The beauty of selective memory

Accompanying the September 11 attacks was an unprecedented demand for visual information that the media has more than accommodated. Whether it was the crippling demand for online information that morning, or the current mass media spoon-feeding of security, war and anthrax, it is apparent the attacks have caused a craving for images previously unheard of. The result: we continue to experience this tragedy in a visual way our society has never experienced before.

Images of death and loss parade in front of us, and we remember them not only in words or in stories, but in personally chosen pictures. They serve a purpose: to make us never forget that day, to make us remember it in our own individual ways.

A few dozen years ago, this would have not been possible given the lack of control individuals had over what they viewed. Television, the only medium capable of delivering images en masse, fed viewers with little choice or decision on their part. Today, we browse through hypertext-linked documents, wandering through Web sites others create. In effect, the Web is a giant art gallery whose rooms you can travel between instantly, with each room housing different images of suffering, destruction and hope.

For those who now travel to New York, seeing ground zero is a heavier, but necessary, part of the tour. Tourists and mourners alike line up for photographs of blue sky–pictures they take to their friends and family to show where the towers once stood. Not too far from the World Trade Center is another store where thousands of images are being collected, scanned and sold to raise money for a special Children’s Aid Society fund. The online exhibit, which can be viewed at, shows thousands of images captured before, during and after the towers collapsed. The site is set up so you can click any particular thumbnail that catches your attention. It is just one means of seeking a personalized experience of September 11.

One particularly striking aerial photograph shows the towers piercing a plane of clouds on an overcast day–the only buildings in New York tall enough to break through the flat cloudy sea. From below, the towers would have extended through the ceiling of an indoor room. From above, it is apparent they transcend the urbanization below.

The exhibit survives on the donation of thousands of images that are in turn sold for $25 per print. People crave the images, visual representations of the attacks from hundreds of different perspectives.

The exhibit isn’t like the low quality online Gamma Press video that showed the first plane crashing into the north tower. Professional and amateur images are displayed side by side, and convey much more emotion than any disembodied video ever could.

As more and more images of September 11 accumulate, we risk becoming desensitized to everything. However, this is not likely to happen this time around, as we are choosing the images we want through a medium that has demonstrated its fluidity more than ever since the attacks. Memories are no longer just mass-produced TV reels. They are exercises of solitary choices. They are what we want to see.


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