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Of Weddings and War

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Just four days after the rain of terror we shot a wedding at Fort McNair in Southwest Washington. As you might guess, there had been some question whether the wedding would happen at all: whether security at this high-profile Army base in the nation's capital would be so tight that social events would be scrubbed or postponed.

But life has a way, thank heaven, of clawing its way back to normal. The event came off, but not without the kind of changes we all may have to accept in our still-fragile future.

The main entrance to the base was sealed off. All traffic was detoured to a side entrance in which roadblocks formed a serpentine maze for any vehicle, arriving or departing. Every incoming car or truck was searched thoroughly by armed soldiers: bags and parcels, the undersides of vehicles for weapons or bombs. Every ID checked. The departing sun turned the sky golden as polite young men with machine guns bade Judy and me a good evening and waved us through.

That afternoon, as we packed the car with our equipment, I had removed our tripods from their carrying cases, lest they look like shoulder-borne weapons. In some 600 weddings we have shot over nearly two decades, this was the first in which I wore my congressional press credential throughout.

During the ceremony there was a moment of silence for the victims of Tuesday's horror, and the officiants – a judge and a nun – were eloquent in their remembrance of the dead. The wedding came off fine and the two kids who got married said just the right thing when I asked them later if they had been disappointed about the potential disruption of their day.

Who cared, they said, in light of all that has happened. They could get married anytime. The world has turned upside down and the change will be measured in teaspoons as well as in tonnage. Among the little things (by comparison, anyway) will be the hassles of travel, especially in the air. It has never been a picnic for gear-laden, professional photographers to move from one place to another. Now, it will only grow worse. "I'm telling all my clients that we're just going to have to rent strobes wherever we travel," location shooter Cameron Davidson said last week. A broadcast e-mail from one photojournalist to his colleagues several days ago warned that carry-on restrictions, in the near-term anyway, could be as restrictive as one laptop computer and small handbag per passenger. What can't be helped must be endured, it has been said, and anyone complaining too loudly about this might look once more at the awful images from New York and D.C. and give thanks for being alive to bitch.

At the wedding I learned something I probably already knew about the security of routine. But I was surprised anyway that, in the humdrum of doing the post-ceremony portraits, my least favorite part of any wedding, I actually was enjoying myself. "OK, that looks great," I said as Judy arranged this group or that. "I'm gonna take three of these, to make sure everybody's eyes are open. OK...one, two three (click). And again, one, to three (click). One more...one, two, three (click) Terrific! Next..."

You deal as best you can, not so much because of the annoyances and hassles, but because of the anguish and uncertainty. On that golden evening overlooking the water at Fort McNair I was grateful to be busy. When you get right to it, I was grateful to be alive. Just like you.

"My sister in Manhattan, whom I was visiting," our friend Pat e-mailed, "works ten blocks from the WTC and saw the whole thing from her office window, before she evacuated and walked the 50 blocks home, still shaken. She has not returned to work yet."

Pat, who owned a graphic design firm in Washington before moving to the Caribbean with her husband, Mike, had flown out of JFK the morning of Sept. 11, to head back to what she calls their "little island paradise." The plane took off around 8:15 and made a picturesque pass over Manhattan before heading out to sea. "We had no idea what was happening," Pat said, and there was no announcement from the cockpit, doubtless to avoid panic – just a stern announcement at one point for everyone to fasten seatbelts and stay put until the plane was on the ground. St. Thomas was swarming with security. Pat's had been the only plane allowed to land after the tragedy. In fact, she was lucky to get home because they were supposed to have been diverted to San Juan – presumably to get them the hell out of the air ASAP – but the airport there already was stacked up. "Happy to be back," Pat said, "but still stunned."

She reported, too, that Mike, who is recovering from cancer surgery, "had his six month checkup...and everything is clear. So we have our little victories in our lives that we cling to in this fragile world..." Little victories like watching two young people get married four days after tragedy. On the point at Fort McNair, as a Coast Guard patrol boat was prominent a few hundred yards in the distance and as helicopters flew overhead, guests squinted in the lowering sunlight as Sasha Foster and Scott Walsh pledged their love to each other, and as Judy and I recorded it all, one in color, one in black and white.

It is appropriate, said D.C. Superior Court Judge Russell Canan, "that we commemorate this special day of laughter and joy amidst our sorrow. For it is the love, compassion and caring of people as embraced by Sasha and Scott that gives life its true meaning.

"Let us rejoice and celebrate this wedding of peace and harmony," the judge said. And so we did.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

©Frank Van Riper
Amid roadblocks and armed guards, soldier inspects our photography equipment at gate to Washington's Ft. McNair. With wedding four days after the terrorist attack, all guests were screened, and ceremony paused to remember the dead.

©Frank Van Riper
Scott Walsh (l.) and Sasha Foster had the right answer when asked if they were upset over the possibile disruption of their wedding. Who cares, in light of what has happened, they said. We could get married anytime.

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