When you go to an exhibit of photographic portraits and get to speak with the people portrayed—and knowing they survived the worst terrorist attack in US history—you know this was no ordinary photo exhibit opening.
In the unnerving, stressful and grief-filled days and weeks after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, Joe McNally felt compelled to honor the heroes—the first responders and survivors—by photographing them with the largest Polaroid camera in the world in what became an emotional and compelling collection of larger-than-life portraits that portrayed the heroism and resilience of these New Yorkers at that terrifying but uniting time.
With the tenth anniversary of that terrible day approaching, Joe McNally sought out the same people and photographed them again—this time shooting digitally, using Nikon gear and printed by AdoramaPIX. All of the original photos are on display, along with 24 new images of people depicted in the earlier Polaroids.
Joe McNally, right, with retired New York firefighter Louie Caccioli (Engine 47, FDNY) at the press preview of Faces of Ground Zero Ten Years Later. Photos for Adorama by Mason Resnick
This morning I was among several dozen members of the press who previewed the exhibit, “Faces of Ground Zero, Ten Years Later” at the Time Warner building at 10 Columbus Circle in Manhattan. Yes, the larger-than-life portraits are still amazing and well-kept, thanks to the support of Adorama Camera, which has paid for the storage and preservation of the images when they weren't on display over the last ten years.
Last night, after the Time Warner building closed for the night, a group of 25 firefighters helped Joe McNally and his staff carry in and set up the exhibit—with photos towering over 8 feet tall and enclosed in heavy glass casings, that was no small task—and worked until 3:00 this morning to get it done. They did this to honor those who didn't survive.
The exhibit is worth the trip. If you're in the area between now and September 12, simply go to the 2nd floor of the Time Warner building. The exhibit is free to all.
But for me, the moment that was seared into my memory today was the looks on the faces of the firefighters and one of the families who lost a loved one that day as we all watched, for the first time, a video documentary consisting of interviews with the people McNally photographed.
One of them was a student at a local high school that had been turned into an emergency center. Another was a medic. Firefighters, a chef from Windows on the World, a widow of one of New York's Bravest, one by one, recounted their stories. One spoke of how the remains of her husband were never found, but they did find his firefighter's helmet. At that moment in the video, I looked around. Eyes closed, others tearing up. Faces contorted with emotions and memories that I couldn't even imagine. These were the real people who were there, who were directly affected.
Firefighters, families of victims and members of the press share an emotional moment of memories and unity as they watch the video interviews with 9/11 survivors as it played for the first time.
The video ended. Everyone stood silently for a while, taking in what they'd just seen and the memories that had been jogged. I thought about where I was that day—sitting in relative safety several miles north of the World Trade Center in the office of Popular Photography, where I was the Managing Editor at the time, watching in terror and amazement as the towers burned, then collapsed, while the radio in the background talked of human beings jumping to their deaths from the burning towers, the attack on the Pentagon, the plane crash in Pennsylvania, rumors of more hijackings, and trying to calm my panicking co-workers even though I wasn't very calm myself.
It was, for a brief moment, a reminder of our shared grief and horror. And although I knew very few of the people in that room today, there was that same sense of unity and purpose which had disapated way too soon and was replaced with partisanship and divisiveness.
Bill Butler (Ladder 6, FDNY) was trapped in Stairwell B while trying to save Josephine Harris as the building collapsed around them; they were the last people to be pulled out of the rubble alive. He is being interviewed by a local TV station.
If you can, go to this exhibit. View the prints, watch the video, which will play in an endless loop. If it causes you to want to seek the unity that we had in the days and weeks after 9/11, then the show has served its purpose.