A pilgrimage is a journey made by individuals to either a special place that has moral significance or a holy place. I think of the photo documentation of scared sites by Linda Connor in her photobook Odyssey, with its emphasis on the sacred sites, for which the Odyssey was a destination to, as well as she found a balance and inclusion within those sites by those who are participating. Thus a pilgrimage is made by some-one to some-place for a specific reason.
Kevin Bubriski found himself compelled to take a similar journey from Vermont to New York City to witness the aftermath and destruction immediately following the 9/11 (2001) attack on the twin towers. While there, he was attracted by the reactions of those who like him came to witness what had occurred at this place. For Bubriski, it was the reactions of others on a similar pilgrimage that told his story about the emotional impact of this specific event has on our collective psyche. He found himself drawn to their experiences and reactions, subsequently retuning on multiple trips to document these intense, personal and outward expressions.
Over time, we have come to read the facial and physical contours of those around us to comprehend non-verbal messages. Early in our evolution, this was necessary for our survival. We still practice reading faces for clues, now for our personal social and economic stability. Thus, reading the faces and expressions captured by Bubriski, in his book Pilgrimage, Looking at Ground Zero, published in 2002 by powerHouse Books, there is a stong sense that something is wrong. From their features, we can sense that something has occurred and it does not appear to be good. These are different from the joyful and expectant faces of the Obama supports that Lauren Burke photographed during his election campaign.
As we continue to page through the book, studying and accumulating these collective portraits in our memory, we start to assimilate that something very terrible has occurred. I understand that Bubriski does not need to show us what is being looked at, as the images of the destruction at Ground Zero have become seared in our minds.
For those who do not live in NYC or had not been to the Twin Towers prior to this attack, it is difficult to comprehend the enormous size of this site. From my own experience of visiting Ground Zero some years later after much of the structural damage had been removed, I found the size and breath of the physical location difficult to comprehend. To provide some perspective, each floor of the twin towers was the size of an American football field. Most photographers who came to Ground Zero shortly after the event have concentrated on the smoking, tangled & twisted debris. Bubriski is capturing the expressions of those who came, like him, to try to understand and make sense of what has happened.
We can sense in his photographs that these people are experiencing a traumatic event, even though we do not see the extent of the catastrophe. We have the surface contours of their features and we attempt to read into them the feelings that they are visibly expressing. There is the blank and stark look in their eyes, or perhaps the manner that they close of their eyes and hold their head aloft. Perhaps what stands before them is too great to bear witness to and they need to bury their faces and avert their eyes away. The pain and suffering appears to be too great.
Bubriski is not photographing large masses of on-lookers, but instead selects individuals, pairs and at the most, small groups. This body of work has an intimacy, as we can see individuals who are visibly and outwardly expressing their pain, disbelief, sorrow and sadness. He captures the details of the features on their faces, how they hold their hands, how they are interacting with each other. These are not the expressions of those who actually experienced at events when this occurred, but of those who came to try to come to terms, document, and experience second hand, to bear witness to these events. There is an extensive range of feeling captured, including outrage, amazement, horror, incredulousness, disbelief, regret, shock, sorrow, sadness, and what appears to be a reluctance to accept what it is they are viewing.
Bubriski appears to be invisible, as he does not have direct eye contact with his subject. Something far greater and more important seems to capture and be mesmerizing the bystanders and viewers. The camera’s perspective is low, probably using his Hasselblad with the simple viewfinder at chest height. The camera is not held at eye level, not necessarily concealed, but subtle and not obvious and thus not interfering with the other’s experience. The resulting effect is to create towering individuals, perhaps representing these pilgrims as the new towers of NYC, who are standing tall and not humbled by the catastrophic events.
Unlike Burkes photographs of expressions of elation photographed in color, the somber brown tinted monotone photographs of Bubriski seem to further emphasize the sadness of the moment. The brown monotone photographs also simulate the look and feel of ash strewn air, as indicated by many of his subjects who are holding masks before their faces.
Unlike the earlier attack on the U.S. at Pearl Harbor in the early 1940’s, in which the events played out only later in the newspaper photographs and news reels, this event was occurring live in our living rooms. Bubriski has indirectly photographed many of us, mirroring our own feelings as we found ourselves reacting to this emotionally tragedy continuously unfolded before us. Likewise, Bubriski seems to find a strong connection within this emotional context, thus the raw feelings we view being expressed are indirectly his own.
by Douglas Stockdale