Wim Wenders: Photographing Ground Zero at the IWM

Oliver Webb-Carter

As part of the IWM's 9/11 Twenty Years On commemoration, the German director is exhibiting his photographs taken at Ground Zero and our editor visited the display.
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The Imperial War Museum has just opened an exhibition by Wim Wenders, Photographing Ground Zero, to commemorate the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. For such a huge event, 20 years ago, the free-to-enter display of his work is measured, thought-provoking, and highly recommended.

Wim Wenders. Credit: Donata Wenders

Wenders, a successful Hollywood film director, was present at the site of Ground Zero in the aftermath of that tragic day. He gained access by assisting his friend and the official 9/11 photographer, Joel Meyerowitz. Wenders was on the site, early in the morning, for only 6 hours, but in that time he has captured some spectacular images, and a selection of these, in large landscape and portrait form, make up the exhibition that opened on Friday 10th September. For those expert photographers out there, they are C-prints from Wenders’ 6×17 panoramic colour negatives.

The most remarkable thing to notice is sunbeam in each image. Wenders was at Ground Zero on a beautifully clear day, which reminded me of that day in September, but this time with the sun lower down in the sky. The light reflects off tall buildings into the maelstrom of what’s left of the Twin Towers. Wenders has captured the chaos of the masonry, metal, dust and of course most terrible of all, though invisible, the victims of that horrific event.

When introducing the exhibition, Wenders spoke about the atmosphere as workers sifted through the rubble. There were no raised voices, and it was very quiet. When remains were found, hard hats were removed in respect for the victims. The site itself was a hell hole, but then those shafts of light lit up the area, and as he photographed, he felt a sense of hope. He mentioned his companion, Meyerowitz, had been there weeks but not seen the sun shine through like that. His images capture a sense of serenity, and Wenders found the mess, in some way, beautiful.

There is clear delineation in all the pictures. Clear blue sky, bright light, tall and intact buildings, then steam rising up from the ground, and finally the wreckage. Men working amid the debris, and, as we now know, many suffered respiratory disease.

Wenders spoke of his optimism as he photographed those sunbeams, but this was before the War on Terror was declared, and as I left the IWM, in the atrium I passed an exhibit of what is left of a car, destroyed in a Baghdad bomb.

Wim Wenders: Photographing Ground Zero is at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth, until 9th January, 2022.