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An eyewitness to tragedy

Photographer Stan Honda's work illustrates the human impact of world events.

September 11, 2003|Duane Noriyuki | Times Staff Writer

ABOUT 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, Stan Honda's telephone rang. An airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Honda turned on his television as he prepared to take the subway downtown. On arrival, he saw smoke rising from the towers, and he ran toward them.

There was chaos, and, suddenly, a loud crash as the first tower collapsed. It was difficult to make sense of what was happening. An officer was directing people inside a building, so Honda, a photographer for Agence France-Presse, went inside. The sky was turning dark, like night. A woman covered with dust entered the building. Honda could not make out the features of her face. "She just looked gray." As she walked toward him, he snapped one photo before an officer led her out of the lobby.

The photo became one of the defining images of Sept. 11. Bathed in yellow light, the woman looked like a mannequin. There was a sense of shock and emptiness in her eyes, the look of America that day. (Honda also photographed the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.)

The nation's emotions soon turned to sadness, fear, anger. It was the anger that unsettled Honda, a Japanese American. He knew of another day like Sept. 11. It was Dec. 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.

On Saturday, the Japanese American National Museum will host a panel discussion titled "Witnessing History: A Conversation with Stan Honda." Honda and Sharon Yamato, author of "Moving Walls: Preserving the Barracks of America's Concentration Camps," will examine the backlash experienced by Arab Americans and Japanese Americans based on world events 60 years apart.

There also will be a video titled "Eyewitness: Photojournalist Stan Honda, September 11, and the Japanese American Experience," which will air continuously at the museum today through Oct. 12. (Elsewhere around the city, museums are holding a range of special events, from the Museum of Tolerance's screening of the documentary "9/11" to "An Evening of Reflection" at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage.)

Before they met, Honda's parents, both Americans born in Southern California, were among the 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry interned during World War II. Honda learned of their experiences during family gatherings throughout his childhood, and as an adult made it his mission to photograph the 10 camps. To date, there is only one he hasn't visited.

Honda, 43, grew up in San Diego and previously worked for New York Newsday and the San Diego Union-Tribune. He also was a contract photographer for the Los Angeles Times.

In the aftermath of Sept. 11, one of his first concerns was that there might be a backlash against Arab Americans, which, indeed, there was. According to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee Research Institute, there were more than 700 violent incidents, including several killings, targeting Arab Americans or those perceived to be Arab Americans, Arabs and Muslims in the first nine weeks after Sept. 11.

In a speech to students at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., in October 2001, Honda explained his fear of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim backlash. Then he talked about his parents and their World War II experiences.

"Unfortunately for those Japanese Americans, there wasn't the mass media coverage of that event that could compare to the World Trade Center coverage," he said. "And history books, as we can see, are slow to recognize the story."

In ways, says Honda, who recently returned from a six-week assignment in Iraq, his work during the weeks following Sept. 11 was more difficult than the day the towers fell. They were only buildings. At the funerals and memorial services he photographed, he witnessed the human impact of the attack.

The same is true of internment. Honda photographed Yamato's book, "Moving Walls," which documented an effort in 1994 to disassemble and transport two barracks used at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming to Los Angeles, where they were reassembled at the Japanese American National Museum.The Heart Mountain barracks, like the World Trade Center towers, were buildings -- wood, nails and tarpaper. The human impact of injustice is more evident in the faces of those who suffered, the questions in their eyes, the shock and emptiness of another day, 60 years before Sept. 11. A portion of one of the barracks remains on display at the museum.

It provides insight for those who were not in the camps, says Yamato; but, as Honda suggests, to understand how lives were affected, one must not only study the building but also the faces of those who lived in the camps as they view the structure.

"It's very affecting," says Yamato. "People who were in camp have a very emotional reaction to it because they remember so clearly what it was like."


Reflecting on Sept. 11, 2001

"Witnessing History: A Conversation With Stan Honda"

Where: Japanese American National Museum, 369 E. 1st St., Little Tokyo, downtown

Los Angeles

When: 2-4 p.m. Saturday

Cost: Free with museum admission of $6 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for students; children under 5 free

Also: "Eyewitness: Photojournalist Stan Honda, September 11, and the Japanese American Experience," today through Oct. 12, airing continuously during museum hours

Info: (213) 625-0414


"9/11," a documentary

Where: Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.

When: Tonight at 7; light candles outside the museum, 6:30-10 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: (310) 772-2527 to reserve seating


"09'11"01," 11 short films by 11 directors from 11 countries

Where: Laguna Beach Film Society, Laguna South Coast Cinema, Pacific Coast Highway and Main Beach

When: 6:30 p.m. reception, 7 p.m. screening followed by discussion

Cost: $15

Info: (949) 494-8971, Ext. 200


"An Evening of Reflection"

Where: Autry Museum of Western Heritage, 4700 Western Heritage Way, L.A.

When: Tonight, 6-7:30

Info: (323) 667-2000

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