Struck by silence: How three photographers captured the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks

A decade on from the attacks, David Usborne recalls walking the eerie streets of Manhattan, while three photographers share the unexpected ways they captured the aftermath

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The conditions were right, if that's not blasphemous. After a summer of humidity, Manhattan lay beneath a dome of iridescent blue. Perfect for flying a stolen airplane; for the rescue teams who had to rush to the tangled gash at Ground Zero; and for the photographers straining to capture a world city in trauma.

Before we all had flat-screen TVs, we were given (again, that sounds wrong) a high-definition tragedy on 11 September 2001. Think back to those images on magazines and newspaper covers, so utterly crisp – the white smoke streaking towards Brooklyn, the flames bursting from concrete and steel at the instant of impact. k

Some of the power of those images has been lost through familiarity. That might even be true of those that once were so upsetting that newspaper editors were wary at first even of publishing them. They are easily found today, though. Just go to Google and type in "9/11 jumpers". If you must.

More likely to get our attention today are pictures like those on these pages that do more than recall the violence. They give a sense of a city untethered, of the anxiety drug injected into the veins of all of us who witnessed it and of the ash-coated eeriness of Lower Manhattan.

If, like me, you were beneath the Twin Towers that morning, nothing of what you saw will ever become cliché. k After I saw the planes make impact on the TV bulletins, no doubt like you, I was dispatched by my news desk in Midtown and emerged from the subway at City Hall 10 minutes later to see both Towers already on fire.

I had no cameraphone then, of course. I'm glad, because if I had, I would have been fiddling about with it and snapping my way through what was happening instead of really looking. But instead I did look. I stared and, at the end – as the first Tower began to sink and I understood that I needed to run – I gawped momentarily with slackened jaw. The catastrophe that was taking place in front of my eyes, I don't think any photographer could have captured: I suddenly saw a bevelled corner of the South Tower had turned liquid and was running like wax from a candle. I didn't understand until I did: the building was about to dissolve.

I was moved also by a shoe. Not a pair – just one, lying in the street close to Ground Zero in the early hours of 9/12 when, long before dawn, I was dodging the army security checkpoints to find my way to the death pile. It was a man's shoe, but whose? Had it dropped from one of the Towers or had its owner been running?

Yet, clearest in my memory is the single moment I battle still to repress. If I allow it to form in my mind's eye, I feel the terror all over again and my eyes well up. It was when I grasped what the black flecks falling from the high floors really were. Human beings. The jumpers.

David Usborne is the New York correspondent of The Independent on Sunday. Interviews by Mick Storey and Mike Higgins. Additional reporting by Kevin Rawlinson. 'Afterwards' (edited by Nathalie Herschdorfer, published by Thames & Hudson, priced £29.95), from which these shots are extracted, is a volume of documentary photography taken in the wake of cataclysmic moments in recent decades, from civil wars to natural disasters.

Frédéric Sautereau, 38 is a freelance photographer based in Paris

'I arrived in New York on 20 September 2001, determined to work within the exclusion zone created around Ground Zero.

When I arrived I noticed all of these people – the majority of them New Yorkers just coming to terms with what they had been seeing on a loop on their TV screens.

'The three streets that ran along the security perimeter put in place around the World Trade Center were all blocked, so I decided to focus on the dignified body language and faces of the people.

'They were all staring into empty space, where the Towers had stood. I was struck by the silence. Alone or in groups, there was a mix of contemplation and astonishment. Their faces became a mirror of the events which had taken place. They were so fixated that most didn't notice I was photographing them.'

Frank Schwere, 44 is a German photographer who was living in New York at the time of the attacks

'I'm not a journalist; I'm a large-format photographer. I'd rather step back than take shots of a fireman with sweat dripping off his chin. I wanted to focus on the architecture; not the wreckage, but the streets close to Ground Zero.

'I was at home in Brooklyn when the attacks took place. Two days later, access to Manhattan was opened but they declared the area around Ground Zero a crime scene, so the closest you could get with media credentials was about three blocks away.

'I managed to get in by climbing over high fences and sneaking past military checkpoints. It was surreal, a bit like Pompeii; something had happened and all of a sudden, all life was gone. The air was so thick you could lick the dust and the smell was like a mixture of concrete, plastic and metal.'

Susan E Evans, 45 is a conceptual artist working with photography, video and new media. A New Yorker, she was living in Florida in 2001

'The only way that most of us outside of New York could understand what was going on was to absorb the media imagery. But while there was 24-hour coverage, it was the same images circulated over and over again, to the point where they became not only iconic, but also exploitative of those within the images, and ultimately clichéd.

'I wanted to demonstrate the commodification of tragedy by replacing the photographic images with text, in an effort to emphasise the visual rhetoric of September 11th photography. I found that a mere description of the events can make us recall the myriad actual images seen in the first week after the fall of the Twin Towers.'