The Deep South and 9/11 (2001)

In August 2001, my friend Tim and I set out on a road trip around various southern states of the USA – starting in Georgia, taking in Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and ending up in New Orleans, Louisiana. Tim was about to start a new job, and I had just left my career in book publishing to embark on a new life as a photographer. We didn’t have any particular plan – a month on the road in the Deep South just seemed like a good way to spend time that wasn’t apportioned elsewhere. We camped, caught catfish, stayed in motels, met both wonderful and weird people, ate great food, and generally just got a taste of a place that both of us had been curious about for a while.

One particular morning we left our campsite in Alabama, and once we were on the road we switched on the radio expecting the usual mix of banter and music. Instead, whichever station we turned to, we seemed to be arriving half way through a report describing a major news event. It was of course September 11th 2001, but coming to it late as we did, it took a while to piece together quite what was going on. We pulled over at a Radio Shack in Birmingham, Alabama, to see if there was something about it on one of the TVs in the store – and in fact all the TVs in the store, in horrific unison, were showing replays of the events of the morning, culminating in the extraordinary scene of the collapse of the Twin Towers.

I took a number of photos in the following days, both of scenes and people, many of which I’ve not done anything with in the ten years since they were created.

One interesting phenomenon we noticed while driving around in the days following Sept 11 was that fast-food joints and other establishments that advertised their services on the side of the road were replacing their deal-of-the-day with a patriotic message, often with a religious twist. Wendy’s and Discount Auto Parts had a straightforward ‘God Bless America’, while Mrs Winner’s Chicken & Biscuits proclaimed ‘Let Freedom Ring’, and the Grand Casino Tunica promoted ‘One Nation under God’. They were interesting to us as outsiders in that they seemed to neatly package the ideas of Christianity, American national pride, and commercialisation that we experienced as being so integral to the USA  – the very ideas one might argue that Bin Laden was aiming his terror at.

Individuals too were keen to go out of their way to declare their allegiance to their nation – something which wasn’t lost on the T-shirt vendors of New Orleans. While on the road it was already clear to us that the US flag was a potent symbol of patriotism that people were proud to fly in their front yards. And indeed it was usually the Stars and Stripes that featured most heavily on the shirts, more often than not accompanied either by a religious message or some sort of taunt directed at Bin Laden, be it a fighter jet or simply the word ‘asshole’.

The Deep South proved to be a varied and fascinating place, as much for the people we met as for anything else. I took a number of portraits during the month we were there, and those photos in a way act as place markers when I remember the trip – our neighbour in the Nashville motel, the man sitting on his bed in Louisiana State Penitentiary serving life for murder, the swamp guide in Cajun country, the self-harming kids in New Orleans…

But the one place that stands out, just as it must do for everyone else, is the place we were in when we heard the news that morning of September 11th – in our case, a TV shop in the middle of Alabama.