Exploring Why Photographers Did or Didn’t Pick Up a Camera on 9/11

What made some of our community members pick up a camera, while others chose to leave the gear at home and take in the traumatic experience of 9/11?

We all face the dilemma of photographing the moment vs. being ‘in’ the moment. Inarguably, our view behind the lens can be completely different than the view absent of one. We encounter it regularly when it’s a beautiful sunset, moments with friends, cute episodes with my cats, etc. These moments are superfluous and trivial in comparison to the gravity that is the traumatic experience of experiencing 9/11 firsthand. With that said, the question remains – do I want to document what I’m seeing, or experience what I’m seeing? To explore this concept, while also giving appropriate reverence to the anniversary we’re coming upon, we interviewed two wonderful photographers who lived in the city and were present the day of the attacks. Ron Jautz chose to leave his camera at home, while Thomas Donley grabbed his gear and ran out the door. While one chose to make photographs and the other chose to experience the moment, their answers reflect many similar sentiments.

Photo Credit: Thomas Donley 

Phoblographer: First off, what was that day initially supposed to be like for you? How and where did that change? Where were you in your career as a photographer?

RJ: September 11, 2001 was a beautiful fall day, there wasn’t a cloud to be seen in the perfect blue sky. I was supposed to be shooting that day for a magazine but the assignment was pulled the week before. That lost job saved my life. The client was a financial magazine and they called me to cover an industry conference that was held annually at Windows on the World on the 106th floor of WTC One; I had shot the conference the year before for the same client. When I called the editor to confirm, I made a few suggestions on how I could shoot the job and make it better than the previous year; I wasn’t argumentative, just trying to make professional suggestions. The editor blew up and said, “if you don’t want to do it my way I’ll find someone else to shoot it.” I lost the job. I would have been on location at 7:00am. No one at that conference survived.

TD: I was living in Woodside, Queens and was going to be working at home working on a photo manuscript based on my behind-the-scenes photography of a Hollywood film at the time. I usually woke up between 9am-10am as I kept very late hours. That morning of Sept 11th, the phone rang, I looked at the clock as I answered the phone and took note that it was 9:11am, strange in retrospect. My friend Chris was shaken and reported that he had just witnessed a plane go into the World Trade Towers. I was immediately alert. My day completely unraveled, as it did for all New Yorkers and then some. I was married at the time and my wife had already left and had arrived at her place of work by then. She worked in SoHo and while not at the very scene of the chaos she was downtown and too close for my comfort to all that was going on. I had my concerns. Ultimately, she had to walk home all the way to Queens along with hundreds of thousands of others, after the entire subway system had been shut down in response to the attacks.

September 11, 2001 was a beautiful fall day, there wasn’t a cloud to be seen in the perfect blue sky.”

Phoblographer: How did you find out about what was happening, and what were your first thoughts? How did you process what you were taking in as a resident and a photographer?

RJ: That morning was like any other day. I had to move my car for street cleaning and was sitting on West 21 st street. I started hearing a lot sirens wailing away on the West Side Highway, one block away. A friend of mine called and told me a plane hit the WTC. It struck me a little odd because my fiancé and I were just down there that weekend and I took that classic picture looking straight up between the two buildings with a jetliner in the middle; she even remarked that the towers looked so tall it’s a wonder an airplane doesn’t hit it.

After getting that shocking phone call and deciding no cop would give me a ticket with so much else going on, I walked over to the highway where there was a clear sightline to the Trade Centers; at this point I thought it was a horrible accident. I got within site of the buildings just before the 2nd plane hit the south tower. It was immediately clear this was no accident.

TD: Everyone was trying to process what was happening. At first, I thought it must have been a small commuter plane that must have crashed into the Towers. It must have been an accident, engine troubles or something. This has been known to happen in a city of many tall towers – but really not all that often either. However, my friend told me otherwise, and when the second plane went into the Towers all bets were off and the tone in NYC changed on a dime. We all knew we were under attack.

Photo Credit: Thomas Donley 

I lost the job. I would have been on location at 7:00am. No one at that conference survived.”

Phoblographer: We all face a moment where we decide to either pick up the camera or not pick up the camera? What motivated the choice you made?

RJ: I watched the first tower come down on TV. The footage was amazing and unbelievable. I could only think of the people inside. Still in disbelief, I had to see this in person and decided to go to 6th Avenue, another great sightline to downtown. I’ll be honest, I don’t even think I took a camera, maybe I did, but I took no pictures.

I was in shock the rest of the day and like everyone else in New York, was absorbing the news non-stop. 

At first, I thought it must have been a small commuter plane that must have crashed into the Towers. It must have been an accident, engine troubles or something. “

The next morning was different and I was compelled to go downtown to see what I could see, cameras on my shoulder. I walked down to Chambers Street where the police were stopping everyone from going any further. I could see the smoking pile of twisted metal and broken concrete at the end of Greenwich Street and thought of the people trapped, dead or pulverized in the rubble. I never shot a frame.

TD: I picked up my camera and rushed to the elevated 7 train platform at 52nd Street/Lincoln Ave, not on assignment but to see it, to see as I know how to see with my camera and perhaps begin to make sense of what was happening. That part of Queens is pretty close to Manhattan as the crow flies – and when I got to the Manhattan-bound platform there it was in all its horror, our two great towers gutted at the top end of their height, raging with fire, as smoke poured out scoring a thick slash across that clear blue sky. From the look of the huge gashes in the building I couldn’t help but feel 10-20,000 people had already be killed – whether that was a rational calculation or not. I also knew even more were going to die before the day ended, nor could I imagine the collapse of both Towers were about to happen. I was already in shock. I shot to see, to contextualize, to try to wrap my head around it. There were many on the platform doing as I was – looking on to see what was happening. A few guys on the platform in front of me were joking around. I couldn’t help but lash out at them and chastise them for not taking things so seriously in the face of such carnage. But we all deal with things differently.

Phoblographer: Now that much time has passed, are you happy with the choice you made, and how do you reflect back on it now? Do you wish you had approached the situation differently? Are there/what are the repercussions of that choice?

RJ: I’m a long-time commercial photographer, I shoot nice things, pretty things; I leave the news events to photojournalists. I don’t like to take tragedy, death and destruction pictures and am happy to leave that to others. 

I’ll be honest, I don’t even think I took a camera, maybe I did, but I took no pictures.”

TD: I may have wanted to shoot more in the immediate aftermath. However, my strong inclination was to stay away, let the rescuers and first responders do their work without more people who were pouring down there to see what happened, to volunteer (they had to turn most away), or those who just lived down there who were just trying to figure out how to live in the shadow of ‘the pile’ and having the world change overnight in their backyard. I was also devastated as most New Yorkers were and I needed silence, space, room to try to get my own bearings back in the face of this insanity. Also, war was not my scene. I have known and have been familiar with some of the best war photographers out there. I shot rock n’ roll, behind-the-scenes on film sets and tons of events of many kinds. I saw the photos quickly coming in from world-class photojournalists who were already there, including James Nachtwey. This was their scene – it was covered and would be well covered as the days went on. I was totally content with that, no, I was thrilled they were there to see and interpret the mayhem for us all.

Photo Credit: Thomas Donley 

Phoblographer: Now that the 9/11 museum is open, have you gone to see the exhibitions? What was that experience like, and how/when did you decide to see it?

RJ: I still get emotional thinking about 9/11; relating my “close call” still gives me chills. The 9/11 Memorial Park is beautiful and I like going there, sometimes even touching the names of the few people I know who never came home that day. I can’t imagine what that must be like for family members or loved ones. It’s hard for me to grasp how the site has become such a tourist mecca or how people can take selfies on such hallowed ground. I have no desire to tour the museum although I understand it’s wonderful and comprehensive. I have been to the museum but only to shoot a portrait for a magazine cover. Two years ago I was assigned to photograph a corporate CEO in front of the “bathtub” wall which is a main part of the exhibit on the lower level. The “bathtub” was built to keep the water out of the foundation area and basement of the World Trade Center buildings; the CEO worked for the company that helped waterproof the walls of the “bathtub”. I had no problems being there as long as I was working and concentrating on my job; the picture even came out great and looked good on the cover. I have the shot on my website. But with the shoot over and the gear packed, I was now in a place I didn’t want to be. Walking by the crushed fire engine and hearing bagpipes playing on the sound system, I started to cry. The Director of Communications from the Museum was chaperoning our shoot, she gently placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “don’t worry, everyone cries”

I don’t like to take tragedy, death and destruction pictures and am happy to leave that to others. “

TD: While I can’t say definitively that there isn’t a good reason to have the 9/11 Museum, I truly never intended to ever go inside. I lived it and didn’t feel I ever needed or wanted to choose to expose myself to that event again. However, my twin brother, Daryl, was almost killed by the plane that crashed into the Pentagon as it flew over his car moments before it crashed. After the initial shock, he ultimately took photos. He was one of the first photographers if not the first on the scene at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. His photos have been published all over the world, in various museums, including work in the permanent collection at the 9/11 Museum. As such, he was given two passes for pre-opening admission to the museum, to get an early look. He invited me. I d.i.d. n.o.t. want to go at all but I knew I wanted to go for my brother and wanted to do that only to see his work there. However, once there, I couldn’t step inside the entrance to the museum. I just couldn’t. I burst into tears and sobbed. It took me a long while to actually step into that space. I felt I was entering an illustrated gravesite of mass murder. I was very glad to see my brother’s work as part of the Washington, D.C. 9/11 story.  However, to this day I find it odd that it is such a tourist destination. To me it is like saying – let’s go gawk at death and destruction.

Phoblographer: Not having a camera constantly in your hands the whole day undoubtedly shaped your experience – how do you feel the absence of visually documenting/capturing contributed to how you approached that day?

RJ: The details are still so vivid. A group of 6 or 7 of us were huddled around the open doors of an old green van parked in front of Pier 59 Studios listening to 1010 WINS News Radio. No one said a word. The emergency vehicles continued to race down the West Side Highway. 

I ran home to watch the news on TV. As I entered my building a neighbor was just coming in, he was visibly shaken. He told the story of how he stopped to vote, it was a primary election day, and it made him late for work in the World Trade Center. He was going up the subway steps when an airplane engine cowling fell to the ground 20 feet away from him, he looked up in horror. I spent the next 20 minutes comforting him as he did multiple shots of tequila, still physically shaking from the experience; it was not even 10am.

Photo Credit: Thomas Donley 

Phoblographer: What did you decide to do instead?

RJ: I headed north along the river. The West Side Highway was packed with people standing shoulder to shoulder, sometimes 3 or 4 deep, cheering the emergency responders as they drove south toward the pile. Holding signs and waving American flags, the throngs of people let their emotions spill over in the only way they could help—by showing support. I took some shots, snapshots, really, of this positive energy in the face of incredible tragedy. There was no thought to actually DO anything with the images, it was more of a record for myself of what was happening.

Phoblographer: Were there moments you regretted not documenting the experience, or are you glad that you were fully immersed in having a present experience?

RJ: The weeks after 9/11 were sad and somber in New York. Clean up at the pile continued non-stop around the clock and make-shift memorials began to spring up around lower Manhattan. I was most moved by the signs posted everywhere around the city asking if anyone had seen lost loved ones. While I did shoot some pictures of memorials I did not document those homemade signs futilely asking if I had seen “Joe”, “Sue”, or “John”. There’s a part of me that regrets that oversight as those signs, to me, became a poignant symbol of sadness and loss in our brave city. 

Photo Credit: Ron Jautz

Phoblographer: Do you think having a camera in your hand helped you emotionally process or cope with what you were experiencing? Was it an emotional buffer, or do you think it amplified what you were taking in? Did it separate you from the experience, or result in you being more fully immersed?

TD: In a certain way, it always helps. It’s a way to connect. It’s a way to see. So, in that way it was quite immersive and heightened the experience. However, can it be a buffer? Absolutely, even at the same time it heightens the experience. Talk to anyone who goes through that regularly like war photographers who are experts on life and death coverage and how the role of being a photographer works for them. A recent documentary called: “RISK: Women on the Frontline” by Andrea Pritchard goes into this very well and includes an old friend from college, Alexandra Avakian, a brilliant photojournalist who covered many wars and much destruction in her life as a photographer. She knows/they know way better than I do what is in play. However, from my vantage point, having creative impulses kick in, it did take me to some degree away from the specific subjective view to a more objective view as I composed and considered my options to the tell the story of that moment, to try and condense everything into a single frame. Perhaps the creative impulse is just a buffer or protection. Perhaps to the degree the creative act is a positive impulse, could it even be called cathartic or provide some kind of roadmap to shifting from that trauma? Maybe, maybe not, I don’t know. Though, having some photos for myself that still resonate and elicit some of those feelings I had on that day, provides me with something that specifically expresses what I felt and feel without the need for any words – that is truly golden for me. So, no matter how I would label what was at play, shooting helped me connect to what was going on and to have a way to metabolize the chaos into my system.

“In a certain way, it always helps. “

Phoblographer: How did you think about approaching documenting the destruction? Were you thinking as a photographer first and foremost, or as a human being? Sometimes I need to put my emotions on ice to create the work I want to create, because as powerful it is, it’s also painful (which is what makes it powerful). I’m curious if you are similar or different in that respect, and how you emotionally connected to the work you were doing that day.

TD: Again, it was about connecting and finding a way to integrate what was going on in front of me. As I think about it, there were moments that shooting became some kind of partial buffer, at least, as I looked at the scene more creatively and compositionally. There was also such a drastic contrast between it being one of the most gorgeous days of the year and the horror of the moment. After all, I could see the Manhattan skyline, it was a cityscape of a gorgeous day – however, one that was also raging with fire. A couple of people have said to me that some of those photos I took were too beautiful for the subject matter, particularly ones that I pulled back and showed that contrast. I was also told by them that those photos were ‘wrong.’ But it was impossible to escape that beautiful day nor what was happening on the ground – they were both in my vision and frame. So perhaps it is fitting, that after knowing where my photos have been for years of the burning Towers, I now can’t find those specific ones in short notice for this article due to multiple moves I’ve made. Apparently, those photos are for another time…

Phoblographer: What were the mental and emotional ramifications of being in the city during this attack, and how do you think photographing it contributed to that? Do those experiences still come up in detrimental ways regarding mental health? How, if at all, do you feel it changed you?

TD: It was very strange how about a week before the attacks I was thinking how most generations had different great traumas (mostly) to mark an era – The Great Depression, Pearl Harbor/WWII, Vietnam, etc.  I was feeling quite grateful that it had been quite a while since such a marker had been made. Then 9/11 happened days later. How did it change me? It’s hard to say. It certainly imposed upon us all that the unthinkable on a large scale can happen in an instant. I also understood that this is a two-edged sword, either it could be devastation or perhaps, as we so choose as a society, it could be quite the opposite. It certainly changed our entire culture, which I knew was going to happen immediately. This was our Pearl Harbor. It changed our global culture, as well. Locally, at first and for some time, it brought our city together. I felt we were a ‘softer’ town than our usual hard-edged reputation would have us be. We survived an attack upon our home town together, type-of-thing, and were more tolerant of each other, more easily cooperative. It was unspoken but palpable, immediate. While that has gone, if you scratch the surface it can show up in some ways. I still think many of us New Yorkers carry some level – minor to major – PTSD. Certainly, our first responders and all those who worked in and around the buildings, those connected to the thousands that died, those in harm’s way of the Towers collapse, and on and on in an outward spiral. Even witnessing and being a part of events from where I was in Queens, I find it hard talk about the details of that day without getting emotional.

Photo Credit: Thomas Donley, documenting the masses of people walking home to Queens after the subway system was shut down.

Phoblographer: And finally, what happened to the images you created that day? How did you choose to engage with the images since? Are they lost in boxes buried somewhere as they were just a means to emotionally process, or are they in view somewhere as reflective reminders? Do you want to use the images in any way for other people to process emotionally as well, or were these images just for you?

TD: Those images were mostly for myself, a reference, a time capsule of a moment. And, it is hard not to shoot without the knowing that a photo’s ‘permanence’ points beyond oneself and to a larger record of events (even if it is only for family, for example). The photos definitely bring back a totally different time in my life and the rawness of events. I remember the gorgeous day and the refreshing hint of fall in the air. The raw relief of seeing my wife at the time, Andrea, arriving on foot, after walking miles home from SoHo and making it across the 59th Street Bridge with thousands of others. Seeing the burning plume of the Towers pour across the skyline on that cloudless day is still a bizarre contradiction in feelings. I don’t have any of my photos on display nor do I imagine I would ever intend to do so. I will look at them once in a long while to check in with that part of me. I do plan one day to put something together with the few rolls of film I took during and after that day to see what they say when all put together. We’ll see after that if the work wants more people to see them or not in that collected way.