Interview With Gary Marlon Suson, Official Ground Zero Photographer of FDNY
Since writing articles is my everyday job, I have a procedure that enables me to do it rather effectively and efficiently. Find a topic; craft a headline; jot down some notes; formulate an opening; and then mete out enough words to reach the bottom of the page for the day.
It is a great gig, but I can honestly say that I have never felt emotionally unhinged from writing about real estate, electronic gadgets, sports cars, private jets, yachts, or arts and culture. However, this one is a completely different story.
In a tribute to 9/11, JustLuxe spoke with Gary Marlon Suson, the founder of the Ground Zero Museum Workshop in NYC and the author of the highly regarded 280-page book published by Barnes Noble Publishing, Requiem: Images of Ground Zero.
Gary Marlon Suson also served seven months as the Official Photographer at Ground Zero for the Uniformed Firefighters Association. Manhattan Trustee Rudy Sanfilippo and former FDNY Chief of Department Daniel Nigro supervised the project. In honor of Mr. Suson's work, the Fire Department of New York named him an Honorary Battalion Chief in 2004. His work has been featured on the FBI Training Network in Quantico for its Homeland Security and Policing videos.
The New York Times dubbed his images "Rare Photos." Suson was featured more than a dozen times on both Fox News and CNN. The Pulitzer Prize Committee reviewed eight of his images for the 2002 awards. The U.S. Secret Service brought Suson to the White House as their special guest to recognize his photographic journal of the aftermath of 9/11. Worldwide, only two photographers had full, unfettered access to Ground Zero during the "Recovery." Joel Meyerowitz, who shot the ever-changing landscapes, and Gary Marlon Suson.
Suson spent most his time down in the trenches on the front lines with FDNY firefighters — where he captured the most private and intimate of moments on film — from the Honor Guard ceremonies to deep below WTC in the cold, darkened PATH subway tunnels. Josh Gibson of Fox News dubbed Suson the "Matthew Brady of Ground Zero" — referring to the famed Civil War "lens-man" who single-handedly documented the battlefield scenes.
In 2005, Suson founded the Ground Zero Museum Workshop. The concept stemmed from an inspirational visit to the Anne Frank House. The experience showed him how such a small museum could have a profound and educational impact. After being told by the NYC museums, which he had hoped to collaborate with, that "nobody wants to hear about 9/11 anymore; they want to move on," Suson decided to convert his commercial loft, in NYC's Meatpacking District, into what is now known as the "Biggest Little Museum in New York."
TripAdvisor currently rates that small Manhattan-based museum its "#14 highest rated attraction" in New York City. The US News & World Report Travel ranks it the "#2 Best Thing To See in NYC." The Ground Zero Museum Workshop has grown from a rarely visited venue to a must-see destination. The museum, filled with stories from the "Recovery," today on average donates around $2,000 biweekly to 9/11 charities.
I am honored to have had the opportunity to work on this piece with Gary and to get to know him better. It is through his lenses that the world got to see the aftermath of the darkest day to have ever occurred on U.S. soil: September 11, 2001.
JustLuxe: I have to tell you that I have the utmost respect for your work, Gary. I appreciate you taking a moment to talk with us and to share your story and these extraordinary images. What you have done is incredible. I could not get through viewing your gallery of pictures without feeling emotionally spent. This would be an opportunity of a lifetime for a photojournalist. How did it actually come your way?
Gary Marlon Suson: Around November of 2001, I read in a local NY paper a story about FDNY firefighters at Ground Zero suffering from chronic fatigue. The doctors were confused as the blood work was coming back normal. I contacted an environmental illness specialist I knew of in Long Island, NY, who felt he could help them. He graciously offered his services for free. The belief was that the firefighters were chemically toxic. Then, I contacted the Uniformed Firefighters Association and spoke to Rudy Sanfilippo, who thought this was worth pursuing. So, I was a liaison. One day, Rudy inquired about my website, SeptemberEleven.net, as he wanted a particular photo of the Ground Zero Christmas Tree to send to a woman in California who was sending gingerbread cookies to NY firefighters. Up until this point, I was documenting WTC from just inside the lip of the site via my friends in the NYPD.
Rudy liked my work. So, in December 2001, he summoned me to his offices to discuss a special project in which he wanted 9/11 families to have a visual record of their loved ones being recovered via the American flag-draped ceremonies. He asked if I would like to document it on behalf of the fire unions. I said yes. So, Rudy got clearance from the union president, and thus I began my duties. I had full, 24-hour access to every area of Ground Zero.
JL: There were strict provisions and rules that accompanied this job. Isn't that correct?
GMS: Yes, there were a few. I was to be unsalaried and barred from releasing the images until the cleanup ended. I also was prohibited from informing the press that my position existed (until June, 2002); and I was to never shoot human remains.
JL: In an interview that you did with Paula Zahn on CNN, you talked about "packing it in" and leaving. Why didn't you? What changed your mind and made you decide to stay?
GMS: Well, I am not trained as a paramedic or a firefighter. So, I was not prepared for the severe things I saw during those first 30 days; I decided I had enough. I was unsalaried, had little money to survive and was barred from releasing the collection. Furthermore, I was sleeping every night in hard, wooden Church pews and shooting 18 hours per day. I was exhausted, dirty, depressed and was convinced nobody would ever see these images anyway.
Then, on a Sunday afternoon in late January, I happened upon a single, torn, wet page from the Bible, which I photographed. Later that night, I viewed the proof sheets and fell over when I zoomed in on the Bible page. It was the passage Genesis 11: The Tower of Babylon. For me, that moment was very bizarre and very inspirational. To this day, I still can't believe I found that. Long story short, I stayed, took out a $10,000 bank loan and finished the project in June 2002.
JL: What was your first impression when you entered Ground Zero?
GMS: Overwhelmed. It was like as a little boy, when I first walked into Wrigley Field and my jaw dropped; everything was so much bigger than it looked on TV. The dense smoke, the strong smells, the intense sadness that hung over the WTC site, as recovery workers walked by me with stokes baskets carrying victims. It was all a bit much for my mind to grasp. Everyone was quite focused on the task at hand. I watched a team of about 20 coroners, in white jumpsuits and particle masks, enter the site just after me and stand silent, mouths hanging open as they took in the smoldering rubble, wondering what they were about to see. After my first day in my "Official Photographer" status, I went home and cried myself to sleep. I didn't know if I could accomplish such a goal — documenting Ground Zero by myself.
JL: Is there one thing, or event, that remains at the forefront of your thoughts in regard to that experience to this day?
GMS: Just the irony in that I was honored to be chosen for this position and how anxious I was to begin documenting when I entered WTC. However, when I first arrived, I simply had no desire to shoot, as I was humbled and in awe of what I was seeing. I was taking it all in; I had a camera hanging down by my side, when my escort suddenly said, "So, are you just going to stand there, or are you going to shoot?"
As far as the actual morning of 9/11 goes, I will never forget the air of uncertainty that gripped New York City — the loss of control and fear that at any second another airplane would hit another building. People were crying all around me. Nobody felt safe. Ironically, it was a beautiful, sunny day with clear blue skies and nobody was prepared for the skies to go black with smoke.
JL: Would you say that this experience has changed you as both an individual and an artist?
GMS: Well, I think prior to 9/11, I was more self-centered; it was all about me. After working seven months at Ground Zero with FDNY firefighters that all changed. I was so humbled and learned what it was to put others first. The firefighters accepted me into their closed circle, and while they were tough characters, they also were kind.
I was trained as a recovery worker and dug with my rake when there was nothing to shoot. The volunteers at the nearby St. Paul's Chapel also taught me about real kindness and giving. On cold nights when I walked in there at 2 a.m., they were always there to give me a warm meal, a hot chocolate, a smile, and a "thank you" for what I was doing. That really rubbed off on me. I guess what I'm saying is that I learned about unity and being a team player. As a result, I am much more empathetic to those in need now and am quick to give of myself. My heart is expanded as a result of 9/11.
JL: In your mind, does it feel like this happened over 10 years ago?
GMS: Not really. It feels like it happened yesterday. That is in part because 9/11 is always in the news and referenced every day. So, we never really get to be distanced from the event. It is omnipresent; in the forefront of our minds. I think for those involved in the recovery, and for those families who lost loved ones, it is always there.
It was a sad and defining moment in world history and even for me, many years later, I simply cannot believe that anyone could be so evil as to fly aircrafts into buildings with the intention to kill innocent civilians. It's unthinkable...
JL: Now, I know your one-word reply to this question, but I am curious to know more as to why. I know that you no longer shoot photography. Why is that?
GMS: I never wanted to be a professional photographer. It was a hobby since I was about 12 years old. I went to school for theater. I am an actor, a playwright and a voiceover artist for TV, film and radio. I am just happy I was able to contribute in some way to the recovery efforts; in this case with a camera.
I will say I have a lot of respect for wartime photographers, who often receive no credit for their heroics of throwing themselves on the front lines and putting their lives at risk to capture historical moments for the masses. I have experienced the horrors of terrorism firsthand from working at WTC; and I hope nothing like this ever happens again.
JL: How can our readers buy the book?
GMS: Thanks. They can email us at GroundZeroMuseum@aol.com. We can ship their book anywhere in the world for $49, plus shipping. JustLuxe readers can track our monthly donations on Twitter at "911Museum."
JL: Let's talk some shop. What does a 2-hour tour at Ground Zero Museum Workshop entail?
GMS: The GZMW houses 100 Images and Artifacts from the "Recovery." During the first 40 minutes of a tour, guests receive an oral presentation by their guide; they watch a 12-minute film and are then given the opportunity to pick up and hold artifacts, like steel and window glass from the WTC. Then they are turned over to their self-guided audio units, which contain the stories behind the images and artifacts. The stories are told in Italian, English, Spanish and French. These stories also contain real sound effects from the "Recovery." We also have some images in 3D installations.
JL: I understand that your museum doesn't allow photographs of the wrecked airplane fuselage that's on display. Why is that?
GMS: We do that out of respect to the victims. We don't want to turn this museum into a Disneyland-like thing, having people standing next to artifacts that people perished on for a photo opportunity. These are sacred artifacts and should be treated as such. The piece of AA11 brings the event "home" for those who view it. It takes 9/11 off the television and makes it quite real for visitors.
JL: Thank you very, very much for taking the time to speak with me today, Gary. Your story is amazing.
GMS: My pleasure.
Visit the website by Mr. Suson that originally caught the eye of FDNY union officials at SeptemberEleven.net. Tours to the Ground Zero Museum Workshop sell out well in advance. You can book tickets by calling Zerve at (212) 209-3370. For more information, visit GroundZeroMuseumWorkshop.com.