Wounded Cities’ Documents Emotional Fallout of Terrorism
It’s a safe bet that anyone who lived in New York or Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, has pondered the possibility of another terrorist attack, perhaps with a distinct expression of anxiety etched across their faces.
Leo Rubinfien, an acclaimed American photographer who lives in New York, was in his apartment when terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center just two blocks away. In the years since, Rubinfien has thought a lot about terrorism — and about the people in cities all across the globe whose psyches have been similarly scarred.
His moving new exhibition, “Wounded Cities,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington uses large-scale photography to explore the visages of people who inhabit these mostly urban locales. Rubinfien started his project months after 9/11, when he was working in Japan and a round of bombings rocked Bali, Indonesia, a favorite vacation spot for the Japanese.
In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, he said the Bali bombings thrust upon him the realization that the effects of terrorism linger longer in the minds of survivors than the physical wreckage inflicted by the terrorists.
“It’s the mental wound that you are left with after the event itself has passed by,” Rubinfien said. “But how do you photograph something like that? You can’t photograph what’s inside the mind of anybody; you can only photograph exterior things, gazes and the face.”
And that’s what he did, literally taking thousands of photographs — mostly black and white but some in color — of people in a roster of cities that have also fallen victim to terrorist attacks: Madrid, New York, Nairobi, London, the West Bank, Tokyo, Karachi, Mumbai, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Moscow, visiting all of these places and many more.
Using a six-by-seven-centimeter camera, Rubinfien produces unusually large negatives, allowing for an extraordinary amount of detail — little facial scars, the writing on the button of a shirt, saliva glistening on teeth. These images contain a whole world of visual poetry, and while some clearly portray physical wounds — a surgically reconstructed face, for instance — many are far subtler though no less striking.
One of the first pictures visitors encounter depicts two young men, perhaps in their early 20s, staring intently into the camera on a seemingly sunny day in Hebron. Their gaze is anything but impassive, though it doesn’t belie any feeling of menace. It’s simply as if they are too young to seem this intense.
A few steps away in another photo, an elderly man — short and stocky — grips a cigarette between two fingers and puts his thumb to his chin on a street in Moscow. As in many of these photos his brow is furrowed. What is he thinking?
That’s what Rubinfien challenges us to ponder.
“If you see somebody who looks anxious you wonder, is this person worrying about the atomic bomb or is it they are worrying that check I wrote is going to bounce,” he said.
Ultimately, we can’t know. But as a collection, the pictures make one wonder if there is a common thread running through the minds of all of these disparate people. And that’s the beauty of this exhibition. It fosters a sense of connectivity, the notion that we are all in this together regardless of race, religion or region.
Wounded Cities: Photographs by Leo Rubinfien through Feb. 17 Corcoran Gallery of Art 500 17th St., NW For more information, please call (202) 639-1700 or visit www.corcoran.org.
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.