| || || |
| || || |
| || || |
Q.) You were the Official Photographer of record at Ground
Zero. Were there any other photographers shooting down there?
A.) "On 9/11 and the weeks that followed, there were many
photographers, but that tapered off fast as restrictions were
quickly placed on images being taken. So, for the long haul --
other than myself, there was only photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who
periodically shot on behalf of the Museum of the City of New York.
I was more day-to-day and focused my work on the human side of the
Recovery, side-by-side with the FDNY Recovery teams, while Mr.
Meyerowitz shot every few weeks on a large view camera and focused
his work on the ever-changing scenery of Ground Zero. He has shot
some very stunning wide-angle images that capture the magnitude and
destruction of the WTC site. It's interesting that we had two
completely different photographic agendas, yet between the two of
us we captured everything necessary to document this period in New
Q.) You have now been on both sides of the camera. Which do you prefer?
A.) "Well, I will always hold onto the memories of being behind the lens
at Ground Zero. It was
a rewarding experience and a privilege to document such an important
tragic period in world history. The friendships I forged and the
often heart-wrenching images
I shot are things that stand out in my mind. I certainly understand
the importance that a war time photographer
has in recording history for future generations. Many ground zero
vets who served in a war have told me that ground zero
was worse than a typical war zone. However, my first love is the
stage; the theatre is why I moved to
New York from a small town in Illinois. I enjoy live theatre and also
the process of trying to forge a successful
career in the theatre. The events of 9/11 and my eventual role at
Ground Zero ate up a lot of my time
that I could have spent working on my acting career, but I don't
regret it. I'm happy I was able to contribute
and I am still young, so there's time now to resume my career. I
believe everything happens for a reason. If anything,
I am now more mature and able to deal with tough situations, whereas
before I was a naive kid. After working
in harsh & challenging conditions at WTC for 7 months, everything
else seems pretty trivial."
With 9/11 being such a world tragedy, why weren't photographers
allowed to gain entry into Ground Zero? Shouldn't the Recovery have been documented
by many as opposed to just one?
are many images from the first few days, shot by some very acclaimed photographers,
but this changed around the third week. Cameras were banned by order of Mayor
Giuliani out of respect for the victims, their families and those trying to recover
them. The Mayor decided, and rightly so, that in this particular case (9/11),
there existed the possibility of exploitation and he thus wanted to preserve the
sanctity of Ground Zero, which was in essence a burial ground. This obviously
didn't make newspaper editors too happy nor the Associated Press. There were some
cases where photographers snuck into the WTC site and were caught shooting. They
left the site in handcuffs via NYPD."
|| Q.) You are an Honorary Chief in the F.D.N.Y. What exactly is that?
|| A.) "There have been just over 200 Honorary Chief appointments in the history of the FDNY. In 2004, I received a letter from FDNY Commissioner Scoppetta, informing me that I had been chosen to join the ranks of this special association. Nominations are based on solidarity and contributions to the FDNY, and I was informed that I was nominated for my photographic work at Ground Zero and contributions to the Fire Department of New York's members. After a thorough background check was done, I was honored in a special ceremony at FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn, where I was sworn in on the Bible by the Commissioner, with an oath of office taken to uphold the integrity of that appointment in the name of the FDNY. I was issued Official FDNY I.D., along with a gold FDNY Battalion Chief's shield and an NYC Fire Line's card, which authorizes me to cross the fire lines that are set up by NYPD at all fires. To date, I have never been present at a fire, as working at the WTC was enough for me. Nevertheless, it was a huge honor for me to be awarded this title and something I don't take for granted. "
|| Q.) Is it hard to manage the large revenues that your museum must bring in?
|| A) "To be candid, the museum is held together with love and scotch tape, and it does not generate large revenues. Our museum bank account on average has no more than $25,000 in it, so technically we should be closed, as this is not enough funds to operate a museum. We cut corners where we can, ask for product & service donations, and watch every penny in order to keep the museum open. The museum is more of a public service than anything else. I hope that one day we do bring in more money so we can pay for more advertising and maybe even find a bigger museum space. Our museum's reputation grows by the word of mouth of those who have been here. 4.8 out of every 5 visitors gives us a 5-star review online and we have a 98% approval rating, which is fantastic. It lets us know we are doing our job well. "
How is it that you become the only one in the world permitted
to document, side-by-side, with firefighters and rescue workers?
it was a one-in-a-million thing I guess; either that or divine intervention. I
really wanted to contribute in any way I could, like so many, yet I never guessed
where the road would lead me. I erected SeptemberEleven.net
memorial website days after the tragedy to post images so the world could see
what was going on here in New York. In October of 2001, I read in the Daily News
that doctors were confused as to why many firemen from 9/11 were suffering from
fatigue & muscle weakness. I felt I knew the answer. I contacted Dr. Gary
Jean-Baptiste & Edward Persaud at Medical Network of Long Island, a medical
office that specializes in environmental allergy/illness as well as general medicine,
and they agreed to donate their services. They offered to treat some of the sick
firemen, so I contacted the Uniformed Firefighters Association and told them of
this offer and Rudy Sanfilippo
, the Manhattan Trustee arranged for some men to go out to the clinic and get treated. Many of those men began showing improvements
and it was right around November of 2001 when Mr. Sanfilippo inquired more in-depth
as to who I was, summarily learning of my website. I was called into a meeting
and asked, after successive lengthy interviews, if I would like to document on
behalf of the fire unions at Ground Zero; if I would like exclusive access to
" at Ground Zero and be their official shooter, providing
I follow strict guidelines. Naturally, I quickly said "yes" but didn't
realize the responsibility nor the world I was about to enter. I was somewhat
naive. I had been shooting Ground Zero from the perimeter since 9/11, but I never
had access to the "hole" or other areas where the really significant
moments could be captured on film. I chose to stop working in order to take the
position, which was unsalaried, but never looked back. I lived off of my savings.
It was such an honor to be trusted to capture historical moments that whatever
reservations I had quickly faded."
Of all the images you have taken, which are your favorites?
"Now that's a tough one to answer. Each of the images is special
in it's own way to me. Each one depicts a different aspect of the Ground Zero Recovery; they are all like pieces to a puzzle that in their entirety portray a whole story. One of my favorites is the image of FDNY firefighter Oscar Garcia
digging at sunrise at Ground Zero on a Sunday morning in March of 2002. Another is of the
Genesis 11: Bible Page
that I found in the WTC rubble. Finding that page inspired me to stay on and finish the task of documenting the Recovery. I didn't realize what the exact verse was until hours later when I looked at the image with a magnifying glass. My mouth fell open when I saw it was the Tower of Babel. Very weird...
What good things have come from opening the Museum?
"Well, I have met many more 9/11 families
here at the Museum and their stories help me to understand the magnitude
of it all much deeper. My Museum has helped some people come to grips with things;
helped them feel closer to what happened, which I feel promotes healing. When
a family member enters the Museum, at first I am always honored. I also admire
them for their courage to confront such issues head on. If my Museum helps them
feel closer to their loved one, then I feel good about that. One man from Wisconsin,
who lost his daughter said, "I feel comfortable here. I could sit here for
hours. You've created a safe haven." That was a huge acknowledgement because
when I designed the Museum, I had at the core the desire to make it "comfy". Lee Ielpi
FDNY 9-11 family member, visited the Museum many times as it was being built and
gave me useful suggestions. He is very keyed into what is acceptable to 9/11 families
and also what doesn't work, so his advice was priceless to me. Lee is a guardian
of the sanctity of the WTC site and is very vocal, so he was the right one to
ask questions to. Another family member who has ALWAYS kept me on the straight
and narrow when I had problems is John
, a retired FDNY Captain who lost both of his sons, Joe and John on
9/11. He's one of the good guys - a class act who lives by a strong set of morals.
Granted, this Museum is for everyone and there are many tourists who pass through
here, but I wanted to insure that if a 9/11 family member came in, it would be
a warm atmosphere and non-threatening. I accomplished this by using lots of white
mixed with warm colors and a clean environment to offset the feelings that can
emanate from looking at images from the Recovery. I also burn sage every morning
in the Museum to kind of "cleanse'' the air of any negative energy. There
is only one image from the morning of September 11 in the museum; the rest of
the images focus on the Recovery. I had the opportunity to have a larger museum
space but chose the smaller one so it would be more intimate. So far, many journalists
have called the museum a "room" or "single space", since the
word "museum" brings to their minds the MOMA. When they walk in, they
often say, "Is this it? Is there another room?" Then, after they begin
taking in the images and the presentation, they forget about size. The Anne Frank
House is quite small also, but it is judged on its content as opposed to its square
footage. Visitors should treat GZMW in the same way. When I decided to erect this
Museum, I knew this wasn't just about throwing a few pictures up on the wall and
calling it a Museum. The 3-Dimensional photo installations I have often leave
viewers in awe. A lot of care and thought went into this whole process. Anne Frank
House in Amsterdam is beautifully presented and so I tried to use that as an inspiration
for the Ground Zero Museum Workshop. The Mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, who is
quite fond of my work, in the September, 2005 issue of Italian Vanity Fair magazine
stated that the images, "...impact my heart in a very big way." As an
artist, it's nice to know that I can affect people on the other side of the world
by helping them empathize with what happened over here on September 11. It is
rewarding for me. It is driven not by my ego but rather by my desire to make a
difference in the world. The subject of September 11, in my opinion, is not a
place for egos or adulation. You just make your contribution and hope that it
is appreciated. I usually get uncomfortable with compliments on my photographic
work from Ground Zero. People mean well but it makes me uneasy."
I read a past interview where you slammed those who make
reference to 9/11 Exploitation. Why is that? Can you discuss this?
| || |
A.) Well, once, while walking with a friend of mine we saw an artist we both recognized from Ground Zero. This artist had created some very nice works of art
pertaining to fallen firefighters and angels during the Recovery and had given them
to the firefighters and police officers free of charge. The artist had a booth set up and was selling his art. My friend degraded him, making reference to the fact that this guy should
get a life and stop trying to profit off the tragedy. I reminded my friend that he, himself, had made triple overtime while working at Ground Zero in 2002 and retired with a nice pension. He had done his job, doing what he knew. And
that too, was what the artist was doing. Doing what he knew: ART. The artist wasnt exploiting
9/11. He felt passionate about the subject because he too, was there, and he was providing a public service by making these historic posters available. That was the end of that conversation. So, bottom line is I dont
feel anyone is exploiting 9/11. The terrorists exploited that beautiful morning
of 9/11 and exploited the sanctity of innocence & freedom on 9/11. Thats
all I have to say on that subject.
Do firefighters visit the Museum?
. Some are Ground Zero veterans and others are from all over the USA.
I recently had a very moving visit at the Museum with a New Jersey fireman. You
see, I shot this very well publicized image of a crushed fire truck at Ground
Zero with the word, WHY?
scrawled in the ash-laden door. It was taken on the first Sunday after the attacks.
All the firemen who rode that truck on 9/11 perished in the WTC collapse. I saw
a fireman walk up and scrawl WHY? onto the door of the firetruck on Vesey Street,
then he leaned onto the truck, resting one hand on the door. He was emotional
and so I didn't shoot that. He collected himself, spun around and saw me; he wasn't
pleased to see I was holding a camera. I saw his impulse was to beat the hell
out of me -- he took a few steps toward me -- but he stopped & walked away.
After he left, I walked up to the door and shot the photo, which was later featured
on CNN & FOX. I'll never forget that moment. I always wanted him to know that
I meant no harm. So, now we cut to 2005 -- This Jersey firefighter comes to the
Museum. He was real quiet and was brooding somewhat as he took in every detail
of the Museum and the video on large screen (we have this rare Recovery footage
shot by Steve Spak). He was about to leave and he looked upset. I figured he was
emotional about the exhibit. He said a few words and then said, You see that photo
on your wall? The one of the WHY firetruck? I nodded my head yes. He said, You
remember me? I said, Yeah, I do. You're the guy that scrawled the word onto the
truck's door, aren't you? He said, Yeah, I'm the guy. And I really wanted to beat
the hell out of you that day. I hated you for holding that camera. I thought you
were exploiting Ground Zero. At this point, I thought I was dead."
What did you do? Was he there for payback?
thought so, yes. But out of nowhere, he just broke down and wept. While he was
crying, and it was not easy for him, he said he was sorry. He said he didn't know
who I was that Sunday evening in September and that when he later saw the image
in my book and on TV, he felt guilty for a long time. Four years to be exact.
And he stood there weeping in the middle of my Museum and I must say it's one
of the most beautiful and memorable moments of my life. I mean, that this man
carried around that guilt for so long just bothers me. He didn't deserve that.
More importantly, he had the guts to come to the Museum and face me and say he
was sorry; wow is all I can say. That's a real man as far as I'm concerned. I
was so happy though, because it took away that guilty feeling I had for four years
also! He made everything okay and now I knew the man behind an image that moves
many people. It was certainly an Oprah moment! I think it was therapeutic for
him and me both so what more can be said. I wanted to break down and cry when
he did but I couldn't. It was similar to when I shot the "Band
" series, which were portraits of retired firemen who lost their
sons & dug together at Ground Zero. Almost all of them wept while we shot.
They were each holding a personal item of their fallen sons, so it was a hard
situation. I had to be strong for them and not cry, so this was the same situation
here in the Museum with the firefighter. After he left, I thanked God for bringing
this man to my Museum. It was a gift for both of us. It's cool when life comes
Did you shoot photography as a child? How did you learn
learned to shoot photography at age 11 on my northwest suburban farm in Illinois.
My first camera was a little pinhole camera I got inside an issue of National
Geographic for Kids, and the first photo I ever shot was of my 3 dogs
. I found the concept of photography interesting; that one
could record a moment on film forever. It boggled my mind. I upgraded to this
little nothing camera that I stole out of my brother's room periodically, much
to his dismay. I spent all my time shooting sunsets and my horses and picturesque
things. One day, my mother Sharon picked up a few rolls of film from the lab and
opened my roll accidentally. She noticed I had this for photography and called
me into her room. I thought I was in trouble but on the contrary, she felt I had
this gift for photography, which I laughed at. I told her I had no more talent
than anyone else, but she disagreed. She really pushed me to shoot more, which
I did, and on my fourteenth birthday she and my father bought me a professional
Canon camera. I immersed myself in the craft and by age 17 had won the Kodak
in the National Scholastics Art & Writing Awards. Ironically,
my winning images were flown to New York and exhibited at The World Trade Center.
I kind of burned out by the time I graduated high school and turned down college
scholarship offers for photography. I went into acting, studying on scholarship
at the University of Texas at Austin. I moved to New York for a theatre & film career and one day, I decided to shoot photography again, just as a hobby,
but never imagined where it'd go. Oddly enough, I wound up documenting the Recovery
at the very place where my first winning images were displayed. Very bizarre...
One morning at Ground Zero, I sat in the dirt, exhausted, and watched the sunrise
over the Woolworth building. I thought about my Mom and realized had she not pushed me to shoot photography as a boy on my suburban farm, I wouldn't be there at Ground
Zero at that moment. Furthermore, there would be literally no record of the Recovery
at Ground Zero. So, if anyone really appreciates this historical collection, they
shouldn't thank me; they should thank my mom: Sherry Suson
Do you remember your first entry into the "hole" at Ground Zero?
course I do. I had a huge lump in my throat. Sitting shotgun in the Honda "Gator"
and driving down the Tully Road (see "South Exit Road" on Ground Zero
) into the pit was like being swallowed up by the Grand Canyon. It was mammoth;
much bigger than you can imagine by just seeing it on television. The smells were
overpowering and I was given a mask. Everyone was very focused on their tasks
and it was very "rough" down there. It was like a war zone. I didn't
shoot too much on those first few entries, mostly in part because I was too wide-eyed
at what I was seeing and also because I was afraid someone would break my fingers
if they saw me take out this big Mamiya camera to shoot. Finally, my guide said,
"Are you gonna start shooting or what?" Sure enough, when I began shooting,
some firemen walked over, very protective-like, and wanted to know who I was and
why did I have a camera. It was explained to them that I was shooting on behalf
of the Uniformed Firefighters Association and none of the images were being released.
Within two weeks they knew me on a first name basis and some ribbed me (in typical
firemen fashion), often saying, "Here comes Ansel Adams
." It was the
bond that I formed with these guys that wound up being the reason my images are
shot from just inches or feet away. Each one had really interesting stories and
I developed a bond with them. Sometimes they'd tell me about their friends who
had died on 9/11. It was tough for them to get through the Recovery. In the end,
they trusted me and I never broke that trust."
So, you made many friends from this experience?
and I still speak with them to this day. Mostly firefighters. It was a tough place
to work but I made some special friends at Ground Zero. There was a lot of "bonding" there; it was necessary to keep each other strong. After all, this was a very
serious place to be working. It was harsh. I think it's safe to say everyone who
worked there confronted their worst fears face-to-face. Some of the Chiefs were
instrumental in me securing some very historical images. They looked out for me,
so I quickly learned the meaning of the word BROTHERHOOD."
Did you see victims?
A) "Its odd, you know; I don't know why people always ask me this question.
Maybe people are in denial of some sort, I dont know. The answer is
yes, I did. It was more than just two buildings collapsing. People were inside
Perhaps I meant to say how did you react?
"I reacted the same way you would. I was upset; it hit me quite hard. I'm
not trained in this sort of thing. Shortly thereafter I shut down emotionally;
it was necessary to get through months of this. If I cried, I would do so in private,
at home or in the Church
(See Ground Zero Lingo). The letters, The kid's letters
in St. Paul's
somehow seemed to make me cry..they were...very innocent from all
over the world..they were the complete polar opposite of 9/11...they were just
pure and innocent...those children's letters.."
Can you describe one letter in particular?
I don't know. It's hard, you know? (pause) Hmm, okay, this one letter...from this
little girl...she wrote something like, "Dear Rescue Workers, I'm very sorry
your beautiful buildings fell down. They were very pretty. I hope you can fix
them..." (stop) Sorry, I don't do well with that. You see? This little girl
had no clue that 3,000 people died; she was just so innocent. She just thought
these pretty buildings fell down (pause) and she's sad. She's the complete antithesis
of the scumbags that flew the planes into the World Trade Center. Those letters,
most of them with misspelled words, helped give me some faith that there was still
good in the world. I saved a lot of those letters."
You are a trained actor, so what was it like being on the
other side of the camera?
it was interesting. Photographers certainly don't command the respect that actors
do. Why that is, I don't know. Cameras tend to be associated with exploitation
and that's sad as without photography, much of the World's history would be non-existent
in a viewable sense. Also, I received so much world-wide press from having
this unique position at Ground Zero, that sometimes when I went to pitch new theatrical projects
I had written, some people said, "Oh, you're also an actor?" That was
annoying but it also shows you the power of the press and how typecasting can affect you. I never planned to have a career in photography. I dabbled in it some; I shot some fashion, celebrity portraits, and so forth, but it
was just a short phase. Eight months at Ground Zero, some national interviews and boom; all-of-a
sudden I am a world reknowned photographer. The theatre is my first love, as is writing
Off-Broadway plays and screenplays. So, while it was a great experience to be on the OTHER
side of the lens, I am anxious to re-establish myself in my chosen field."
What camera and films did you use at Ground Zero?
shot on Mamiya
medium format cameras. Mamiya sponsored me at Ground Zero with
equipment. I chose medium format so the images would have more detail for the
viewers. I can also enlarge pretty big without losing detail. I shot on Fuji and
Kodak color films and on Ilford XP-2 (sepia) and Kodak TCN-400. I like the sepia
as it captured both the rich tones of the Ground Zero mud and also gave the images
a historic, wartime feel; and it was a war zone. My choices were just instinctual
and since I wasn't beholden to some paper or magazine, I went with my gut instincts
on what to shoot with. I am pleased with those choices and would do it again if
I had the chance. Sometimes, however, I'd load the camera as I got to Ground Zero
with say, sepia-toned film and hope that the subject matter called for that film!
Usually, I got lucky. The Honor Guard images looked good in both color and sepia,
but it was the luck of the draw as to what was in the camera. I didn't have spare
rolls pre-loaded as it was pointless; the dirt, dust and mud permeated everything.
I usually just changed film behind a fireman's back; his bunker coat blocking
the winds and dust. Sometimes, the firemen would help me during the film-changing
process. They were all really cool about helping me out. The camera would sometimes
freeze up in cold weather so I'd keep it wrapped in a blanket until I was ready
to shoot but sometimes I had to walk back up to the Church and let it thaw out
before returning to shoot. Other times I'd surround the camera in hand-warmers
(see Ground Zero Lingo) and that was helpful. However, if it was a day when hand-warmers
were scarce, I'd forego them so the guys would have something to put in their
gloves. The giant halogen lights that illuminated the WTC site at night sometimes
caused problems with the film. Nighttime shooting was never easy but it was the
most serene time to shoot. As the city slept, Ground Zero just kept on going."
You shot the famous photo of the charred Bible Page from
Genesis 11: The Tower of Babylon. When did you find the Bible Page?
was one night in January of 2002. I was standing near a steep incline that had
a cement barrier in front of it. A machine was digging into the incline when I
saw some charred papers by the edge. I asked permission from an attending Chief
to go shoot the papers. He said "yes" but said I was to make it fast
as it was a dangerous place to stand. I walked over and pulled the top paper away,
revealing this somewhat legible, wet, charred page from the Bible. The Bible itself
was gone. I was very taken by this; to find something so holy in such a harsh
environment. Feeling rushed to shoot the photo, I leaned over and was about to
push the release (the Bible page was small) but realized I had the wrong lens.
I changed lenses and was quickly back focusing the camera about to shoot when
my friend zipped up in his Honda "Gator" and yelled "Get in! We
need to go to a recovery!" (they had found a victim). I yelled back that
he needed to come see this and he just yelled louder to hurry up and snap the
"friggin" picture. He didn't understand the monumental find I was hovering
over. I shot only two frames and errantly didn't grab the wet page because I was
so panicked. Later that night, I got the proof sheets back and took a magnifying
glass to read what passage was on the page. I fell over in shock when it turned
out to be Genesis
: The Tower of Babylon. Needless to say, I broke down and wept as I took
this as a sign from God; some sign that He was looking over that WTC site even
as so much mourning was taking place. I saw this as a positive sign; a positive
message that He looked over the victims in their final moments. I called my friend,
the one who insisted I snap the photo so "friggin" fast and we met up
with two other people to search for this page in the mud. We never found it, which
is sad, but at least I have the photo. In the Museum I am building to open September
7th, 2005 in Manhattan, I have painstakingly re-created in 3-D the image I shot
that day. It is even resting in faux Ground Zero dirt, so viewers will be able
to experience in 3-D what I saw that cold day in January. It's as close as I can
get to the real thing. I will also, after four years of never releasing it, be
marketing posters and mini-prints of the Bible Page at the museum to help us with
What was one of the most memorable images or moments you
shot at Ground Zero?
the day that FDNY Chief Ron Spadafora grabbed me by the shoulder as the Honor
Guard began its procession up the exit ramp. He yanked me into the procession,
enabling me to shoot an amazing image that puts viewers as close as possible to
experiencing what it was like to be in the Honor Guard. Problem was I had the
wrong lens on the camera (zoom) for where I was standing, so I had to lean back
while I was walking in order to even shoot the image. In addition, I had to rock
my body side to side in the same type of swaying motion that the firemen carrying
the body in front of me were doing. If I didn't sway, then I had no gapin front
of me to see the flag-draped body before me. It wasn't easy, but it gets even
better: I had only one frame left in the camera so I either nailed it or I didn't.
I'm glad Ron grabbed me by the shoulder that day as I'll never forget that moment;
it sure wasn't something they teach you in photo class."
Whats it like opening a Museum concerning this subject?
Are you concerned about what the reaction will be like?
A.) "Naturally, it's a weird feeling. I often wake up and say, Wow, am I really
opening a Museum? I am so tied to it all that I often forget the impact it has
on others. For visitors, it's the first time they are viewing my images and remnants.
As far as a reaction goes. Listen, I cannot control what people will think. I
cannot for the life of me think of anything in the Museum that would rub anyone
wrong. It's all done tastefully. I am sensitive to all those that pass through
these doors, especially family members, but the truth is that my real allegiance
is to those who died. They are the heroes and no one else. They are my #1 concern;
to honor their memory. When I wasn't shooting photos, I was digging, and yes I
picked up human remains of all sizes and bagged them on many occasions. That weighs
heavily on my conscience in that I would never do anything to disrespect them
in this Museum. When building the Museum I would take breaks at night and rollerblade
down the West Side Highway bike path and stop in front of Ground Zero and meditate.
I would outright ask them to guide me in the process. I would even say out loud
the charities I was going to give the money to. I wanted to be very clear with
them what I was doing. That may sound hokey, but if you had seen the things myself
and others have seen, you'd understand the sanctity of all this. Fact is, I am
happy with what I have created. I couldn't have done any better. I know in my
heart that the exhibit is going to touch thousands of people. GZMW is a mixture
of history and artistic interpretation, so everyone will see it in their own unique
manner. So far, those who have walked in have been very emotionally moved, so
that's a success for me. One day, while I was in the middle of construction, the
entire FDNY Squad-18 Company pulled up outside and asked to come in. Squad-18
lost their entire company on 9/11. Someone had told them what I was building and
they wanted to see it. So, I opened the door to the Museum and there they were,
dressed in full regalia. They walked around, very quiet, taking in the images
and artifacts, then turned toward me to say they liked it; they thought it was
very tasteful and respectful. I couldn't have asked for a stronger affirmation
of what I was doing. I don't think things happen on accident; they were meant
to pop by that day for whatever reason. It certainly motivated me even more to
finish. I did get some gray hairs erecting this Museum and certainly learned a
lot, so, like all things, it had its positives and negatives. At the end of the
day, all I can say is I did the best with what talents GOD gave me. This is undoubtedly
the most important thing I've even done in my life."
Did you have help putting this together?
I did. I had all the ideas, conceived the designs & I own the Recovery Collection,
but by no means did I do this on my own. I had over forty-five thousand dollars
in cash, product and service donations. People really stepped up to help me, and
just wasn't a part of the vocabulary when I sought out people's help. I thought
maybe since it was four years after September 11 that no one would donate anything.
Wow, was I wrong. From lighting to construction to printing to signs to business
cards, everyone pitched in. Firemen loaned me remnants and digging tools, one
guy built me this incredible steel-beamed display table and an individual whom
I had only met briefly was so taken by the project that they donated substantial
funds necessary to finish the Museum Workshop. I am very overwhelmed by the generosity
shown to me on GZMW; I am taken back by it. I feel blessed to have been surrounded
by talented people who also care. I have no choice but to believe that GZMW was
meant to be."
Did you invite former Mayor Giuliani or Mayor Bloomberg
to the Museum?
A.) " Yes,
I did, but they were unable to attend due to prior committments."
Did that bother you in any way?
| ||A.) "Well, naturally, I would have been honored to host them at the museum, but
they are busy men, so I just have to understand that."
What is the significance of the artifacts in your Museum
public is so used to seeing images of the Towers collapsing that I fear they don't
fully get that there were people inside. People have trouble connecting to the
tragedy because their image of 9/11 is collapsing steel. The remnants that I happily
salvaged from being tossed out in 2002 will help people connect; bring them closer
by humanizing it all. The first time I held a 3/4 inch thick piece of World Trade
Center window glass in my hand, I stood there in awe staring at it. It humbled
me; I wondered who looked through that glass on the morning of 9/11. Many other
thoughts ran through my head, so it was a good thing for me to see, as it will
be for visitors. My images stand on their own and do a good job of showing the
courage of the Recovery workers, but the artifacts/remnants also serve their own
Is there a difference between a remnant & a victim's identifiable personal belonging?
| ||A.) "Oh, yes, a HUGE difference. A remnant is a "small part of something
that remains after the rest has gone." That means items like steel, glass,
calculators, screwdrivers, muddy teddy bears from Windows on the World gift shop,
stairwell signs, a golf ball, a computer keypad, a payphone receiver and other
things that remained in the rubble after the Towers themselves had vanished. These
items and many like them remind us that people were in those buildings. A VICTIM'S
IDENTIFIABLE PERSONAL BELONGING is something entirely different. I was trained
by chiefs who educated me as to what to look for. Those items, which included
engagement/wedding rings, purses, wallets with ID in them, credit cards, drivers
licenses, clothes with names on them, glasses with initials on them or wrist watches
were always turned over to fire chiefs or Port Authority Police personnel on the
and glasses were thrown away?
| ||A.) "Yes, shoes were discarded as it was not possible to tell if they came from a victim or from
a shoe store in the WTC concourse, unless of course they contained a remain. Shoes
were not shown to victim's families. If a WTC shoe is displayed in a museum, there
is no way to know if it was a victim's shoe or from a shoe store. What is most
important is what the shoe represents. In many Holocaust museums, shoes are on
display so as to help visitors connect deeper to what really happened."
With so many images in your collection, how did you narrow it down regarding what
to display at the Museum Workshop?
"I just chose my strongest
images and also those that helped tell as a whole the story of the Recovery at
Ground Zero. I am emotionally tied to all the images; they each are special and
have their own unique story behind them. I am most proud of the 3-Dimensional
image installations. They were quite a chore to make and will certainly place
viewers in Ground Zero.I made the installations and I shot the photos in 2001-2002,
yet I can stand in front of them for many minutes on end without getting bored
and actually be in awe. Viewers will see exactly what I saw from only a few feet
away. If people walk out of Ground Zero Museum Workshop feeling the way I felt
when I walked out of Ground Zero in those first few trips, then I have achieved
What happened when you first released the images to the press?
it was interesting. Unlike nothing I have ever experienced. I was given permission
in the last 2 weeks of Ground Zero to release the images. I was sitting on this
historical treasure trove of images and wondered, Hmm, who do I call first? I
phoned the New York Times
desk and said, Hi, this is Marlon Suson and I am the official photographer at
Ground Zero. I have some amazing images for you to see. They thought I was some
goofball and said, There is no official photographer at Ground Zero, but thanks
for calling. I then became slightly stronger in my attitude and said, I don't
think you understand, I am the official photographer and I have images I really
think you are going to want to see. I know the world will want to see them. They
told me to email a few samples, which I did, and they had me over to their offices
hours later. They wanted to do a half-page, feature story on my images & experiences
at Ground Zero. They confirmed my official status with the fire unions, then paired
me with an amazing writer, Susan Sachs. On May 28, 2002, the story ran. It was
entitled, 'From a Camera at Ground Zero, Rare Photos of an Agonizing Dig. The
press frenzy, and it was a frenzy, that followed was something I wasn't fully
prepared for. Heather Nauert of FOX News Channel pretty much showed up on my front
door and almost every station followed, including CNN and overseas media. I was
very conflicted, and actually phoned my mother, saying, I don't think I should
be the one to talk about Ground Zero. Who am I to be talking about Ground Zero?
I was in an emotional and somewhat fragile state, both from being fresh out of
Ground Zero and also at the thought of going before national press to represent
the Recovery workers and the FDNY. I felt some guilt regarding the fact that I
was to receive any type of attention regarding a tragedy. Hiding behind the lens
was cool, as was shooting, but I didn't plan on taking it beyond that. As an actor
or writer, getting recognition for your art is something to strive for, but this
was an altogether different scenario. Soon after one of my national interviews
aired, I received a call from an FDNY firefighter. A group of firemen were watching
CNN in a Manhattan firehouse and viewed a five-minute segment that aired about
my work on the final day of the cleanup of Ground Zero. He told me that an old,
retired firefighter, known as a tough, stoic guy, was at the house and was choking
back tears when he heard me talk on TV of the bonding I experienced with the firemen
at Ground Zero. He told me everyone liked how I expressed my gratitude towards
the men and how I described the care in which they handled the victims. It was
that phone call that kind of got me on my feet and gave me confidence with respect
to the fact that I could handle conveying my experiences in a national spotlight.
I didn't have to feel guilty about any of this. It was okay to do this. UFA Manhattan
Trustee Rudy Sanfilippo said to me, "You shot the photos and only you know
the stories behind them. They are inspirational, so go share them with the world. It's okay.."
is the current state of Ground Zero? Do you know when it will be re-built and
if theres going to be a Museum there?
Zero is nothing more than a big stone hole in the earth. It's sacred earth. I
have no idea where they are in the re-building process, nor do I think they know.
It is upsetting to see so much procrastination as nothing would make me happier
than to see a new building go up as well as a Museum. Each day that there is no
progress is another day I feel the terrorists feel some success that they took
all those lives as well as the skyline of New York City. Rebuilding is a sort
of defiant act to show them they cannot keep a great city down. I have met with
some of the architects for the new site regarding collaboration on the future
Museum, but in truth that is so many years away from coming to fruition. It's
the main reason I erected Ground Zero Museum Workshop. I don't know why the powers-that-be
continue to argue over what will go there, but I really wish they'd make a decision
and go for it. Personally, I like Daniel Libeskind's ideas for the new site and
I also loved the final, winning memorial park design. Now it's time to go for
it. However, rebuilding is a very sensitive issue for 9/11 family members, and
rightly so. The final concept will most likely have to meet their approval as
it was their loved ones that perished on that 17-acre plot of land."
long did it take you to build the Museum? Any snags along the way?
"It took three months of full-time work. It should have been a six-month
project but I didn't sleep much; I wanted it done for September. I had many snags,
the biggest one being the injury to my left eye while building one of the 3-dimensional
photo installations. The irony is that I worked at Ground Zero for so long and
was so careful, yet four years later I had an injury."
| ||Q.) You shot so many images of the PATH train station and seem to have spent a lot
of time down there. Did you have some fascination with that area below Ground
sure did. It was a scary, yet fascinating place, below Ground Zero
me, it represented the last real area that was left intact from the morning of
September 11. It was full of mysterious passages, dark holes, collapsed structure
and was a reminder of another time period. When I was down there I felt as if
I were in a time capsule. I would often say to myself, I am in the pre-9/11 world
down here and up there is the post-9/11 world. I guess in some weird way I was
happy down there. I would often take a small Bible and read passages for the victims
who died since I figured nobody else was doing it on a regular basis. Sometimes
I would sit on the last subway train from that morning and wonder what it was
like that terrible day. I couldn't believe I was sitting under Ground Zero on
the last subway car while most my friends were either sleeping in their warm beds
or at nightclubs dancing. I realized how bizarre my world was and also how unique
the job I had was. I knew one day I'd speak of all this. When I was down there,
I must admit it was spooky. There were definitely some very strong and strange
energies down there in the dark passages. It was also dangerous and technically
a stupid place for me to be. The remaining subway train was comprised of about
six to eight cars or so. One night I sat on this one subway car in particular
and did my whole deep-thinking thing. I even picked up an ash-caked New York Post
paper from the morning of September 11. It said it was to be mostly sunny with
a high of 87 degrees. Little did any of us know how dark that day would turn out.
So, I left the tunnels and came back the next day and almost fell over. That very
subway car I had been sitting on was now crushed like a tin can. The parking garage
overhead had collapsed and crushed the car, which was marked #160. I am very lucky
as you can see, but this was a wake-up call that I needed to exercise more caution.
Enclosed places were not safe to be in. I lowered myself down onto the tracks
that day, waded into this toxic green water and shot that crushed subway car,
the photo of which is displayed at GZMW. I added the numbers of the car together,
#160, and it totaled 7. So, I decided to open the Museum on September 7, which
is now my lucky number. I was definitely flirting with death on that day and I
firmly believe that timing is everything. The really bizarre twist to this is
that there was only one victim found in the PATH tunnels after all those months.
She must have run down into the tunnels on 9/11 when the Towers collapsed and
the smoke was flying down the streets. She apparently lowered herself onto the
tracks and hid under a subway car, thinking it would protect her from the smoke
and ash, but she became stuck and asphyxiated. She was found under car #160 in
March of 2002. It was on my day off, a Sunday, when a Recovery worker phoned to
tell me of this bizarre find. I stopped going into the PATH tunnels after this.
That was enough for me."
Are you going back into the theatre now? What is next for you? Have you changed
from all this?
A.) " Since
2002, I have written a new, Off-Broadway play that is set at Ground Zero on Christmas
Eve, 2001. In addition, I wrote a feature film that takes place during the Recovery
of Ground Zero and uses rare, never-before-seen video footage I shot at the WTC
site during the winter of 2002. I hope to get both projects financed and produced
in the near future. They are both unique projects and are an amalgam of all my
experiences there. They certainly won't leave any dry eyes when they are eventually
produced. As far as have I changed? I'd have to say a whole-hearted yes to that
one. I am a much more feeling individual now and not afraid to show my true thoughts
on anything. Working at Ground Zero showed me that life can be unexpectedly cut
short, without warning, so I try to just say what's on my mind as it unfolds.
My experiences there made me somewhat fearless, in general. I have seen so many
families suffer through the loss of their loved ones that it makes my problems
seem stupid and meaningless. Seeing their struggles has changed me for sure. I
laugh at how sometimes I now just don't fear things, and I used to get anxiety
from everything. Perhaps that experience just made me grow up fast. I remember
going in on one audition about 6 months after the Recovery ended and I was in
the casting room waiting for myself to get anxious, but it never happened. I was
able to focus intently on the script and never even gave one thought to the casting
person or others in the room. I just didn't care. I cared only about the words
on the page and the actor before me. I later realized that it was a by-product
from Ground Zero. I learned to shut down so many emotions upon seeing some very
bad things that it blended into other areas of my life. I walked out of the audition
and said to myself, I've changed. I wound up being offered the role and turned
it down as I wanted more time to work through some personal issues I had regarding
the Recovery. So, yes, I am definitely a changed person."
| ||Q.) Is your 200-page Barnes & Noble photography book, Requiem: Images of Ground
Zero going to be re-issued anytime soon?
| ||A.) " Yes, in the Spring of 2006. I now control the rights to Requiem it and
it will be re-printed exactly as the first edition looked in 2002. It will sell
for $49.00 per copy and includes an autograph on the inside cover. We currently
have a waiting list for the book. "
| || |
| || || |