As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I found myself trying to think of a way to observe the day that was relevant, meaningful and appropriate for the Cog. I didn’t want to just throw a slew of 9/11 related imagery into a post. Doing so felt hollow and slightly trivializing. I had just about given up my search for a memorial post when Santa Monica-based portrait photographer Robert Gallagher sent me a link to some portraits. I immediately knew I had found what I was looking for—a 9/11 story appropriate for a photography blog, with portraits and quotes that bring you right back to the days after the attacks…
Robert was in the middle of one of his annual New York portfolio trips in September of 2011. His plans changed the morning of the 11th. The day of the attacks Robert knew he had to head closer to the Twin Towers to try and document what he saw,
I remember walking down the middle of 5th Ave, as everyone else was streaming north. I spent the rest of the next few days wandering the city, trying to capture the dazed and confused feeling that was everywhere.
In the days following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Robert was compelled to take his documentation a step further. Being more a portrait photographer than a photojournalist, he was drawn to the faces of the numerous rescuers tirelessly working. So Robert set out to shoot a unique series of the rescue workers,
I’d literally bought an old Polaroid 100 land camera earlier in the week, after seeing a street vendor photographer making cool portraits of tourists. I watched her making the watercolor prints on a little table on the sidewalk. So I decided to have a go. Little did i know that I’d employ that technique to capture one of the most important days in US history.
What he ended up creating was Ground Hero-Portraits of September 11, a set of Polaroid transfer portraits of the rescue workers as they came off their shifts. Robert was inspired by these men and women—dirty, shell shocked, and exhausted, yet unwavering in their spirit—and was compelled to record their efforts. Freezing the people, faces, and moments of 9/11 workers was important to Robert, and to this day he still considers the project to be one of his most personal. Each of his rescue worker portraits is one of a kind, with no negatives, making them all the more special.
I feel it was an honor to meet the people I shot, and I’m proud as a documentarian. I hope the images and quotes will be viewed in many years to come—to remember not just the dark side of the humanity, but also the strength of the human spirit.
Ten years later, the images are a poignant reminder of what we lost, what we gained, and what we learned as a nation from September 11. The, “words and pictures are a testament to a nation’s spirit,” and will certainly never let us forget.