Honoring the Fallen with Our Cameras

I find that some of the most beautiful photographs are those of other people’s artwork –of sculptures, for example, or of museum installations. But one type of artwork we too easily forget is artwork is the memorial, particularly when a memorial is more architectural than sculptural.

Think of Maya Lin’s winning design of the Vietnam War Memorial. At the time, the 21-year-old college student’s design was unlike any other war memorial conceived before it. Considered unconventional, it even sparked some controversy that dragged Lin into a hearing before Congress.

Controversy aside, Lin’s unconventional design helped make the Vietnam War Memorial one of the most photographed memorials in the world. Save for the bronze statuary added as a result of a Congressional compromise, the memorial is but a long, receding, black wall engraved with the names of fallen soldiers, not organized in any particular way. Lin designed it this way with the rationale that those who visited the wall would have to search to find the name of someone they sought, the act being a sort of metaphor for a battlefield search for a fallen comrade.Photographing Memorials

Much of the photography taken at the memorial is of people, young and old, searching for names on the walls—touching the engravings and with their own faces reflected against the smooth black stone. It makes for some incredibly poignant photography. As I see it, the memorial is an artwork, and the photography of the memorial and of people interacting with the memorial offers a second layer of art. Such photographs are another way in which people can engage with the memorial and be reminded of sacrifices, tragedies, and incredible loss that should never be forgotten. They are an art of their own.

This week marks the twelfth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The wounds are still very fresh with this national day of remembrance, and I’m moved as I read and hear of a great many ways in which people plan to honor it—from lighting a candle to volunteering for a good cause to traveling to that incredible memorial at the site of the fallen towers, in New York City.  I think one way that photographers, in particular, can mark the day is to get out and make photographs of the way it’s being honored. Capture those images that get to the soul of the matter. Use your camera to truly see the memorials—both those that stand in stone and those that exist within the human spirit.

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