I was parading out of the library with all of the adolescent attitude I could muster, talking to friends, albeit quietly as to uphold my pristine reputation with my sixth-grade teacher. All of the sudden an older boy walked out of the school office alarmingly blurting out to our entire class, “Have yall heard what happened?” The tone in his voice was overflowing with worry.
Suddenly, I was scared. Scared of what our teachers couldn’t tell us and scared of what the TVs showed when they told us anyways. I had never known of war, of attacks. It was something I had merely read in history books. Our country was the land of the brave, the free, the perfect life. I was terrified of evil I couldn’t fathom.
I know we can all pinpoint those exact moments in our lives, those exact streets we drove down, supermarkets we strolled through, office chairs we warmed. The memories seem easier to recall than memories of this morning’s breakfast.
On Sept. 11, 2001, some lost family members while others, like me, merely lost innocence. While my emotions are trivial compared those of the fathers who lost sons, wives who lost husbands and daughters who lost mothers, I can honestly say it is a day I will never forget.
Gary Suson will never forget that warm September morning either, though not through a subdued memory like the rest of us. Suson remembers that day through the rolls of film he shot from his rooftop as the buildings collapsed and through the thousands of pictures he would take in his stint as the official Ground Zero photographer.
Suson told his story to more than 400 Auburn students who packed out the Student Center ballroom Tuesday night. Silent tears rolled down cheeks and sniffles were stifled behind me. Neither texting nor Internet perusing were needed to hold us over through the two-hour presentation. Instead, Suson gripped our attention through visual images and vulnerable emotion as he focused in on his harrowing journey.
With his shaved head, ball cap and pseudo-fireman jacket bearing patches of the twin tours silhouetted against the American flag, Suson brought us to deep into the hallowed hole of Ground Zero, placing us amid the pain.
“When I saw some of the things down there, I would go home and cry,” Suson said. “A lot of the things that made me cry are in these images. So, I shot them in the most tasteful, respectful way, but I shot them in the way that got to my heart.”
Though he captured images of the towers falling on Sept. 11 and shot images from the perimeter, he didn’t become the official photographer until November. Mayor Guiliani had banned photography of Ground Zero a few weeks after the attacks out of respect for the victims, but Suson was eventually invited to be the official photographer by the Uniformed Fireman’s Association. He immersed himself within the recovery effort in order to capture it in its most intimate sense.
For seven months he spent 18 hours a day at Ground Zero, eating every meal there and sleeping in a nearby church. The work was unsalaried, and he was ordered not to sell a single photograph. When his savings ran dry, Suson took out a $10,000 loan to make ends meet while telling this story through his work.
“Artists do what they do best, they contribute through their emotional talents,” he said. “I wanted to contribute. I wanted to tell the story of 9-11.”
Suson’s photographs relay the veneration of FDNY and NYPD honor guard processions, of fathers carrying out fathers and brothers carrying out brothers. They tell the story of a dutiful and devoted minister who blessed all of the remains that were recovered. They tell the story of the recovery workers painstakingly smelling the remnants to decipher fabric from flesh.
“Layers of an era,” he described, admitting that he was even trained in digging for personal items and remains. “It comes with a fine print,” he said. “It sure wasn’t something they teach you in photo class.”
However, he noted that taking these photographs was his way of serving the people most affected by this tragedy. “If you can’t connect, you can’t heal.”
On this 10th anniversary, how have you connected to this tragedy? For Auburn students, Suson served as this direct connection to the Sept. 11 tragedy. Though we were reminded of the unfathomable evil inflicted on innocent victims, we saw an unfailing determination that came of the recovery process. We saw a passion for human life that could not be curbed, stories that could not be forgotten.
Suson recalled that FDNY Chaplain Christopher Keenan told him at Ground Zero “Two bullets went into the World Trade Center, but only LOVE came out.”
More information on Suson’s photos, book and WTC museum can be found at: http://www.septembereleven.net/