In the days following the September 11th attacks, people’s collective mourning took countless forms around the world. In New York City, not 20 blocks north of the World Trade Center disaster, a perhaps unprecedented sort of collective mourning began to take shape when, on September 12, artist and writer Michael Shulan (who would later serve as creative director of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum) hung an old picture of the Twin Towers in the window of an empty storefront at 116 Prince Street.
Soon after, a friend, photographer Gilles Peress, called to see how he was doing. “I replied that I was in the shop staring at a group of people staring at a photograph,” Shulan later wrote, “and was thinking about putting up some more. ‘Do it,’ he said simply.”
Over the next few days, Shulan and Peress recruited friends Alice Rose George, a curator and editor, and Charles Traub, photographer and chair of MFA Photography, Video and Related Media, and the group put out a public call for any images taken on 9/11. Soon, people began to drop by with their photos. Volunteers—many of them SVA students and staff—worked to scan, print and hang the pictures in the space. They called the show “here is new york” (“hiny”), after writer E.B. White’s post–World War II love letter to the city, setting it in all lowercase to fit with the subtitle: “a democracy of photographs.”
The doors opened on September 25, and it quickly became, Traub says, “a place for anybody and everybody to make a statement, a place where they could metaphorically put their rock on the grave.” By year’s end, the project had collected more than 4,000 images and raised over $500,000 for Children’s Aid’s WTC Fund. The “here is new york” Collection, part of the SVA Archives, preserves a subset of the photographs, along with correspondence and other materials.
“It was a wonderful moment,” Traub says, “but a lost one. The number of soldiers and civilians that were killed in the wars we’ve waged in the name of 9/11 was also an unnecessary tragedy. In the overreaction to what was done to the U.S., the nations forgot what our own sorrow meant for humanity.”
Traub sees a parallel between the rancor of post–9/11 politics and the nation’s faltering response to COVID. “Much of this loss was also avoidable,” he says, “if we hadn’t been so divided, undisciplined and uncaring about the greater good.” Twenty years later, we are once again struggling to find outlets for communal grieving.
Lawrence Giffin is the assistant archivist at the School of Visual Arts. A version of this article will appear in the fall/winter 2021 Visual Arts Journal.