Jennifer Judkins: The Heartbreaking Story of a Father’s Decline After 9/11

All images by Jennifer Judkins. Used with permission.

Editor’s Note: an earlier title suggested that Jennifer’s father died to cancer. It was instead a multitude of things. We apologize for this error.

“…I always knew that what I was shooting was not for me. It was for others.” says photographer Jennifer Judkins about a documentary photography project she completed about her father’s passing. “So I looked at everything objectively. When someone would say oh, your dad looks sick here, I’d think, well look past that.” You see, Jennifer’s father isn’t just any passing–he was one of the workers that helped to clear debris from the World Trade Center after 9/11.

Jennifer calls Brooklyn, NY home right now, but is originally from Massachusetts. She was educated in Rhode Island and took this series up in 2007 as her college thesis project. For Jennifer, taking pictures was the easiest way to hide her own sorrow towards her late father’s life. “I’m incredibly glad I made the decision to document him because I think it is a great visual to put with the fight for rights and benefits for recovery workers and first responders.”

For anyone that’s photographed a very touching project, you’ll probably know just how rough it can be.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Jennifer: My first memories of photography are from sixth grade. I had an amazing teacher, Ms. Blunt. She was very boisterous, and so was I. She made me feel like I should never be fearful or hesitant of anything I wanted to do or achieve. One day we had to build a raft in class that could hold the entire class. I think we made it with those huge Poland Spring bottles and tape. We took it to the pool at our school and everyone got on it, except me. Ms. Blunt gave me a camera and I photographed everyone falling off of it as they tried to float it in the pool. That is one of my earliest memories of taking a photograph. I spent the next two years with Ms. Blunt working with the yearbook staff and would continue through high school.

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into documentary work?

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Jennifer: I always thought I was going to be a fashion photographer. Always. Until I realized my passion for documenting life was larger than my passion for beautiful clothes. I just loved the idea of being hidden while a moment was happening in front of me. This body of work on my dad was the start of my documentary love, but the biggest push came a few years ago when I had the opportunity to photograph a series of hospitals across the U.S. In particular, I photographed a NICU and a young boy with cancer. Those were some of the most special moments I have ever experienced as a photographer. It just reminded me that I have a passion for people and stories and how much I want to share those things with the world.

Phoblographer: Doing a documentary project on a family member and a slow decline is often incredibly hard. So how did you manage to keep the documentarian inside of you so alive while doing this project?

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Jennifer: I think during these years I was just figuring out who I was a documentary photographer. I’m actually still working on it. But I always knew that what I was shooting was not for me. It was for others. So I looked at everything objectively. When someone would say oh, your dad looks sick here, I’d think, well look past that. Most likely I didn’t take that photo to show you how sick my dad looked, he often looked sick. Maybe it was his first day taking chemo pills, or the first time he held his new grandchild. I always saw the images different that everyone else and I think that was important. I knew my emotion would never help tell the story of what was happening.

Phoblographer: The gist of this project is that your father died from exposure to basically all the things that made people sick during 9/11 (because he worked on clearing the area) and it chronicles his heartbreaking slow decline. Was there ever a moment where you felt it was too tough for you to take photos?

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Jennifer: I think a lot of people thought I took photos when I shouldn’t be, but I never felt that way. And it’s important to say, my dad never asked that I stop shooting either. And he always asked his doctors if it was ok if I come to appointments before I arrived. But, I will say, in the last month I saw him, I took photos because it was the safest way to keep the tears hidden when I was around him. I knew he was really dying, we all did. For years we never cried in front of him. But it was hard to do in those last few months and the camera helped because no one would ever ask why I was shooting. Honestly, it was weird if I wasn’t shooting around him by then.

Phoblographer: What was it like talking about this project with your friends, family, and father? Was anyone opposed to it?

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Jennifer: I started this project in 2007 and it’s hard to remember how everyone felt at that time but I don’t recall much opposition. And I think now, everyone in my family appreciates having the photos as a record in ways of what happened in those years. My friends are and always were very supportive of the project. There are moments every now and then when I’ll try to go back through files and negs and make new selects and people will say don’t you have enough (photos) of him looking sick already? And that’s where we differ. I very rarely view these as sick pictures. To be fair, my dad did not like all the pictures I took of him either. But he was always supportive.

“But, I will say, in the last month I saw him, I took photos because it was the safest way to keep the tears hidden when I was around him. I knew he was really dying, we all did.”

Phoblographer: What’s the purpose of this project? Surely, it makes sense that you’d try to bring light to the problem in society and how little it seems that the government apparently cares to support the first responders and those who worked in the area at the time, right?

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Jennifer: The project started as my thesis in college and continued past graduation. At the time I started, my dad was already pretty sick, but in the summer of 2007 we found out he had cancer. That’s when I began the project. I went to college about an hour and a half from home so it was a great way for me to be able to continually visit him and my family while also getting work done. And I needed to process this. Cancer was so much heavier a thing than anything he had been diagnosed with before, or at least that’s how I felt at the time. Now, I’m incredibly glad I made the decision to document him because I think it is a great visual to put with the fight for rights and benefits for recovery workers and first responders.

Phoblographer: Why black and white? What about the format appealed to you so much?

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Jennifer: If I was given the choice to shoot anything, I would hands down always pick black and white film with natural light. And that’s how my thesis happened. I think it is the most beautiful way to showcase important things. Things you want people to focus on. Sometimes color can be distracting and I knew I wanted people to see what I was seeing. And I felt that could only be accomplished if all the images were black and white.

Phoblographer: When your father ultimately passed and was buried, did you need to take a break from the project for a while? How did that affect the way that you edited the project and chose what images would have the biggest effect on the audience?

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Jennifer: Yes. I just didn’t know what to do with it. At the time he passed, I had about 13 or 15 images on my website. But none of the images I had taken in the last three years of his life had been seen by anyone. I would quietly send them out to editors, newspapers, blogs, magazines to lots of fanfare and feedback, but the comment I always got in return was “this isn’t the right time to share these.” That’s when I decided to stop keeping these images to myself and take them off their pedestal. I would put up as many images as I could and I would put them on all the sites that would post them. Because what became important to me was not protecting my work but sharing this story. I felt like no one knew this was happening and I wanted it to be seen. How can you deny it when it’s right in front of you?

Phoblographer: How do you feel this project has made you a better photographer?

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Jennifer: This project taught me to listen and observe. Don’t try and join the story you are shooting, but watch it and try to capture even just one small moment of the feelings happening around you. It is so easy to speak and be seen. Real strength in shooting comes from knowing that it’s not important that you are seen, but important that you are not. Always be calm and aware. Walk slow. Take breaths. And even in the saddest of moments, it’s ok to smile.

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