Contact Sheets Reveal the Story of a 9/11 Recovery Worker

All images by Jennifer Judkins. Used with permission.

Earlier this year, we interviewed photographer Jennifer Judkins who photographed her father in his last days. But Jennifer’s father had a special story: he was one of the people tasked with cleanup around the World Trade Center after 9/11. If you’ve followed the stories of some of the first responders and those who helped clear the debris, you’ve probably heard a lot about some of the conditions and ailments that they’ve come down with. To get the message out about all that happened, Jennifer photographed her father in his ailing condition up until his passing.

The project was done on film; and so to create the project, Jennifer needed to go through her contact sheets. This process was one that she had help with from friends and colleagues.

Phoblographer: When you were shooting this story, you told us that sometimes putting your face behind a camera was the best way for you to hold back your emotions and feelings. So when you finally really looked at them when looking at your contact sheets, how heartbreaking was this for you? What were some of the thoughts that were going through your head?

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Jenn: Actually, not heartbreaking at all. I think what helped was that this started as something for school. It was my thesis. So by the time I had developed the film, I was in photographer mode, not daughter. I really looked at the images as a photographer. Would they work for crit that week? How would I present them? Maybe I didn’t get anything worth showing. All my heartbreak was reserved for the back of the camera.

Phoblographer: How did you go about picking and choosing the images that you wanted to be in the series? And now that you’re revisiting your contact sheets, do you feel that opinion is evolving at all?

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Jenn: It was easier at the start because I was only shooting film. I would shoot a few rolls each time I saw my dad and since they were medium format I only got 8-15 frames a roll. So edits were easier then. Once I started shooting digital a few years in, I was shooting a few hundred images each time I saw him. Not as easy to edit. But same idea. The light hit just right, my dads face is saying something, the way my mom’s sitting all came into play on those later selects. Looking back at the contacts now I would only add maybe two or three. I really do love the edit I’ve built over the years.

Phoblographer: Sometimes putting together stories like this can be very tough to do when you’re so close to the subject matter. So did you have help of some sort? How was the decision making done?

Jenn: In the early stages my classmates and teachers were my help. I had my work critiqued every other Wednesday for at least an hour. We discussed why I shot what I shot and what the images would add to the story. Was it strong alone or strong in the story? Lots of discussions. Those classes are the reason why I can speak about my dad without bursting into tears. Because for a year, I had therapy every other Wednesday. After college, my family and friends helped a lot. We would have printouts of all the images and see what fit in. What overlapped. Lots of hospital pictures can look similar, do we have too many? More family stuff? Every decision happened around a lot of discussion.

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Phoblographer: So besides sharing this story on Phoblographer, how have you tried to get the word out and share the story of your father, who was part of the debris cleanup crew around the 9/11 site?

Jenn: I email everyone! Literally. Cold email every newspaper, magazine, blog, you name it. I stalk Twitter, I search for people who have written about 9/11. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Because this year is an anniversary year (15 years) and the last year I will be promoting this work, it will be published in a few places this week. Feels like a nice way to transition into working on the podcast.

“Those classes are the reason why I can speak about my dad without bursting into tears.”

Phoblographer: Does this project get tougher and tougher to pitch considering that it’s about your father?

Jenn: Actually, the opposite. I used to be very sensitive about the work, protective in a way. Now I just want everyone to see it, know it happened, and have people understand it’s still happening to families. If people don’t understand that or don’t want to run it, thats’s their choice. I can’t take it personally. That’s just one place that won’t have the privilege to share this story about this amazing man. My dad.