Ronald Herard: 9/11 Through the Eyes of a Photo Lab Technician

This photographer walks in, drops off his pictures and stands off to the side. I asked him “Are you okay?” He says he was standing there with the camera in hand and all of a sudden him and the firemen hear these sounds. THUNK! THUNK! He didn’t know what it was. When he turned around, he found out it was people hitting the ground and jumping out of the World Trade Center. He says to me “I couldn’t lift my camera.” He was covered in ash, and tears were coming down his eyes. They were flesh colored where the tears were streaming down and cutting through the ashes. That photographer cleaned himself up in the bathroom and he went back out there.

During 9/11, Ronald Herard was one of the people running the Time Life Photo Lab in NYC. He got into the art form through graphic design only to shuffle around while working in studios, retail stores, and then photo labs. Today, he’s both a member of Kamoinge and a camera salesperson at Foto Care in NYC; but on 9/11 he was a photo lab tech working the counter–and so he’s seen the work of so many photographers who shot during that day. We sat down in a pizzeria around the Flatiron neighborhood (as us New Yorkers do) where I mostly listened to Ron relate the experience of how he got into photography and how those experiences lead to him being in the lab. On September 11th 2001, photographers of all types poured in as the Time Life Photo Lab made themselves open 24/7 for a period of time.

In 1993, Ron was running a huge, successful photo studio. You see, back then there was an actual Photo District. If you needed a lab, a rental house, a studio, or a camera store, you went there. That area produced so much creativity and built upon itself until, well, things changed and it became too expensive for artists and the community they support. It was always booked–many photographers like Matthew Jordan Smith and photographers who worked at Macy’s amongst others booked the studio. But Ron had a kid, and therefore needed insurance. So he got a call from the Time Life Photo Center and went in for an interview; he got hired immediately. It had a great salary, unlimited sick leave, four weeks vacation, and he was running it since 1994. Time Life had a photo lab since the 1930s and it was famous for doing work for Alfred Eisenstaedt and many of the famous Time Life photographers. It handled processing and printing for all of them. But eventually, it was opened to the public so that they could get the same quality. The day it opened there was a line out the door. It closed when AOL merged with Time Warner; but the Photo Lab itself stayed open. That lab would be one of the many serving the public on that tragic day.

Ronald came prepared for our interview with a massive case the size of a large duffel bag. “What I didn’t realize is how heavy all this stuff was going to be.” Inside is a ton of 9/11 commemorative editions of newspapers, publications, etc. “I almost never look at this stuff,” he tells me. He pulls out a number of pieces he collected from that day and time. These are special editions: newspapers, magazines, soft covers, hardcovers, and special editions that LIFE made, all about 9/11. Ron’s lab processed all of these images.

During 9/11, Ron worked behind the counter where they received the film. When Ron heard that a plane hit the World Trade Center, he thought maybe it was a small plane. Like many other New Yorkers, he was shocked and confused. Ron went to the back room during a break and turned on the television, every news channel had the attack on their coverage. “It can’t be a big plane because big planes don’t come down that low,” Ron recalls. “And as I’m watching this, another plane goes into the building. I was wondering if this was a repeat.” He continued to state that the feeling changed in his body. Everyone around him changed too. As the reporters were talking, fear started to set in amongst the staff.

“EMS were rushing down and people were coming into the Time Life Photo Lab in a panic,” Ron recalls. “All of a sudden I hear over the loudspeakers, ‘We need to evacuate.'” But Ron and a number of other employees working at the lab didn’t. Ron’s boss came over to him to tell him that they told photographers that they’ll process all their film–and to not worry about the charge. Of course, you can then consider just how many photographers, rolls of film, and images came out of the lab that day. People in the lab didn’t understand what was going on because they were inside working all day, but through the images of many other photographers, they saw it all. A lot of the techs who were single and with no real family around NYC ended up working 24/7 for a little bit.

When the first plane hit the towers, it was the start of the work day for many people. So, of course, this meant that as a photo lab, that’s how their day just started. Photographers who poured in shared a variety of stories, but a few really stand out to Ron. He recalls the one particular experience of a beautiful blond photographer who came in and who happened to be at the Trade Center when the first plane hit.

“I was told to bring my film here,” she says. “She opens up her bag, I see these things that look like little moths or gnats that flew out of her bag…and just disappeared. We kind of stood and looked at each other like, ‘what the hell is that?'” After the two stared at each other for a second in silence not knowing if it was ash, paper, etc. the photographer went about taking out her rolls to be processed. To Ron, it was the most eerie thing he’s ever seen. Her camera was pointed up, facing the World Trade Center, when the first plane went in. The result is an absolutely jaw dropping photo. This is amongst a number of others that he shows me from a book in his travel bag. Ron’s boss looked at some of the photos himself, and when zoomed in on the details in one photo, it’s clear that there is a man who was holding onto his desk and being blasted out of the window when the plane hit. The entire day was like this.

When Ron finally stepped out of the building for a break, it was a New York like he had never seen before. He went to a bodega across the street and sirens were passing by every few minutes to rush down to the scene. He grabbed his own camera but there wasn’t a whole lot to shoot for him due to the location of the lab and the amount of smoke outside. In fact, the smoke was so intense that it covered the city the next day. Ron shows me contact sheets of the stuff that he shot. One of the most surreal things about it all was the lack of cars. But one car managed to stop and pull up right by him as a photographer ran into the bodega to pick up some film. This car was covered in ash. “For some odd reason I took a film canister and scooped some of that ash into it, covered it up and put it into my pocket.” Ron still has this little bit of ash from the Trade Center.

Back then, digital wasn’t really a thing that was taking off. At most, the lab received 2,300 digital images which really isn’t a lot. To put this into perspective, some wedding photographers take more photos than that per wedding. On press trips, it isn’t uncommon for other journalists I’m around to shoot more than that in a matter of three or so days. So instead, the lab was mostly going through film. The negatives needed to be processed, then made into prints. “The guys processing this stuff, they saw things that you can’t even imagine.” Ron relates to me after sharing that it was such an intense time that the Chelsea Piers, renowned for being a recreation center, turned into a makeshift morgue for a little while. If you really think about it, the Time Life lab saw the entire occurrence through the lenses of other photographers.

Ron left that day at 8pm. He immediately thought about his son, whom he had custody over. His son’s mother worked in the Trade Center. “I didn’t want to pick him up and say, ‘well we don’t know where your mom is…'”Luckily, she wasn’t in the building when the chaos occurred. They found out that she was okay and walking across the bridge to Brooklyn. His son went back to school the next week but spent time with his dad at work for the next few days. Some of his colleagues were still working since they were single with no real family around the area. The lab wasn’t closing any time soon.

“When I got home I remember sitting on my couch and putting on the news. My son comes down and he looks at me and tells me to turn that off,” Ron recalls. “I said, ‘Why?’ He says, ‘You’re upset. You’re crying. You need to turn that off.’ I said I can’t.” At this point in the interview we relate to one another about the news coverage and how non-stop it was. In fact, there were very few if any ads all across the networks. MTV and VH1 were syndicating the streams of CNN, MSNBC, etc.

Ron went back to work the next day. Some of the images the next day he went back to work, took his son with him, but the lab wasn’t closing and a lot of people didn’t even go home because it was open 24/7. That evening we went to Jersey just to see what was going on. One of his co-workers took a photo of the Trade Center before it went down. They printed it, framed it, and sold it in their bookstore, with all proceeds going to the Fireman’s fund. They made 10 prints and they were gone. Then the next 20 were gone. They were printing and framing the images and later on that week they went to the FDNY with $54,000 from the sales in the first week.

Images by media by Ronald Herard