A Holga view of 9/11

August 19, 2011

By Shannon Stapleton

The 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center has been causing me some anxiety for some time now.

We were told that magazines, newspapers and all other outlets for pictures regarding the 9/11 attacks would need to be filed and completed by mid-summer for deadlines. For a long time I didn’t cherish the thought of covering another anniversary let alone trying to find new ways to illustrate something that for some time I have been trying to avoid. Having been there first hand on that dark day in history I truly dislike having to go down there at all and usually do my best to avoid World Trade Center site area.

It brings back bad memories and I am not a fan of how it has become such a tourist stop when they visit New York. I truly understand the significance of the day and why people would want to come but looking up at the sky or at a fence covering a big hole in the ground is something I will never understand. As jaded as that may sound I will say that once all the politics, union negotiations and property disputes were settled, they have, and continue with time running out, made significant progress for the Ground Zero memorial. Ten years to figure that out seems to me like a long time but who am I.

Trying to stay away from the actual site as much as possible, I embarked on a project of murals that honored the victims of 9/11 which through a lot of research I found numerous ones throughout the boroughs of New York and it inspired me to dig a little deeper to come up with other ways to mark the anniversary visually. That was helped by our Manchester, England, based photographer Phil Noble around 3 weeks ago when he stopped by the New York offices after traveling with the English royalty on their trip to Canada and the United States. Phil spent three days in New York using a Holga Lens mount on his Canon 5D shot in various spots throughout New York.

For those of you not familiar with a Holga lens, it is a $25 -30 plastic lens that shoots pictures at about f11 to 16 but is shot through a type of pinhole that causes only the center of the frame to be sharp and a loss of clarity towards the corners and sides of an image. His pictures were really nice. So with the days leading up to the anniversary getting closer I was in the office last week with Gary Hershorn, News Picture Editor for North America, and we decided that the appetite for different kinds of images illustrating the World Trade Center site and 9/11 was there and that I would go out and do my best to use this Holga lens mount for a project. Having never used one before I called our staff photographer in San Francisco Bob Galbraith for some pointers. Bob has used it extensively in his travel photography and really stoked my interest in making this project work.

So, last week I went down to ground zero early in the morning and worked all day around the site as well as going to some memorial sites in New Jersey. I wanted to make a visually appealing picture package that not only looked different because of the Holga affect but maintained quality content that was relevant and necessary to not to make it a visual cliche. Shooting with it was really tough. You had to pretty much guess on your focus and compensate your exposure for an aperture of f16 or greater. But looking at the site through a different medium opened my eyes up again to the World Trade Center site and other areas where people still yearn to pay their respects to the victims of the attacks.

I think for me the images of the people, especially the ones of the family smiling, juxtaposes well with the ones of the women looking through the viewing window of the World Financial Center. One family is smiling in the same location where 2,753 people died while others are in what looks like deep thought or even prayer of some sort.

Not to say that the family smiling was being disrespectful or wrong, because I have no idea what they were smiling about, but for me it said a lot about what the area around the site has become. The image of the construction worker with his hands clasped looking up at the site during his lunch break really caught my attention. I was walking around, looked to my left and there he was for at least a few minutes looking up at the site in that position. After figuring my exposure and guessing my focus I got two frames off.

While those images maintained moments essential in any good photograph I feel the images shot around the various memorials were really enhanced by the Holga affect in ways that made them stand out from shooting with a normal fixed lens that most of us are accustomed to. While content and proper composition is still necessary, the Holga lens enables the frame to maintain a unique visual quality.

One comment

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I am convinced by the idea of illustrating 9/11 differently, but not so much by the Holga lens, seeing the results. It’s a trick, and I think it just doesn’t work. Especially since I like so much Shannon’s usual photographs!

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