A photographer’s view of 9/11 from across the river

On the morning of September 11th, photojournalist Jennifer Brown raced down to the waterfront in her town of Jersey City, NJ. Directly across the river from the World Trade Center, Brown photographed the attacks for the former Star-Ledger, now NJ Advance Media. She spoke to Hari Sreenivasan about the sights, sounds and emotions from her vantage point, and what it was like to capture a moment that changed history.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    On the morning of 9/11, photojournalist Jennifer Brown, who was working for the Star-Ledger newspaper—now a part of New Jersey advance media—raced to the ferry terminal in her hometown of Jersey City after hearing reports that a plane had crashed into the world trade center.

    From her vantage point across the river from Manhattan, she photographed the towers before they fell, as they fell, and after. She covered the ferries evacuating people from New York City, across the river to New Jersey. Since 2001, she's documented the stories of survivors and families of those who died for "The Remembrance Project." We met in Jersey City, where she's returned to the same spot every year to take photographs.

    So what brought you to this spot on that day?

  • Jennifer Brown:

    I turned the TV on and saw that the first tower had been hit. And I called the desk and told them I was going to head down because the twin towers were part of our neighborhood here in Jersey City. You know, they're part of the skyline for us. That area of the city is kind of like an extension of our neighborhood. So I hopped in the car, drove around the corner. And from the time I had left my house till I got where I could visibly see the towers, the second plane had hit. I pulled over. I made some photographs from up on the hill. And, you know, still at this moment, I'm just thinking about getting as close as I can safely and making photographs.

    So I drove down. And it was very calm down here. There weren't a lot of people. You know, one of the first photographs I took was of the office workers flooding out of these buildings. And just seeing the looks on their faces, the concern, the trauma of watching it unfold in real-time. One photograph that stands out in my mind is there was a gentleman you know, he had his young child in a stroller and he was just standing watching. And that was very profound to me. And my son at the time was three. And I remember thinking, this is going to change everything, you know, especially for the next generation of people, including that child and my son.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You were even here. And we're taking photos when one of the towers fell.

  • Jennifer Brown:

    Yes. Thinking as someone who works for a newspaper, I thought as far as what's Jersey City's role going to be in the broad scheme of things and then I started to see the ferries and the boats coming and I thought we are a direct line for people to evacuate. So I was just waiting and waiting and waiting for a ferry to come. And just as that ferry docked. I don't know, I just I knew something was going to happen and you could hear it, you could hear the rumble of the tower collapsing as it pancaked down on itself all each level, you could you could hear the rumble. It was like 'shhh.' And then kind of a pounding sound and then at that moment, people started to get off the ferry and, and so I had a wide-angle lens and I was photographing them.

    And you could see that there was only one tower in the background of those photos and there was that plume of smoke from the first tower coming down. And it just enveloped all of lower Manhattan, could not see any landmass. It came out into the water. And that was probably the most frightening thing, was I just didn't imagine anyone could survive that cloud of smoke.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When you started the morning. There were two towers here. Yes, they were smoking. And by the time you finished your assignment, the entire skyline of New York had changed

  • Jennifer Brown:

    It had changed, yeah. It seemed to go by incredibly fast, but also, you know, when those towers came down, it was almost like in slow motion. You know, for me, the camera has always kind of been, you know, a separation between me and what's happening. But I think this really made me realize what it feels like to be a victim of something like this, because it was also happening to me and I was there documenting it, but. But it was happening to me, to my country, to my city, to my friends, to my colleagues. And so you think about it in a different way.

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