Sunday, October 11, 2009

'Yay, it's a gaping hole in the ground where thousands of innocents died!'

Why exactly do tourists pose for smiley tourist-photos in front of the construction site that is Ground Zero? This is not an occasional occurrence, but enough of a thing that walking to campus from Battery Park City requires dodging a horde of those doing so. I don't hold it against tourists that they, you know, tour, nor do I see anything wrong with shopping for discount designer goods at Century 21, on account of its unfortunate location just across the street from where it happened (and I take it shopping, not 9/11-commemoration, is the draw for some, particularly the Europeans). I do ask, of those ostensibly there to visit Ground Zero, who (if their interest in flag-adorned items is any indication) are visiting as patriots and not as al-Qaeda-sympathizers, why so cheery, given the location and the reason for its significance? Do tourists also pose grinning in front of former concentration-camp sites in Europe? Is this a sort of 'I was there' impulse that can't be turned off, along with a compulsion to smile in pictures? Any ideas?

13 comments:

Matt said...

Some people can't take photos while on vacation (or any time, perhaps) w/o someone in them. My parents are like this, for example. I, on the other hand, know what I look like, and I'll look just the same standing in front of an old building or whatever. I'd rather have the picture of something I've not seen before, but others seem to find this odd. Then, of those who must have a person in the photo, lots of them (due to training, I'd guess) can't help but smile if they are having their pictures taken. (My parents grinning away in front of the very moving Defenders of Leningrad monument is one of my least favorite personal examples.) So it's dumb habit and training, mostly, but still dumb, I completely agree.

Phoebe said...

See, I don't necessarily object to the people-and-smiling aspect of this - yes, it's clichéd and bourgeois and whatever other French term to describe people being ordinary one can attribute to this - but must people strive for originality in their tourist photos? Don't tourist photos that strive for originality ('the local child'; 'the close-up of market produce') often come across as contrived and all the more ridiculous? Not that photographing a building without a person also in the photo is ridiculous - I can think of good arguments for and against including people in these shots. My point is that tourists will be tourists.

My objection is really just to the fact that something horrible happened at this spot quite recently, and this fact is ostensibly what's bringing this particular set of tourists to this particular spot, and yet this does not diminish the upbeat nature of the visit. They are coming as Americans to the site of the death of those murdered - recently! - as Americans. I'm not saying they should sob every time they enter the Financial District - living there, I certainly don't do so every time I leave the apartment - but the strike-a-pose with a Ground-Zero background should, I think, be stopped.

Petey said...

"I'm not saying they should sob every time they enter the Financial District - living there, I certainly don't do so every time I leave the apartment - but the strike-a-pose with a Ground-Zero background should, I think, be stopped."

Dude. It's not about leaving the apartment. You live in a complex built upon the sacred dirt excavated from the sacred ground zero holy site. If you ever crack a smile in your own apartment, you are disrespecting Jesus and America.

"My objection is really just to the fact that something horrible happened at this spot quite recently"

Freedom Tower hasn't even been built yet. I think we all agree that it looks lousy from the drawings, but I think we should wait to see the actual building before pronouncing it "horrible".

Phoebe said...

This comment could maybe be clever if it made sense. First off, the downtown apt buildings tend to predate 9/11. And, the timing's off for the second half of the comment because, as you note, the tower's hardly even gotten started.

PG said...

Do tourists also pose grinning in front of former concentration-camp sites in Europe? Is this a sort of 'I was there' impulse that can't be turned off, along with a compulsion to smile in pictures?

My mother is like Mike's parents, so...

Yes.
Yes.

And it's particularly odd because it's something she only picked up in America. In all the photos I have of her before she immigrated, she looks as grim as everyone else. I've noticed that Americans also rarely smiled in pictures in the early days of photography. There seems to be a correlation between how rare/expensive photos are and how serious one feels one ought to look in them.

Petey said...

"This comment could maybe be clever if it made sense."

Look up the history of Battery Park City. The site used to be part of the Hudson River before holy dirt and holy rocks from the excavation of the sacred ground zero site were used to landfill the river.

"the timing's off for the second half of the comment because, as you note, the tower's hardly even gotten started."

Apologies for misunderstanding your reference.

I think we can all agree that the destruction of Radio Row was "horrible", but it happened over 40 years ago. Can't we say the statute of limitations on mourning the destruction are up?

If tourists from Kansas want to smile and mug for the camera on the site where Radio Row was murdered, I think we ought to be OK with their disrespect. Enough time has passed.

Phoebe said...

PG,

The grinning is certainly culture-specific. What's strange is that it can't be selectively turned off.

Petey,

No, still makes no sense. 1) Battery Park City and the whole Hudson-turned-towers deal south of Chambers predates 9/11, so your sarcastic remarks re: how those who believe the area to be "holy" doesn't quite work. 2) I'm referring not to tourists who happen to be near the site of a tragedy, but who are there especially to memorialize it. Obviously terrible things have happened everywhere - people live in apartments other people died in, etc., and life moves on. Thus my reference to concentration camps - those were not operating last week, but those visiting are doing so not because Auschwitz just happens to be there, but to, in a sense, pay respects.

PG said...

Phoebe,

At least for most Americans, the grin seems to have been made a Pavlovian response to being faced with a camera. I've been told pretty much since birth to "smile!" every time someone wanted to take my picture. I just don't see the sense in taking pictures of one's party at the site of a tragic event, unless they are doing something sort of commemorative. (One of the less graceless pictures of my mom at the site of a tragedy is a picture from when we were in Hawaii and she was dropping her lei at the USS Arizona memorial. She has her face turned toward the water, so there's no big grin facing the camera.)

Phoebe said...

PG,

"I just don't see the sense in taking pictures of one's party at the site of a tragic event, unless they are doing something sort of commemorative."

Agreed. Again, I think the photos-of-people, smiling-in-photos norms are generally harmless, and if anything having people in tourist photos makes them more interesting in years to come - I find photos of my own ancestors more interesting than I would random shots of shtetl photo booths or wherever it was such photos were taken. But if the locale doesn't call for a smile-and-pose, then either just photograph the locale, or just visit and be done with it.

FLG said...

The USS Arizona memorial came to my mind as well. I recently visited Mount Vernon. There's a tomb and it was solemn. Visit Arlington and it's solemn. So, I think there's two things.

First, there's no memorial. In fact, there's not much more than a big hole. (I haven't been up there recently, so I don't know.) Memorials signal it's time not to act like a boob. A big hole, not so much.

Second, I agree that we are conditioned to smile in pictures. But I think the bigger thing is the lack of a memorial.

Phoebe said...

FLG,

"But I think the bigger thing is the lack of a memorial."

I can see that. What surrounds the site now is an upbeat reminder of the tower-to-come. And the neighborhood is quite dedicated (as well it should be) to life-moves-on-ism, with the Financial Center mall back in business, an utterly normal waterfront mall but for the massive windows in the back, in front of which tourists line up to get a better view of Ground Zero. I think it might seem strange to get solemn between an ice cream at the Financial Center and a trip to get discounts on Ralph Lauren at Century 21. And I wouldn't at this point expect anyone to do so, that is, aside from the tourists ostensibly interpreting the hole as a makeshift memorial.

Anonymous said...

Maybe this comes down to how close the visitor was to the site on 9/11.

Phoebe said...

Could be, but my sense is these visitors taking pictures are American, but are interested in the site more symbolically than in order to return to some place with personal significance. I doubt if New Yorkers, former or current, are doing this, not because NYers are inherently superior, but because posing in front of sites is more something people do in places they don't live/never lived.