious choice early on to not come into New York right away. And I had it in my already from watching the news and speaking to people that everybody with a camera was at ground zero.

So, I decided that what I would do was focus on what was happening 52, 200 miles outside of New York. I was seeing all kinds of very interesting things appearing on the side of the road and in public places right where I lived in Sullivan County, N.Y.

It was very important for me to show a broad range of expression and sentiment. There’s a picture that has a very aggressive missile in the shape of — in the shape of — it’s an American flag in the shape of a missile flying into Osama bin Laden’s head. He’s got horns. He’s clearly being depicted as the devil.

So there’s everything from that kind of very aggressive, angry sentiment to other things that are more about healing, love and peace. And for me, my goal was to simply say, this is what I saw. Here it is.

There are many different ways in which I came to take a picture. Sometimes, I would pick an area and drive around if I suspected that that area would have murals or people with tattoos. I would go to fire stations, police stations, ambulance buildings, American Legion halls, places where people will have been — would be likely to have either known about some kind of 9/11 response in public or they might know someone who did.

And so these kind of informal conversations that I had led me to objects that I would have never found. The subject of this tattoo is a deeply private person. I was able to convince him that my intentions were pretty good. And, you know, we made an agreement, by the way — no pictures of his face. He didn’t want his picture taken from the front.

And I honored that. And, in the end, he honored me back, and we ended up having a very good relationship. And, in fact, this picture on the five-year anniversary went all over the world.

Many people in this country looked at the material in my collection, the photographs in my collection, and people saw red, white and blue, and tended to think that either my collection represented some kind of nationalistic expression, or other people thought that I was a great patriot because there was so much red, white and blue, when, in fact, it’s my contention that many of the people who made this vernacular artwork that I have documented used what was available to them in their popular culture.

These are people who, for the most part, with the exception of some of the muralists — not all the muralists — heretofore have not had a self-image as someone who can express themselves in public, they have never really made art, and they don’t believe that they are artists or could ever be an artist. So they drew upon the things that they know.

That’s what made this so interesting. That public expression of private, personal emotion is really probably the most profound and distinguished element of what I think I saw.

RAY SUAREZ: Jonathan Hyman’s photographs are on exhibit at the Sylvia Wald and Po Kim Gallery in Lower Manhattan until October 8.