Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - March 4, 2011

Photos from far and wide

Images explore global tragedy, emotion

by Zohra Ashpari

More than nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the question has become not what you were doing on 9/11, but how you are still wounded. Is there a psychological wound, a residue that stays with you after such events? And can it be seen?

Leo Rubinfien's "Wounded City" photographs, now on display at Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center, can inspire self-reflection of this kind. The series is part of the larger exhibition "Paths Through the Global City: Photographs by Leo Rubinfien," which continues until May.

Rubinfien experienced the devastation of the World Trade Center attacks first-hand. A week before 9/11, his family had moved into a nearby building. They would soon be witness to events of violence. In fact, Rubinfien was in his studio when the first plane crashed into the trade center, and felt the heat of the explosion.

"The experience was terrible, dreadful. At least one year afterwards, I walked around feeling a good amount of fear. I asked myself if other people were feeling the same thing," Rubinfien, a Chicago native, photographer and author, said during a recent interview with the Weekly.

It got him to thinking and wondering about what he calls the "mental wound," the scar that remains after such a trauma. Rubinfien began photographing cities that had experienced terrorism, concentrating on people's faces in the streets, probing for psychological imprints left by terror. He called the collection of faces "Wounded Cities."

In a press release, Cantor curator Hilarie Faberman wrote that a central question the photos ask is how much what one sees is observed, and how much projected.

"The photos are constantly asking: 'Who are you? What have you experienced and how are you still experiencing it?'" Rubinfien said. He added that he believes it's important while looking at the photos to consider the undercurrent of terrorism: how these individuals may have been impacted by violent events.

One "Wounded City" photo, "Tokyo — At Shibuya Station 2002," depicts a Japanese girl looking stupefied. Tokyo drew wide attention in 1995 after sarin-gas attacks on several subway lines killed and injured several people. Then in the 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali, the lives of more Japanese nationals were lost, reopening the "mental wound" incurred in 1995, Rubinfien said.

At the exhibition, one museum visitor, Mary-Ann Healy, gave her own interpretation of the Tokyo photo, although not in the context of terror. "The Japanese girl's blond hair looks American, and her makeup looks like a clash between East and West," she said.

When told of this comment later, Rubinfien responded: "Not necessarily. Her blond hair may have had a Western influence, but the way her face is made up belongs to a Japanese subculture."

"The girl looks like she's wearing a mask," he added.

A mask obscures, and Healy's interpretation raises the question of whether effects of past trauma are at all etched onto the Japanese girl's face. Can viewers ever extract themselves out of their own projections, and to what extent can they ever know of the experience of the subject?

Another exhibition photo, "Kuta Beach — In Poppies Lane 2007," shows two girls juxtaposed. One appears to be happily, innocently examining a dress. And another, wearing an Islamic head covering, looks away, perhaps in pain, or distaste. In the top left corner of the image, quietly discernible are the words "Bad Girl" inscribed on an umbrella.

Pondering the photo, museum visitor Victoria Holman said: "There is a good contrast between the two. The younger one is enjoying shopping; her life is going on despite what may have occurred."

Another visitor, Alan R. Akana, gazed at another photo, "In Inverarity Street, Karachi." The 2008 image is a vision of the Muslim world, men in traditional garb with calm and intelligent faces.

"The faces drew me in, and made wonder about what their lives were about, what was going on in their minds," Akana said. "Rubinfien captures everyone, regardless of culture. He shows their very human faces.

Throughout the six-year undertaking of "Wounded Cities," Rubinfien has seen many faces and sites that have experienced terrorism. Nairobi, Bombay, Madrid, Japan and Bali were all intensely troubled, he said, but in these communities, there usually was a feeling that the event was in the past and that they were getting over it. In New York City, people healed, although the nation didn't.

"NYC received double wounds: first from the attackers, then from the people running the government," he said. People who believed themselves in peace found themselves dragged into war, he added.

For Cantor docent Martha Mertz, the exhibition made her recall her daughter's experience on 9/11: "She had been staying near the World Trade Center and saw people jumping out of the building to their deaths. Seeing that impacted her, without a doubt."

Although people were angry after the attacks, the experience brought America closer together, at least for a while, Mertz said.

The condition of America today or of other countries that have also experienced terrorism, whether people are still wounded, is a question Rubinfien's "Wounded Cities," poses to the viewer.

"It's funny: Rubinfien's photographs don't capture anger or fear, but I do see some suspicion and caution in their faces," Mertz said.

In addition to "Wounded Cities," the Cantor show also provides a survey of Leo Rubinfien's other major bodies of work, including "A Map of the East," "In the World City" and "New York." The latter two are works in progress.

"In the World City" explores the landscape of globalization, examining what the world and the people in it share with each other, Rubinfien said.

"'World City' has a shining, bright quality showing places of promise in contrast to 'A Map of the East,' which is tender, elegiac, with some anxiety and suspicion," Rubinfien said.

The works are all different from one other but also related, he added. "I wanted to see what would happen when I put all of my projects in one room together."

What: "Paths Through the Global City: Photographs by Leo Rubinfien" presented in tandem with "In a New York Minute: Photographs by Helen Levitt."

Where: Pigott Family Gallery, Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University

When: Through May 1. The museum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to http://museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.

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