As a kid growing up in suburban New Jersey, artist Ethan Rafal always thought of New York City as an escape. The city was an essential part of his own personal story, and when the towers collapsed on September 11th, he found himself in a state of absolute shock. Almost unconsciously, he began saving newspaper clippings and other mementos, pulling together the scraps of history that would eventually become the genesis of his book, Shock and Awe.
Part journal and part photo essay, Shock and Awe is a multi-media assemblage of artifacts and ephemera that examine the idea of homeland decay. Rafal needed to make sense of the lasting ways in which our country was altered by the attacks and ensuing vitriolic march to war, and his line of inquiry led to a larger examination of prolonged unrest. He spent three years photographing slaughter and conflict in Sudan, Chad, Nigeria, Darfur, and the Congo before returning to the United States. But when he got back, there was a restlessness he couldn’t shake. “I couldn’t stay still,” he explained. “I had to keep moving.” So he hit the road. And he brought his camera.
Rafal passed though Seattle on a recent book tour, and he gathered his audience around a dimly lit table and fed them homemade walnut pie. “The pie is to provide comfort,” he explained, “because a lot of this material is not settled. It is not comfortable.”
We lifted plastic forks to our mouths and ate from festive disposable Happy Birthday plates, and Rafal turned the pages of his book and spoke about how they documented an unwitting transition. About how the story of September 11th changed his own story. About how he stopped shooting skate videos, and instead began asking questions about how trauma affects history, and about a homeland’s capacity to forget.
The following are selected images from Shock and Awe. More information about the book is available on Rafal’s site.