a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

“Portraits of Grief” and more, noticed abroad

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 22nd, 2001

I found this article, “Nullpunkt, Zentrum der Welt,” (“Ground zero, center of the world”) in Die Zeit, a German newsweekly. Peter Kümmel writes:

In the days after the attack, the New York Times began a series that is still running: it’s called “Portraits of Grief” and presents on one, sometimes two pages, photos and short portraits of the WTC victims, at least 12 each day. We see everyone who fell there, months after their death. We learn from what kinds of lives they were stolen, what they owned and what they were proud of. We get to know their schedules, as if all these lives would resume sometime. Whole suburbs and home lifes are created in the mind’s eye of the reader (one hears that the series has a tremendous readership). It’s a sociogram of the disappeared, a resurrection project in 30 dry lines per item, a catalog of the dead, with the subliminal message that we could be among them. And it is probably the greatest of all attempts to give this city transparency. New York is addicted to pictures, as survivors are known to be. “If a house burns, many people will first save their family photo album,” Life Magazine once wrote, and that is exactly what has been happening for months: the city is producing and rescuing its family photo album. […]

On December 10 the New Yorker cover had a map of the five New York boroughs. But Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island had disappeared along with all their streets, railways, and bridges. Instead there was a snarl of crypto-exotic clan and country names. …Fuhgeddabouditstan (approximate German translation: Forget-it-Land) … Trumpistan … Lowrentistan … Psychobabylon. It was as if the city had taken off its mask of concrete and asphalt and shown its true, wrinkled face: New York as a prehistoric landscape, as a chaos of tribes, as a world of a hundred deserts and steppes. The cover is the talk of the town. It flatters New Yorkers’ pride to be set out in a wilderness and to be its equal. And Osama picked here of all places to start a war with the West, for crying out loud? […]

Kümmel did a good thing here: there’s more, and he’s not uncritical, but he doesn’t look for cheap shots either. This was written by a friend who cares, not someone who seems to be on no more than a shopping trip. I was in tears halfway through that first paragraph. We are not alone over there, not by any means. I have correspondence from my own relatives to prove that, too.

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