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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

'This is Huge...'

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

I always will remember, with the poignancy of recalled yet irretrievable childhood, how beautiful the day dawned.

Barely a week or so back from Maine, where the nights had begun to chill, we enjoyed the bright September morning in Washington even if Judy had to be downtown for dental work and I had to be indoors at a museum to review a photography show.

After dropping Judy off and, having a half hour to spare, I went to the Starbucks near the White House before heading to the press preview at the Corcoran Gallery. Casually sipping a latte, I heard the first sirens. I dismissed them as the familiar harbingers of the President or a diplomat moving importantly to and fro in the federal city. Their persistence, however, pricked something in my reporter's subconscious and I went from envisioning high security motor movement to remembering planned protests against the World Bank and IMF that were soon to take place.

As I emerged from the coffee shop, the sight of police cars careening down the street as I headed toward the museum made me uneasy. Uneasier still when a Corcoran guard told me the building was being evacuated and closed.

"Bomb scare," she said.

"World Bank protestors," I thought wishfully, "making mischief."

It was not until I ran into a video crew from New York, there to cover the same exhibition as I and forced to leave the museum, that I learned what was happening. The videographer had a portable radio to his ear.

One of the World Trade Center towers had just collapsed, he told me. It had been hit by an airplane. That the second tower also had been hit by a plane told us it was no accident.

"This is huge," the videographer said.

When a member of congress rises to speak on a point of personal privilege the rules say that he or she can be heard even if the subject is not germane to the current debate. In effect, that is what I am doing here, on this first anniversary of the worst terrorist attacks in our nation's history. Little, if anything, that follows deals with photography, save for the views and insights of a photographer and friend who is wise beyond his years and who has forced me to confront some unpleasant truths about what have come to be called The Events Leading Up to September 11th.

To be sure, the first part of this story–the "what" the "who" the "when" and the "where"– have been reported to death. The "how" of the attacks remains unclear to this day.

But it's the "why" that plagues and bedevils us, especially if we persist in the notion (fiction?) that a band of criminally insane religious thugs, acting out of sheer fanatical hatred, struck a body blow against a United States that sought only to foster peace and understanding between enemies.

It's not that this view is wrong, only that it is one-sided and simplistic. Leaving to others far better qualified any analysis of the vagaries of the Middle East, I offer only an ex-reporter and political correspondent's take on how the country has changed, not always for the better, over the past several decades and how those changes have created resentments and hatreds around the world that we have been clueless to fathom, much less to neutralize.

I am joined in this by a British-born photographer and naturalized American who, in the weeks after the September 11th catastrophe, shared his thoughts about the changes he has witnessed in his adoptive country. Neil Selkirk, who now works in New York, is one of the most sought-after location shooters in the business. He is, to my mind, the finest location portraitist around. He was my teacher over and over again at the Maine Photographic Workshops nearly 20 years ago, where I came to value not only his talent but his friendship and his humanity.

Neil and his wife Susan live in lower Manhattan. In the hours after the first attacks, I did what so many of us did, who had friends in the city: I contacted all the friends and colleagues I could, asking how they were doing, trying to mine human contact on a day when so much of that contact was lost forever to so many. Neil shared his thoughts in two remarkable e-mails, the first, within days of the attacks, the second two weeks later. I have included what amounts to his battlefield reporting elsewhere on this website. His later thoughts are more notes of a non-native son. They put into strong relief what for me only had been a vague unease that we had become a miserly, overfed giant on the world stage, suffused with self-interest and scornful of cultures alien from our own.

While it pained and angered me to read Susan Sontag's polemic in the New Yorker, saying in effect that we deserved what happened, I could not in truth disagree that we should have seen it coming.

"It seems unreal to me now," Neil Selkirk observed, "that, as a child in England, I was fully aware of the name of J.William Fulbright, the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I knew him as a man of wisdom and immense power, who spread America's beneficence across the globe through the largesse that was his to [dispense]. I knew then that some aspect of this was related to countering the spread of communism, but that did not bring into question, in my mind at least, that what I was seeing was vast generosity..."

The notion of a beneficent Uncle Sam might have been dismissed by our foes as dollar diplomacy, but dollars there were, millions of them, helping to rebuild a postwar world and asking precious little in return. In the 60s, JFK's greatest legacy might have been the Peace Corps and the notion that we, as the most prosperous, the most successful nation in history had an obligation to help those less fortunate than we. This was no anomaly, either–witness World War 2 Lend-Lease and later the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, as well as the heroic effort to bring democracy and prosperity–not subjugation–to a beaten Japan.

We were good at giving it away. And, cynics and political foes aside, we were respected–even loved–in much of the world for doing this.

By the 1980s and the fall of the Soviet Union, the superpower competition ended and with it, so it seemed, America's bounty, even as much of our population super-sized itself, literally and figuratively, into the well-fed middle class. ["And in global terms," Neil noted, "that means rich."] Such insulated smugness, such mall-centered, vacuous, trend-of-the-moment shallowness, inevitably created the self-righteous backlash of the young. [World Bank and IMF protestors chanting "live simply so that others may simply live".] But their message, though strident and simplistic, had an indigestible kernel of truth.

"I noticed that US aid seemed to be more and more often distributed in the form of loans rather than outright gifts or medical, educational, or agricultural programs," Selkirk wrote. "I then watched the loans turn bad and the recipients turn in our minds into deadbeats...."

"Just as my childhood pride was crushed as I had watched in dismay as the British economy was overtaken by the other European countries, so I died a little each time I saw my adopted country slide incrementally towards the bottom of the list of foreign aid givers. It seemed that we had given up spreading our unique brand of joy and knowledge. The chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were no longer world leaders in their own right. In fact, they became the opposite, minor figures, symbols of our national regression."

Parse the transition from Bill Fulbright to Jesse Helms and you see what Neil is talking about.

Of course we can't buy our way to security. Rabid dogs like bin Laden and Hussein need to be treated like the dangerous vermin they are. They have ratcheted up the rules of engagement to levels that threaten the very security of the world. They must be neutralized.

But we cannot do this alone and expect a secure future. As the Times' Tom Friedman has said so often, the hope for the world, especially relating to the part of the world that reviles us, lies in slowly, methodically, repeatedly engaging the next generation and showing that generation that ours is a human face too.

Photographers of good will already are helping to achieve this goal. In pictures that document suffering and, God willing every so often, happiness on both sides of a terrible divide, photojournalists and documentarians perform a critical function of short-circuiting the political spiral of hate and reminding us that our foes bleed just as we do. And laugh as we do, too. I prefer to believe, despite what I concede to be overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that with enough engagement, enough respect for all sides, and perhaps with enough money, there will not be a new generation of children being sent out into the streets by their parents to die a martyr's death.

And that future September 11ths can be as beautiful as the one we almost had a year ago.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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