Steve Simon’s Empty Sky Explores the Immediate Post-9/11 NYC

All images by Steve Simon. Used with permission.

“And I wasn’t there, and I selfishly kind of wanted to be there,” states photojournalist Steve Simon when recalling what transpired on 9/11. “Not just as a photographer, but just as a New Yorker to kind of sort of see if there was anything I could do.” It seems almost inconceivable that the attack on the Twin Towers occurred 18 years ago. Many of us still remember everything that happened on that fateful Tuesday morning as vividly as if it had just transpired. When we look back on the World Trade Center attack we tend to see a lot of images of Ground Zero along with the Twin Towers. If you were to look for images of the periphery and of the people drawn towards the area, there’s a good chance the photos were captured by Simon. As fate would have it, Steve was scheduled to fly back to New York on September 11th and wound up not being able to return until a week later. His project, titled Empty Sky: The Pilgrimage to Ground Zero, is part of the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s permanent collection. It focuses on the people looking toward and drawn to where the Twin Towers once stood, and the sweeping emotions surrounding lower Manhattan.

Phoblographer: Hard to believe that it’s been 18 years since the September 11 attacks took place. You were living in New York City at the time but were out of town, originally scheduled to fly back to New York that day. Your flight was canceled, and you weren’t physically in New York at the time, but you lived not too far from where the Twin Towers once stood. What was going through your mind when you first learned of what had happened to the Twin Towers?

Steve: It really is hard to believe it’s been 18 years since the attack took place. I’d just moved to New York City, but I was out of town. I was scheduled to fly back on September 11th, and of course, that never happened. I think what was going through my mind…I was in Miami with my cousin. He was needing some medical treatment in Miami. I went with him to support him and I think, initially, we were both kind of, you know, shocked and bewildered [at] what we were looking at. There’s a little bit of relief, we talked about, in terms of not being there while this was going on. But, aside [from] all the other emotions I was feeling kind of as a human, it was the photojournalist in me that selfishly was thinking that, you know, I just moved to New York City to kind of jump start my photojournalistic and documentary career, and one of the biggest stories of my lifetime, if not the biggest, happened kind of in my backyard very close to where I lived in Chelsea. And I wasn’t there, and I selfishly kind of wanted to be there. Not just as a photographer, but just as a New Yorker to kind of sort of see if there was anything I could do. Remember, when it first happened, we really didn’t know what was going on or if there would be any survivors, and I think everyone was sort of wanting to sort of see if they can do anything to help.

 

“…and I think it was LaGuardia so we actually flew by the city, and I took a photograph. You can see even a week later, the city was still smoking, and I remember very distinctly when the plane sort of banked to turn with the city in full view.”

Phoblographer: What was it like flying back to New York so soon after the attacks?

Steve: I think flying back to New York a week after when we were finally cleared to land was a little bit of a nerve-wracking affair. And it was, you know, I fly quite a bit, but I do remember as we were approaching. and I think it was LaGuardia so we actually flew by the city, and I took a photograph. You can see even a week later, the city was still smoking, and I remember very distinctly when the plane sort of banked to turn with the city in full view. I remember, you know, my heart sank. I felt really kind of nervous and scared as we sort of turned the plane towards the city and so we could do our approach because, I mean for obvious reasons, we know what happened there, and to actually feel that feeling of the plane sort of banking in towards the city was something that I’ll never forget. And I could only imagine, you know, what it must have been like but it was… that’s something I’ll remember very distinctly, you know, in terms of the actual flight coming back.

 

“I took my camera out there with black and white film and I just started to shoot. I was kind of ignoring the Ground Zero at first and that’s because, you know, they didn’t want people to show up. I didn’t really have any reason to go down there.”

Phoblographer: Upon your return to New York after 9/11, you began photographing what would become Empty Sky: The Pilgrimage to Ground Zero. Talk to us about the impetus behind the project. Had you always intended for it to become a book?

Steve: Upon my return to New York, I began photographing and really it was just a way to kind of, you know, do something. I mean the fact was that you know, initially, we didn’t really know what was going on, if there would be survivors. People were doing everything they can to volunteer. You know, as a photographer, there was really not much I could do. They were discouraging people from coming to the grounds so I thought, well, I’ll just do what I do and that’s just photograph. I took my camera out there with black and white film and I just started to shoot. I was kind of ignoring the Ground Zero at first and that’s because, you know, they didn’t want people to show up. I didn’t really have any reason to go down there. Frankly, because I didn’t have a press pass, I’d let my press credentials lapse, I just didn’t think there was any point in me going down there. But when I kind of was there by chance at the periphery, I saw the reaction of the people to what they were feeling and looking towards, and what I’d seen really is not something I’d seen ever before: the sort of strength in the gazes and the emotional–the emotion that I saw on the faces. I realized, well that’s something that I can do, that’s something that I can document, and that was really what I wanted to do. I didn’t really have any idea as to what I would do with it, as often is the case, you know, I just do what I think is interesting and personal to me as a photographer and then sometimes it will turn into a project or even a book.

 

Phoblographer: At one point, photography was banned near Ground Zero. Did you run into any issues when you were photographing in the area?

Steve:  It’s true that they actually banned photographing at the Ground Zero. I mean, it was a crime scene, and they didn’t want people around. They didn’t want anyone around photographing or even just coming to the scene, but you know, they couldn’t stop the people from coming. You know, it’s my kind of hypothesis that, you know, we had seen this on television over, and over, and over again, and I think a lot of people just didn’t really believe what they were seeing and they felt compelled to come out and just see for themselves that this actually happened. And that was, I think, what it is that I ended up photographing: these people that just had to see for themselves that this was true. I had no issues though in photographing. As a matter of fact, you know, as a photojournalist I’ve learned to sort of keep a low profile, but the magnitude of the expressions and what the people were experiencing was such that, honestly, even though I love working with a wide lens for the intimacy that I get with one, and I did, people just didn’t see me. They really didn’t. They were just alone, kind of in their own experiences and thoughts as to kind of what they were looking at when they got closed to Ground Zero.

 

 

“As a matter of fact, you know, as a photojournalist I’ve learned to sort of keep a low profile, but the magnitude of the expressions and what the people were experiencing was such that, honestly, even though I love working with a wide lens for the intimacy that I get with one, and I did, people just didn’t see me. They really didn’t. They were just alone, kind of in their own experiences and thoughts as to kind of what they were looking at when they got closed to Ground Zero.”

Phoblographer: When looking at your body of work, elements of documentary and street photography are featured prominently. How did that influence your choices as a photographer when capturing your Empty Sky series?

Steve: I think of course all photographers are influenced by kind of what they have done before, and what they’re interested in, and their own sort of unique vision of the world. And I think for me, you know, working for newspapers and on editorial assignments, I kind of understood what was going on there, and I also understood what I was trying to capture. I mean, I wasn’t really interested in being at the site itself. I mean I couldn’t get there, you know, it was closed off. There was no way. But what I was interested in was photographing the reaction through the people, and I think that was the story that I was telling. It was a very kind of human story about how we react to sort of tragic things that happen in our lives, and this is one that even though many of us, fortunately, were not personally touched in terms of [experiencing] the loss of loved ones. It was something that was just so powerful, and everybody knew, you know, but for the grace of God I mean, this could happen and has happened and does happen everywhere. But this was in a place in the United States, in New York, that this kind of thing just, you know, hadn’t happened before. So I just kind of went to work knowing what I was looking for, and the reality was, as I was working on this project, I did it really in three months. You know, form the end of September to the end of December because as they started to clear the debris, I noticed the reactions were less intense as people had less to really kind of focus on and see in terms of, you know, the horror that was going on there.

 

Phoblographer: What were you shooting with at the time? Photographers were beginning to adopt digital back then and most people didn’t even own cellphones, let alone camera phones.

Steve: I was shooting with a Nikon F100, which was a camera I really loved, and Tri-X film. You’re right, it was the beginning of sort of the digital age, but I had not gone digital. I was very familiar with black and white Tri-X, you know, I love the timelessness of black and white to just cut to the content and the content here was so powerful that black and white I think worked well. And the reality is, back in those days of film, you had to commit. I committed to using black and white and even though this thing was so well photographed, there was very little [in terms] of digital. Most of the people I saw were still using film cameras back then, wasn’t even that long ago.

 

Phoblographer: As a photographer, how did you prepare yourself mentally as you were heading to Ground Zero?

Steve: How did I prepare myself mentally to go down there? I think my experience was such that I knew what I was doing, I knew what my project is, and I think as any photographer will tell you when you’re kind of in the moment, you’re really not thinking about anything. You’re just concentrating on doing what you do in terms of maximizing the organization within the frame and the viewfinder to make the images as strong as they can be. So, you know, for me, in a way it was a distraction. I was able to concentrate on what I was doing, and when I was in that moment as a photographer, I didn’t really have to think about the reality of what it was that I was looking at. I was just working, basically, and it was a distraction. A really good, positive distraction, from the reality of what I was feeling down there.

 

Phoblographer: Had being behind the camera affected your emotions in any way? Did you channel your emotions into the images you captured or did being behind the lens shift your focus from what you were experiencing internally?

Steve: I think that, you know, when you’re using a camera, the camera is a little bit of a shield between you and what’s going on there. Had being behind the camera affected your emotions in any way? Yeah, I think it, as previously mentioned, allowed me to just focus on the capture and a little bit less about the reality. I mean I’m always respectful to my subjects, but the fact was that people really did not see me when I was there. It was such a powerful experience for so many, and everybody had cameras that people were not really paying attention to me. And I think, you know, did I channel my emotions into the images? Yes, I mean, I think I was in all those pictures. I think a lot of the emotions that I was able to capture at the scene I definitely felt, and I think, you know, as a body of work, in a way it was cathartic and therapy for me to deal with kind of what had happened. And the reality is that you know, the camera always reflects both what you’re looking toward and you as the artist looking at it, and I think that photography has always been a form of therapy for me. But in this particular charged situation, it was really a welcomed distraction from the reality and it gave me a mission that I thought, you know, I could capture something without looking at the actual scene itself, but capture an atmosphere and a feeling behind this event that will always be a big part of our history and world history.

 

“I think that, you know, when you’re using a camera, the camera is a little bit of a shield between you and what’s going on there.”

Phoblographer: The 9/11 Memorial Museum acquired a complete set of prints from your post-9/11 project Empty Sky: The Pilgrimage to Ground Zero for their permanent collection. How did this come to fruition?

Steve: Yeah I was very fortunate that the 9/11 Memorial Museum acquired a complete set of my prints. I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I would not be surprised that I’d heard that they were acquiring images for their collection and I, you know, put my hand up and said, “Hey, look at these.” Because as a freelance photographer, that’s what you do. I mean, I’m grateful for opportunities that come my way, but I think you really have to make your own opportunities and you can’t be shy at all about, you know, approaching anybody. I always say, kind of, “Aim high and work your way down.” If you believe in the work, then you know, it’s easy to kind of approach these kinds of high-end places, and it just made sense that my particular take was different from a lot of the other photographers there although there were others doing similar things to me. But I was very happy in terms of not just, you know, for the sale, but also I knew that these images would have a permanent home for generations to come, and though, you know, the pictures aren’t always on display, I know that in the future people will see them and this little, my little way of dealing with the situation as a photographer will be there for others to experience and that to me is really exciting.

 

Phoblographer: How have your experiences photographing post 9/11 New York influenced your work since?

Steve: I think that of course all my experiences photographically infuse into kind of where I’m at now. I’m always wanting to push limits and just go forward and see how much better I can become because I think we all need to do that. Because we don’t really know, we shouldn’t have limits, I don’t think we do have limits, and sometimes certain experiences have stronger kind of topspin than others. I think that I’ve always been interested in capturing images that evoke emotion and people have a reaction to, where people can be influenced by in a positive way, and I think that just underscore that in this particular very powerful situation the images from there ended up being, in my mind, pretty strong. And I’m always trying to maximize that communicative power of photography, you know, which is still very, very much in play today. As a matter of fact, more so than ever, because you know, in a world where we have very little sort of time and a short attention span, everyone has time to see the power of a strong still image. And though there may be billions of images uploaded to Instagram, the strongest images are going to be seen, they’re going to be affecting and in a way, this is the time for the still photographer because, you know, a picture can be worth a thousand words or more, because it communicates so quickly in a way that no other medium can.

 

Phoblographer: What projects are you working on these days? Where can people find out more about you and your work?

Steve: I have a new book out: The Passionate Photographer. I am [also] working on projects in Havana and hope to finish my “The Conventions” book after the Democratic and Republican Conventions next year. I am [also] always shooting on the streets of wherever I happen to be.

 

You can find out more about Steve and his work over at his Portfolio, Instagram, Twitter, and Patreon.