Ground Zero through a camera lens

Nikolas Kolenich

I could sense that tension was high on the streets of New York City as the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks were greeted with the protest of a potential mosque being built near ground zero. With a peaceful candlelight vigil Friday night supporting freedom of religion, Saturday afternoon erupted in a massive demonstration against the proposed mosque.

With a population of 8.3 million people, New York City is a place that receives lots of media attention. Saturday drew about 1,000 people, roughly the same amount present on Friday for the vigil. Because of the controversy, the city doubled the amount of officers from Friday night. Pens were set up to keep people herded onto certain streets. Pedestrians trying to get to other parts of the city were forced to walk past these pens. Soon, the press surrounded individuals who were having arguments.

As a photojournalism student, I know people respond differently to a camera than to simply making eye contact. This past Saturday every argument was escalated by hundreds of photographers and videographers crowding people’s space. Intelligent people trying to discuss why they felt the mosque shouldn’t be built were suddenly having to yell over the loud noises of guest speakers on PA systems. Photographers rushing into the crowds soon made peaceful conversations into arguments.

As cops continued to direct people into overcrowded areas, people became even tenser. Soon, people were yelling that they couldn’t move quickly enough. With the added media presence, cameras at every turn and confusion as pedestrians were trying to avoid the conflict; innocent people were harassed and verbally violated.

I witnessed soapbox extremists confronting people simply walking by. I watched as cops had to pull people from the pens for touching other people aggressively. I heard adults confronting one another about why they thought the mosque shouldn’t be built; yet, I saw no one attempting to start conflict.

As the crowd grew larger and larger, I could feel more and more media rushing in. I began to feel as if the peaceful demonstration was going to get ugly. More and more demonstrators were trying to voice their opinions to anyone with a camera. Soon it was all about attention. Since I was holding an enormous lens on an expensive camera, people wanted to get my attention by saying anything they could. It felt misguided to stay and feed these people with the attention they were looking for, so I started to head to ground zero.

It was quiet. Dead silent. As I entered the site, people weren’t looking for attention. I couldn’t even hear the protest even though it was a mere two blocks away. The city was calm everywhere else. No one was fighting, and out of 8.3 million people, only 1,000 or so were protesting the mosque. The media and police were creating the tension. The pens of people yelling at pedestrians were starting fights. The extremists getting attention from people with cameras were speaking for a nation. It was drama, pure drama.

Nikolas Kolenich is a senior photography major and guest columnist for the Daily Kent Stater.