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Look Back in Sorrow

Photographer Marie Triller documents 10 years of 9/11 remembrances in her powerful new book

by Shawn Stone on September 8, 2011

An image from Marie Triller's Ten Years: Remembering 9/11

Do you remember where you were when the World Trade Center was attacked?  Do you remember how you felt?

Marie Triller does, and can speak about it in a way that brings that terrible day to vivid life. The Albany photographer felt drawn to visit Ground Zero after the events of 9/11, and finally traveled to lower Manhattan on Sept. 30, 2001. She went to document what she saw.

“In a way, I really felt like I was going down there that first time as a wounded American, as a heartbroken American, if anything,” Triller says. “I was compelled to go there, to see it with my own eyes.”

What was it like, so soon after 9/11?

“It was still very very raw, it was desolate. . . . I came home with the taste of Ground Zero in my mouth.”

But she returned, with her camera, multiple times before the end of 2001.

“It’s hard to explain what made me want to go back, but I did go back a few more times that fall. And I went to see the Here is New York exhibit [in Soho], and that was really moving, powerful, and had an impact on me.”

This was an unpretentious photo exhibit documenting 9/11 that resonated with New Yorkers; people lined up down the block to see it.

“It was really powerful to see how much those pictures meant to people,” Triller says.

And Triller took her own pictures. An MFA grad of SUNY New Paltz, Triller has had her work shown in galleries around the Capital Region—and the world—over the last 25 years. She photographed the United States-Mexico border for the book Border Witness: Youth Confront NAFTA, and has had an ongoing project to document life in Belize over the last decade.

“I participated in a show called the September 11 Photo Project that was also in Soho at the same time, and was also a very grass-roots, bring-your-work-in-and-pin-it-to-the-wall kind of show.”

She also began to send out her 9/11 photos to university galleries, with a disclaimer about what her aims were: “It’s not an art show, it’s not about the pictures, just tack them on the wall and let people respond to them in their own way.”

The response she received was “very, very positive.”

“In the summer of 2002 I did a lot of traveling, and I realized that people far from here were just so very touched by 9/11. . . . There was this thirst for information and for feeling like they wanted to be more involved. So that also prompted me to want to send my pictures out there, and to keep going back [to Ground Zero] each year.”

And so Triller returned to Ground Zero every year on 9/11, to document the mourners, from family members to first responders to concerned people who came from all over the world to remember what happened, and the people who died.

And will she return for the 10th anniversary? Yes.

“I think this is the last year,” Triller says.

Marie Triller, photo by Michael Oakes


Nine years of documenting 9/11 memorial services are documented in Triller’s photography book, Ten Years: Remembering 9/11 (John Isaacs Books).

“I don’t have any photographs in the book from 2001, from that first day I went down in September, or from the other times I went down that fall or that winter,” Triller says. “I purposely [excluded those images] because there’s millions of those photos out there, of the aftermath and the ruins,” Triller says. “My book isn’t about September 11, 2001; it’s about our response to it on Sept. 11 every year.”

Asked if the memorial services have changed over the years, Triller pauses.

“The first year, 2002, was the most emotional and challenging year,” Triller says. “It hurt to talk; all you wanted to do was cry. People were choked up, and it was very intense. It didn’t seem like a year had passed, it felt like yesterday, still.”

“I don’t think any year since was that painful,” Triller says. “I think my pictures tell that story. I see a sea of faces that I shot in 2008 or 2009 and they look just as somber to me as a group I shot in 2003.”

This is perfectly understandable because, as Triller says, “it’s a funeral in a way, it’s a very somber event.” And it’s an event that has never failed to move her: “It’s very special day because it brings all those memories right back to the surface. Everyone who’s there is there for the same reason. There are people there from all over the country, from all over the world.”

The book, which includes a foreword by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, isn’t arranged by year. The images are arranged by themes, including “memory,” “security,” “courage,” “place,” and “justice.”

“I always had the idea,” Triller says, “that I didn’t want it to be chronological. I was more interested in the visual relationships. It was really the publisher who looked at all the pictures and said, ‘Why don’t you go back and group these thematically, and see what happens.’ ”

The people in these photos show sadness, defiance, strength, anger . . . the entire range of emotions. And they evidence a wide spectrum of points of view, from proud first responders to 9/11 “truthers” to Iraq veterans protesting our wars. But, overwhelmingly, on page after page, the photos capture everyday Americans from all walks of life, bearing witness.

“I wanted to present the annual event as I saw it, as honestly as possible,” Triller says. “I really just tried to photograph the truth of the day.”