David Forrest: Documenting How 9/11 Affected The Brooklyn Waterfront

All images by ​​David Forrest. Used with permission.

If you were to think about all the things that happened during 9/11, you’d surely consider that there were probably photographers who wanted to get closer to the tragedy to document it but simply couldn’t–and that was the situation for David Forrest. When the planes crashed into the towers, police prevented people from getting into Manhattan from the other boroughs. But the towers are so large that they’re easily visible from every borough no matter where you are pretty much. So when the smoke and embers came over the city, it travelled quite far and was very visible. And while a lot was happening in Manhattan, the ash traveled to the other boroughs.

David’s story is one that is unlike many others–because while many stories concentrate on what happened in Manhattan, not many people talk about how Brooklyn was affected.

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

David: My creative journey with photography started as a teenager in Brooklyn when I formed a band with a few friends. We wanted to have original and creative photos of the band. Our bass player Victor’s father had some old darkroom equipment stored away that he wasn’t using. We brought that equipment back to my house and turned my bathroom into a darkroom. Once we figured out how everything work we started shooting pictures of the band with an old 35mm camera and developed and printed with limited success some of our pictures in the bathroom. I remained with it for a few years, and then I decided to go to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where I studied film and fine arts. After I completed the SMFA film program, and then I transferred to the School of Visual Arts in NY to study cartooning and animation.

Phoblographer: Much of your work is illustration based and you’ve also got some creative conceptual work. But have you ever had any sort of real attraction to documentary work? Tell us about it.

David: At the moment I am showcasing my studio’s most recent projects which are mostly toy design and graphic novel work. We have three graphic novels coming out this year: Sunflower, Self-Storage and Humbug.

I am inspired by photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, and James Nachtwey. When I was at SMFA my friend Mic and I would explore Boston and the surrounding areas looking for photographic opportunities. To stay low-key and unobtrusive I would take along my Olympus SP rangefinder when we were out shooting, because pulling out an SLR draws a lot attention to itself. I also did a little photojournalist work at that time shooting the hardcore and punk scene in Boston.

“This was a time before Twitter feeds and Facebook updates, so crowds were forming around anyone with a portable radio trying to get up-to-date news about what was happening.”

Phoblographer: 9/11 was a really tough day and time for many of us New Yorkers. So when the planes hit the towers, what made you want to get up, pick up a camera, go out there, and shoot?

David: Right after the first plane hit my sister called me and told me that we were under attack. I thought she was joking, but when I turned on the TV they were reporting the attack on every station. I instinctively grabbed my camera loaded it with film, and headed towards ground zero.

Phoblographer: I remember from my High School personally seeing the second plane hit the towers. So from your personal viewpoint, what was it like? What were you experiencing and feeling?

David: I lived in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn at the time, so walking to the towers took about 15 minutes. When I reached Brooklyn Heights I heard a deep, low rumble. Moments later an endless cloud of ash, papers and other debris from the tower collapsing made it to me. It was visually remarkable as it approached, but once it reached me it was hard to see through. As the ash started clearing up, people emerged wandering looking zombified. It looked and felt like something out of a movie. That was the first moment I really thought something serious and dangerous was happening.

Phoblographer: So as you went about photographing people during the events, what was it like for you? I imagine lots of people didn’t necessarily care that you were photographing them, but what moments do you feel were particularly making you click the shutter? It seems like wider vistas of the scenes and close, emotional moments were really what was drawing you to shoot.

David: The situation was very tense. There were hundreds of people gathered at the Brooklyn Heights promenade which is directly across from the World Trade Center standing there frozen and emotionless watching this historical disaster take place. This was a time before Twitter feeds and Facebook updates, so crowds were forming around anyone with a portable radio trying to get up-to-date news about what was happening. Some people who had cameras with them were photographing the Manhattan skyline, so I attempted to capture the people and families who were witnessing and experiencing this catastrophic event. I wanted to document emotional images that would stay with you forever such as the stunned and exhausted mother holding up her terrified daughter’s mask so she could eat her lunch.

Phoblographer: When you’re shooting in a situation like this, instinctual shooting pretty much takes over. But did you ever feel like the human instinct to simply run from it all was taking over too? Cops were surely trying to evacuate as many people as possible.

David: Police were stationed at the Brooklyn Bridge walkway entrance turning people away from crossing over to Manhattan. I never made it to the Towers that day, so I wasn’t in any immediate danger. Before heading back home I walked down to the base of the Brooklyn Bridge to take a few more pictures. Looking at Manhattan from the base of the Brooklyn Bridge there was an eerie silence broken only by the sounds of waves hitting the shore below. A massive, unbroken cloud of ash and smoke stretched for miles over the city making it difficult to tell where the island of Manhattan started and ended and where the Twin Towers once stood.

Phoblographer: Were there any moments where you simply thought to yourself, “Let me put the camera down and not take a photo of this even though it’s very photo-worthy?”

David: I don’t believe I thought to myself to put the camera down any time that day. I might have temporarily hesitated or held back, waiting for the right moment in order to capture raw emotions or the perfect photo, because once you miss that moment that story will be gone forever.

Phoblographer: What do you personally feel is so important about the images you’re showcasing online about 9/11? IE, what made you want to choose these photos specifically over all that you may have shot?

David: As an artist and photographer, I wanted to convey the significance of what I saw through the viewfinder on September 11th. In a fraction of a second a meaningful fleeting moment was captured on film. The details, expressions and the composition of each unique film moment I selected illustrate the emotional atmosphere of that day.

For more work from David please check out his website, Twitter,Instagram, Behance, and his LinkedIn page

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.