Behind the Photo

Friday Night Lights After 9/11
The somberest National Anthem I’ve ever seen, at Lincoln-Way Central High School three days after the attacks on 9/11. As a photographer it pains me I did not snap a photo 5 seconds earlier to have the clock at “9:11.” Photo by Vincent D. Johnson

On September 11th, 2001, I was just 2 years out of photo school, pretty much only shooting sports, everything was still done on film, and I don’t have a single picture from that day.

No photos of me and my roommates watching the TV news horrifically as the second tower was hit. No photos of the blood donation line I stood in for 3 hours before I eventually had to leave for my evening job. No photos of working just 1 block away from the Sears Tower in downtown Chicago. Wondering, what if anything could happen and if my building would be hit by falling debris if it was. No photos of the travelers stuck in the hotel lobby where I worked wondering if they could get a room.

However with the 11th being a Tuesday, that meant Friday night was only 3 days away. So as I headed off to shoot high school football, the events of earlier in the week were heavily on my mind.

Planes had just resumed flying the day before and the NFL canceled all of its games that week. However, while there was some debate, most high schools across the country agreed, since the attacks looked like a single event it would be too disruptive and life needed to return to normal, so most football games across the country went on as planned. I didn’t disagree with that then, and I still don’t now.

In Illinois it was week 4 of the regular season and I ended up in New Lenox to see #20 Sandburg take on #5 Lincoln-Way Central. I wrote a piece on my sports website saying how everyone should sing the anthem out loud at the next game, and all future games, but, and maybe rightfully so, the stadium was eerily quite that September 14th, 2001 as the Lincoln-Way Central band played the National Anthem.

Sandburg High School football players wore red, white, & blue ribbons that you could see were quickly sewn onto their jerseys for the first game after 9/11 2001. Photo by Vincent D. Johnson.

To this day I believe the most respectful way we can remember those who lost their lives on 9/11 isn’t for us to memorialize them once a year, it’s to emulate how we treated each other on 9/12.

Sandburg High School cheerleaders made a temporary memorial of candles along the track at the football game Sept. 14th, 2001. Photo by Vincent D. Johnson.
Lincoln-Way Central High School was a blaze in red, white, & blue lights in the week after 9/11. Photo by Vincent D. Johnson.

The game was like any other game. Maybe so much so that it was what we all needed. The story I wrote that evening made no mention of the tragic events from 3 days past, or the memorializing, or dedication to 9/11 that took place that night. Maybe I was too inexperienced as a journalist to include that at the time. Maybe I was thinking the viewers of my site didn’t need a constant reminder of what had happened.

Only a handful of images from the game focused on 9/11 remembrance moments. The rest looked like this, action shot from the game. Photo by Vincent D. Johnson

I don’t even remember if we were referring to it as “9/11” yet, or if that was something that would come later on as we tried to reckon with what had happened. I do know that for at least on shinning week in this country, 300 million people stopped looking at each other by individual groups and started looking at each other like we were all on the same team.

To this day I believe the most respectful way we can remember those who lost their lives on 9/11 isn’t for us to memorialize them once a year, it’s to emulate how we treated each other on 9/12.

In the days after 9/11 Americans looked a lot like this. We were all on the same team.

Oddly enough 9/11 seems to be the one day I feel the need to post a story on, despite the fact I didn’t take a single photo on that day. Here’s a link to my post from 2018.

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