HEART 9/11 is a volunteer core of first responders that met in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. Also known as the Healing Emergency Aid Response Team, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit was founded in 2007 by William E. Keegan. Its stated mission is to respond immediately to natural and man-made disasters, to rebuild infrastructure in hard-hit areas, and to recover by building resiliency for individuals, families, and communities in the US and abroad. Since 2007, its 1200 volunteers, representing FDNY, NYPD, PAPD, and the NYC Building Trades, have built or rebuilt 846 homes in five countries, in the aftermath of 45 disasters. Last February, HEART 9/11 reached out to Mobile, Alabama-based conflict/crisis and humanitarian photographer Dan Anderson to capture stills and video for the organization’s new restoration efforts in the Africatown community of Mobile.
The project and my involvement in it started back in July of 2022 before I had even heard of HEART 9/11. The previous summer I was hired to shoot photos for a feature in the New York Post about former NY Mets player Cleon Jones, a native resident of Africatown. The story focused on Cleon and the work he has been doing to help with the upkeep of homes in the Africatown community. I spent the day with the writer as we followed Cleon going around the neighborhood, checking on different homes and projects being worked on.
When HEART 9/11 contacted me late last February about their upcoming project in Africatown, I excitedly replied to the email telling them that I was willing to cover it and was familiar with the area, mentioning that I had worked on the story for the NY Post about Cleon. I was really humbled when I found out the inspiration for this project came from the head of the organization reading that very same story and deciding to come to Alabama to work on it. The organization had found me through the local Film Office. They had no clue I was the photographer on the NY Post story when they contacted me!
Africatown, also known as Plateau, is less than five miles north of Mobile’s Central Business District, just east of the intersection of the Mobile River and the Chickasaw Creek.
The community was founded by a group of 32 West Africans, who were brought against their will in 1860 on the ship Clotilda. It was the last known illegal shipment of slaves to the United States. When the people who brought them over were afraid they would get caught, they set many of the West Africans loose and burned the ship down to hide the evidence. (There is a great documentary that deals with this history and the community on Netflix called Descendent, that is worth checking out for more details.)
The community is what many would consider economically disadvantaged and cornered in by several industrial sites in the area. The discovery of parts of the Clotilda that have been uncovered in the Mobile River recently has drawn more attention to the community and its needs over the past few years.
The goal of the stills and video was primarily for use on HEART 9/11’s social media to help promote its mission in Africatown. The assets were also part of the organization’s larger marketing efforts. They hoped to attract new and existing donors for future projects in Africatown and other areas in need.
HEART 9/11 was founded by first responders from the New York-area who were there when 9/11 happened. They were so grateful for the help that came in from across the country after the terrorist attacks that they decided to start a charity to help out other areas of the country in need, especially those that have suffered from some natural disaster.
A big part of my work is in the world of documentary and photojournalism. It made me a good fit for capturing their volunteers working on homes while also managing to stay out of the way. Still photography is the main focus of my career, but I’ve been doing video work on the side for over a decade. Being able to balance my coverage between both still and video captures was a draw for them as well.
The preplanning for the project was conducted remotely via emails and phone calls between Dan and the nonprofit.
The organization only had a budget to hire me for thee days out of the five-day mission. So we planned on shooting the first two days to show the “before” of the homes, along with shooting the 4th day so I could show some of the “after” as well.
The photoshoot and relief mission took place in late February, with a 30-person team of skilled volunteers. They had an initial goal of working on 10 existing homes, including roofing, window and door replacement, sheet-rocking, framing, and siding.
The first day started with a ceremony of community leaders thanking HEART 9/11 and the volunteers for coming down to help. After that, they pretty much went right to work at different houses with any improvements they could do. The community would band together and bring them lunch just about every day.
For the most part my job was to stay out of the way and let the volunteers work while I got my photos and video clips. HEART 9/11 provided me with a list of people to get on camera interviews, so I could edit them together with my other video clips at the time. The HEART 9/11 volunteers are hard working people who were happy to be there to help, so documenting them was easy.
The project’s budget limited Dan’s coverage to three 5-6 hour days of shooting, which made time (more than usual) an important consideration for this stills and video photoshoot.
Trying to get interviews with some of the homeowners having their houses worked on was difficult since some of them were at work during the day while their homes were being repaired. I couldn’t stay too long at any one house getting coverage because I needed to make sure I had enough variety between homes.
Also, just making sure I had enough of a variety of both still and video clips for the project was challenging. I overcame this by having one of my cameras designated for video capture (with a microphone and Neutral Density filter attached). While my other two were used mostly as stills cameras.
After each day of shooting, Dan spent two to three hours at home editing the day’s stills and video clips with a final postproduction edit the following week.
Logistics were challenging at times going from one home to another and finding a place that would make for good stills and video. A lot of times I would be in small cramped spaces in the houses as the crews worked. So I had to work with minimal equipment and really lean into shooting more with wide angle lenses. Also, once inside the homes, the light wasn’t great. But sometimes that made for more dramatic images, so I leaned into it when I could. There was a ton of dust and mold in the air so I had to be mindful of my lenses and usually would step outside if I needed to change glass on my camera.
But for Dan, this far from dampened the meaningfulness of the project and the profound impact it had on him as a photographer.
On a personal note, it was very heartwarming for me to be a part of this project. One of the reasons I (and many others) are drawn to documentary work is the hope that it can help bring a positive change to people and the world around you. It’s hard to keep that faith at times since you don’t always know the impact your work has on others (especially those outside of our social media and professional circles). To work on a story about the community and have it influence a nonprofit such as HEART 9/11 to aid Africatown 6 months later is one of those “this is exactly why I got into this field” moments. Getting hired by HEART 9/11 to document their mission in the community was icing on the cake for me at that point.
See more of Dan’s work on his website.