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Sept. 11 Grief Relief by Ink

A 9/11 art exhibit at Perkins Library shows how some dealt with grief

Firefighter T.C. Cassidy's tattoo memorializes 9/11 victims. Copyright 2003, Jonathan Hyman

You don't know T.C. Cassidy, and you probably never will. But if you stroll the first-floor hallway outside Perkins Library's administrative offices, he may just leap off the wall and smack you in the face.

Cassidy is a New York City firefighter with a stunning, full-back tattoo memorializing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In 2003, a photographer tracked Cassidy down at his Manhattan station house and convinced him to pose for a photo that would become iconic. Time Magazine filled its entire back page with it to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the attacks. 

And now the photo is the centerpiece of a 9/11 exhibit at Perkins, hanging alone on the wall at the end of a long corridor adorned with 31 other photos from a collection by New York documentary photographer Jonathan Hyman.

It's an eye-popping image, large and so vivid it practically demands you take a closer look.

On Sept. 8, Hyman, who lived in Manhattan for 14 years and now lives about 90 minutes outside of New York City, will return to Duke for a reception and discussion of his work on a panel that will also feature his exhibit's curator, Pedro Lasch, assistant professor of art, art history and visual studies at Duke. Other panelists will include Laurie Patton, the dean of the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, and Kevin Moore, Trinity senior associate dean. Patton founded the Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding Initiative while at Emory University, and Moore is the author of "Critical Views of September 11," (The New Press, 2002).

It will be held at 4 p.m. in the Rare Book Room at Perkins Library.

Hyman's photo of Cassidy is a vivid, complex and emotional image, full of detail, a living portrait of grief. 

Here's the backstory:

On the day of the attacks, Hyman set out to document the ways people responded to the attacks and memorialized those who perished in them. His search led him to Cassidy's Manhattan firehouse.

Cassidy was reticent at first. His tattoo wasn't meant for public display. But he eventually agreed, with the caveat that Hyman not show his face.

As a result, the general public knows little about the burly fireman with the close-cropped hair. 

And Hyman isn't telling. 

"Don't even bother trying to find him," he said. "He doesn't talk about it. He's a personable guy, but he does not like attention."

And yet, that tattoo! The visceral image of the burning towers; the angels hovering over them, holding the scroll bearing the names of five firefighters who died that day -- all friends of Cassidy. 

"It was an intensely personal thing to him," Hyman recalled. "The people on his back, these were his friends. Not just random firefighters."

Hyman knows a few of the details, like how the tattoo took about 10 months to complete, how it cost $5,000, how Cassidy had to take out a loan to pay for it.

"There's a whole range of ways you can prove your commitment to someone you lost," said Lasch, who examined thousands of Hyman's images before choosing 32 for the exhibit. "And tattooing them on their body is the ultimate way to do it."

Cassidy, the firefighter, had spent months after the attacks working in the smoldering ruins of the World Trade Center, searching for his lost brethren.

"I got the distinct impression that his backbreaking work in the World Trade Center pit wasn't enough," Hyman said. "His efforts at Ground Zero honored his friends but he needed to do something else to memorialize his friends."