9/11 – Dead Birds. On the Ground. Lost

2001 (after 9/11)
20 x 25 cm – 24 x 30 cm – (8 x 10″ – 11 x 14 “)

This series is about dead birds from glass collisions at the World Trade Center buildings, which occurred primarily during spring and early fall migration 2001 – (see text below)

Die Bilder zeigen tote Vögel der Frühjahrs- und frühen Herbstmigration 2001, die rund um das World Trade Center in New York jeweils frühmorgens von Volunteers der Audubon Society aufgelesen wurden – (siehe Text unten)

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In May (2001), I came across an article in Metropolis about bird-glass collisions at the WTC. Having done already two series with (living) birds (Coordinates. Nomads / Nomads II) I was very interested in that subject. I got in contact with volunteers from the Audubon Society in New York, who every morning during migration collected the dead or injured birds that crashed into the high buildings.

For me, the symbolic potential of a bird, its myth, which also consists of the idea of freedom, its beauty, its proximity to heaven, (to the ‘gods’), its almost mysterious sense of direction, suddenly stood in contrast to what some of them happened on their migration. They clashed with another symbol – the Twin Towers: evidence of the human will and its ability to build, to construct skyscrapers (almost literally), to sculpt, shape, create, or transform man-made material into three-dimensional space.

Although glass collisions occur everywhere and birds are not primarily killed at skyscraper sites, the WTC was somehow more lethal than other sites due to its specific environmental conditions – such as open location, lighting environment, amount of glass sheets, light reflections, visible habitat through windows, and night lights on top of the buildings. As birds tend to fly towards the light, they were disoriented by  the floodlights, circling their beams for hours to exhaustion, fell to the ground, got injured or died.

The birds killed at such sites are primarily nighttime migrants. Usually they orient themselves by the stars, but when the sky is overcast they are irritated by the lights of the city or their reflections in the glass. Unable to recognize glass as an obstacle, they fly in and injure themselves.

At the end of May, I asked if I could join the volunteers in their daily task of collecting the birds. We agreed to start the new project in the fall, as the spring migration was almost over anyway. Back in Europe, during the summer break, I have often thought with some discomfort about the project. I got the E-mails from the volunteers, read about the direction of the winds, read about the nature of the sky, saw lists of ‘casualties’ and found out what was going on early in the morning on that specific site. (*) I didn’t have any exact vision yet what I was going to do. These dead birds just touched me. It might have been that I saw a certain parallel between the irritations of the birds and my initial experience of living in this city.

When I was back in New York at he beginning of September 2001, I was looking forward to finally starting the project. Then came the 11th of September and with him the project was transformed immensely. For a long while, I was shocked, we were shocked, the world was shocked. I thought the project was over and buried, so to speak. I was also a bit scared, I have to confess, because what happened on September 11th seemed to have been reflected on a small scale in those bird-glass collisions. What a strange coincidence! Suddenly the project had become uncanny, eerie, unsettling and disturbing.

Nevertheless, after a few weeks, I decided to continue the project. I knew the volunteers would normally keep the birds in a freezer for a while before sending them to Washington for research. I called the Audobon Society and asked if they still had the dead birds that had crashed into the WTC before September 11th. After bringing all the remaining dead birds together I was able to photograph them.

The experience of 9/11 has completely changed my perception, but not only mine: this event  has fundamentally and sustainably changed our lives and the way we live together.

I want to thank the Audubon Society for their help. Special thanks also go to D. Klem Jr. for answering all the questions  I had about bird-glass-collisions etc.
(NYC, 2002/2004)

*Some E-Mails:

May 17 2001
“… were on the site from 5:40 t0 @7:40. Despite a night of mostly south winds, almost
no casualties were found.”

Bird tally, August 16 , 2001
“… dead northern waterthrush at WTC2 … Time 0600

… dead ovenbird … between WTC2 and the Marriott. Time 06:45″

Aug. 28, 2001
“…. The dead bird looks like it might be a flycatcher, a bird I’ve never id’d. It had a shorter (non warbler-looking) beak, an eye ring, and wing bars. It had an unmarked white breast and belly, grey around its eyering  and a yellowish cap and back feathers. It’s about 4”. Suggestions welcome, but remember I do have it available for later id. …
4 a.m forecast Mostly sunny. High in the lower 80s. Northwest wind 5 to 10 mph”

“September 4 2001 02:20:42 PM Subject: Re: Saturday, 9/1
I saw no birds at all. There was much more activity than I have ever seen on a Saturday. The Wintergarden area was starting to be cleaned at 6 AM (very early for Sat.), music was piped loudly from WTC4, there was the noise from plaza from the pressurized water cleaning, and the homeless were sleeping at the chairs and tables by WTC5 or walking about …

September 9 2001 11:41:32 AM
” … On my second round of WTC, I saw a falcon flying high over the plaza. With my binoculars, I saw it land near the top of the ornate old building NE of the plaza, which I believe is the Wolworth (
sic!) bldg. From there, the falcon has a view of the whole plaza and the front on the WFC. Little wonder that we’re getting competition for the little birds.”

Zugvögel orientieren sich nachts auf ihrem Flug nach den Sternen. Ist der Himmel bedeckt, werden sie über Städten oft durch Lichtspiegelungen in Scheiben und Glasfassaden irregeleitet. Beim WTC gab es aber nicht nur viel Glas, sondern zudem auch Scheinwerfer auch den Dächern. Da Vögel jeweils in Richtung Licht fliegen, wurden sie von diesen Scheinwerfern angezogen, kreisten in deren Lichtkegel oft stundenlang bis zur totalen Erschöpfung und fielen dann zu Boden.

Darauf aufmerksam geworden bin ich im Mai 2001 durch einen Artikel in der Zeitschrift METROPOLIS, der über diese Glaskollisionen beim WTC berichtete. Die toten Vögel wurden dort jeweils in den frühen Morgenstunden von Freiwilligen der Audubon Society aufgelesen. Ich nahm daher Kontakt mit dieser auf und vereinbarte, dass ich sie ab September auf ihren frühmorgendlichen Rundgängen begleiten würde, da die Frühjahrsmigration schon fast vorüber war.

Da ich zuvor schon zwei Serien mit lebenden Vögeln gemacht hatte, beeindruckte mich das Thema sehr. Der symbolische Gehalt von Vögeln, ihre Nähe zum Himmel, ihre Fähigkeit zu fliegen und sich am Licht und im Raum zu orientieren, ihre Schönheit und ihr Mythos, der in der Idee der Freiheit besteht, stand hier im Gegensatz zu dem, was einigen von ihnen auf ihrem Migrationsflug geschah. Sie kollidierten mit einem anderen, mächtigen Symbol: dem World Trade Center im Financial District.

Den Sommer über, ich war in Europa, war ich via E-Mail mit den Leuten der Audubon Society in Verbindung. Ich las, woher der Wind wehte; ich las wie viele Vögel sie aufgelesen hatten; ich las, um welche Arten es sich handelte, und es freute mich jeweils, wenn in der Statistik an einigen Tagen überhaupt nichts eingetragen war. Was genau ich mit den toten Vögeln machen würde, war mir indes noch nicht ganz klar. Ich war davon einfach irgendwie bewegt und berührt.

Anfangs September war ich zurück in NY und war bereit für dieses Projekt. Doch dann kamen die Anschläge vom 11. September 2001. Niemand dachte mehr an ‘Projekte’.
Wochen später entschied ich mich aber dennoch das Projekt, falls noch möglich, zu realisieren, nun aber unter grundlegend veränderten Gesichtspunkten.

Ich wusste, dass die toten Vögel jeweils in Gefrierfächern aufbewahrt wurden, bevor sie zu Forschungszwecken nach Washington verschickt wurden. Ich bat Leute der Audubon Society alle noch vorhandenen toten Vögel der 2001 Migration zusammenzubringen. Ich konnte daraufhin die toten, gefrorenen Vögel bei ihnen im Büro fotografieren.

Ich danke der Audubon Society NY sehr für deren Unterstützung.