faith and doubt at ground zero
a photo of meyerowitz
INTERVIEW: Joel Myerowitz

[What compelled you to go to Ground Zero?]

It was important for me to try to do something that was helpful. After the event of Sept. 11, I felt I had to contribute in some way. Of course it was impossible to really do anything a few days afterwards. The place was gated off. There were no volunteers that weren't necessary volunteers.

When I heard that there was no photography allowed in there, I got the call in some way to make an archive. I understood that this was something that was being overlooked by the administration, and I thought, this is what I can give, I know how to make an archive. I called the Museum of the City of New York. I worked out an arrangement with them where I had a letter -- it didn't do much good -- but I had this letter to flag to the police and the state troopers who were down there. I finally worked my way in, and I've been in there ever since Sept. 23.

The first impression for me was the wild chaos of the fall. The complex jumbled steely, wiry, cabley, metallic mess of it, and knowing that in that unbelievable, extraordinary pile there were at that time, we thought, 4,000, 5,000 people. There was no sense of escape. You looked at that pile and just to witness it, to stand up against it, this looming five-, six-story tangled mass was something that no one has ever seen. It was modern disaster.

I don't think there's been a day since, even now that the pile is reduced to a hole in the ground, that I haven't felt that tremor when I pass the first tower, or where the first tower was. That knotted feeling of loss and savagery stays with me. I know from all the people I've spoken to how arresting it's been for them. It lingers.

[Did you feel connected to the dead?]

I've had five months of restless sleep. I don't sleep a whole night any longer. ... The empathy that arises from being in that site repeatedly, the empathy with the way people died is, it's just connected. I can't get away from it. Just witnessing and photographing the remains of these towers and the strewn-about quality of the wreckage. The mangled quality of it puts one inside the fall. You can see your own soft, vulnerable, fleshy self twisting down in the dark and the screeching horrifying noise of it, and the compressing, mangling quality of it. It's evoked for me by looking at that.

Joel Meyerowitz, an acclaimed photographer, was given access to Ground Zero on Sept. 23, 2001, and has documented the wrenching cleanup and recovery efforts there. (See an online collection of his photographs from his book.) Here, he talks about the difficulties of the experience, the paradoxical and disturbing beauty of the site itself, and why he feels a need to create a photographic archive of what happened there in the aftermath of Sept. 11. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE producer Helen Whitney in the winter of 2002.

To learn more about Meyerowitz, see the companion website for his film "Pop," which aired on FRONTLINE in 1999.

In some way, the city has kept that back from everybody by not letting anybody into the site, not letting the public into the site. We only have our imagination or a few pictures that are more or less aerial photographs looking down into the site from a building above, and it looks like a messed-up parking lot. But to be there at ground level and witnessing this torrent of metal and to see the sharpness -- I think that's what it is -- to see the sharpness of everything and to think about that sharpness just against yourself. It's blades and knives and swords and scythes, and it's horrific. You can't go anywhere without catching yourself feeling you're in the building. ...

[Tell me how you approached the work of photographing it, and how it affected you.]

It was important for me right from the beginning, working the way I'm working with a view camera that I use, to understand that the only way to translate this residue, this aftermath, to the future was to make a record that was exquisitely described the way a view camera can do it. So those people in the future who looked at this work -- not as a work of art, but as history, as what happened here -- could literally look at the photographs and feel what it was like to stand in front of the pile.

This 16-acre plot is an enormous open-air cathedral, and if you go into it every day, you will be changed. It's a visitation. It's knowledge.

So I must have become insensitized to that more and more, as if I am the camera. So that everything I witnessed, I took it in, in a way, to pass it along to the future.

I saw rooftops. I was up on rooftops, looking down at the site, and the rooftops were littered with unimaginable things. There were mountains of papers on the rooftops. Desks and computers and pieces of steel three stories long, stuck into these rooftops. Bottles of mineral water standing straight up. You wonder, how did that happen? And personal effects. Everything just strewn about on the roofs.

Down in the pile itself, woven into this hysterical nightmarish carpeting, was fragile things, like identification cards and things that people leave on their desks, little invitations and scraps of little yellow stick-it notepads, and those funny little toys that are on top of pencils. You'd walk along and you'd see stuffed animals that people have on their desks, impaled on all kinds of residue from the fall.

So these odd collections of things are horrific, in the sense that they make it so tender and personal on the one hand, while it's just chaotic on the other. I was in buildings in which I could see the signs of flight. You know the way newspapers were just left on the desk and got pushed aside and handbags and people's coats. I was in some school daycare program, and there were the kids' shoes all lined up and their coats and their knapsacks were hung on the hooks. They were rushed out of there before they could take anything. The crayons on the tables, and everything coated in two to three inches of ash. All I could think of was Pompeii. Here's Pompeii.

[Was it an encounter with your own mortality?]

... Some years ago, I had one of those experiences that made me think that I could address and accept my own mortality. I was on the grass on the Cape in Massachusetts and I was just stretched out on the grass, could feel the prickliness of it against my skin. I was just in a pair of shorts. Somehow being flat out on the earth and feeling that contact put me in mind of the inevitable. At some point, I just sunk my fingers in the grass and kind of opened up the earth. I don't know why, I just did that. I looked in and in this little wedge of earth it was teeming with life. Bugs scurrying around, worms peeking their heads up and going back in.

The more I looked into it, the more I saw how incredibly alive it was. I thought, "Oh, there's the cycle of it. I'm just part of the cycle." Somehow that experience gave me a kind of courage or understanding. I remember when I closed that earth, I was happy. I understood that it was just part of the whole thing and part of the continuum and that there was nothing to be afraid of. ... I had some acceptance that stayed with me. I felt OK about living and dying.

But hardly a day goes by, and in fact yesterday when I was down there, I saw one of the last sections of the three-story module that was what the World Trade Center was built out of. Welders were working to take it apart so they could truck it away. I was standing right next to it and I could feel the dimension of one of the windows, how narrow it was, really not more than two and a half feet, narrower than a door. As they stood it up to put it in the truck I looked at it and the first thing I thought was, "Oh, people stepped out of that slit into space." ...

One of the most impossible and memorable images of that day was people leaping out of the windows, being forced out by the fire behind them, driving them, herding them out the windows. ...

The picture I always see is of those two people holding hands, going together. You think about, they had two thousand degrees on this side and fresh air on that side; what choice was there? Where would you turn? That they had to do that and take their last bit of courage and hold someone's hand and go with it was a nightmare, a visual nightmare that I'll never forget. ...

To see that image of two people, coworkers, strangers, I had no idea -- but that not knowing made it all the more poignant -- reaching out for somebody's hand to take the last step, that you would end your life in the hands of a stranger, plummeting thousands of feet to your death seeking a moment of comfort, is something that will never leave my memory.

[You refer to Ground Zero as hallowed ground. What do you mean by that?]

I think that the World Trade Center site has achieved more than this notion of a cemetery, a graveyard. It's become hallowed ground because the people who have attended to the cleanup -- and I mean the firemen and the police and the rescue workers and the crane operators and the bulldozer drivers and everyone down there -- is so sensitive to the issues of this catastrophe, to the family issues, to the death of the individuals, to trying to find some remnant that could bring some peace to a family member. They do this in such a devoted, disciplined way. Their salvaging is the salvation that's inherent in the site.

One of the most astonishing understandings that's come to me from this site-- somehow over the last few weeks it's been more and more available to me -- six months later the firemen are still down there with rakes, raking the rubble. Every time one of the grapplers picks up a truck full of stuff and shakes it out in front of these guys and drops it, they plunge right in and they rake away, finding a sneaker or a purse or something.

I understood recently that this is the American spirituality. This is what differentiates us from the rest of the world; we care about the individual. That's America. You come to this country, and you have a chance to be the individual that you are. You can become a cab driver and you can become a professor. You can own your own business. You can retreat and write your memoir. You can do anything you want in America. We covet that so deeply, that it's showing up now in the kind of devotion, the exercise of devotion that these people on this site are still performing so many months later.

I saw that in a relationship that I hadn't understood before, that this is our national religion in a way, that we care about the individual, unlike those guys that sent those planes. ... Life was meaningless to them. ... You know those people were just ciphers in that building. ...

So I think the site's hallowed quality is built up out of this kind of group understanding; this is what our culture celebrates. Faced with an enormous disaster like this, this is how we behave, and there isn't a false note to it.

[What happens when a body is found?]

A few nights before Christmas, I went down to the site, around midnight. It's one of these things. I get the call sometimes. I am restless, I can't go to sleep, I get my gear and I drive down to the site. I was down there at a moment that they were finding a larger number of remains. They had uncovered one of the lower levels, and there was enough spaces left inside that people could have found some refuge. Now they were pulling out bodies.

When I arrived, there were probably 150 men lined up in two ranks, going all the way down a hill into the site. Coming up in between the ranks were six firemen carrying a little orange plastic, like a sled draped with a flag, in which were the remains of one or more, I don't know how many people. But as they came up this hill, every single person along the hill took off their helmet and put it over their heart, saluted; did this traditional American gesture of respect for the dead.

There was no one to do it for; there was no press; it wasn't a public demonstration. It was for the dead, and it was for the core of workers and the firemen who coexist down there and who've made a life down there. And they did it over and over again. In the hour and a half I was there, work stopped and these guys moved through. ...

You see the look on their faces, the red light of the ambulance blinking and you see these guys in the stress of having to bring yet another body, countless numbers-- Who knows how many each person has brought up? But that weighs on them. It's a reminder, because they have to put that remains on that sled, they have to handle that, and some of the remains are beyond words. ...

So many times during the day, and particularly in the early months after the disaster, one could witness firemen coming out of the pile and just weeping or breaking down, falling to their knees just out of exhaustion or out of a kind of collapse of their capacity to do yet another recovery. And immediately there would be a swarm of other firefighters. A chaplain would come, and you would see this coalescence on the street of a half a dozen, 10 people. A congregation would occur right there on Church Street.

You know it works in some way. They would say a little prayer, they'd bow their heads, they'd ... surround in a huddle together. I never was privy to the inside of the huddle, to know what words were said. But you could see from the outside how necessary and meaningful and uplifting it was, because they could come out of that and shake it off and go get a coffee somewhere and sit down and gather their strength again. And then go back into that pile.

Were you there when the cross was found?

I was there probably the day after it was found. I was photographing in that area and a great big, burly guy came over to me to say, "I found that cross. I found it right in there." ...

When Frank, the man who found the cross, took me in to the interior of the Customs House [where it was found], what you saw was that a building that was eight or nine stories tall, a solid building, had had the top of the World Trade Center fall through it and crush the inside right down to the basement. ... On the way down, it had sheared off girders as it plummeted through. One of these girders was perfectly clipped, came away from its other attachments in this way that it left a perfect cross, equidistant from the center. It was standing there, erect, in the center of this space, where everything else was rubble.

It was [Frank's] recognition. He walked in, he saw it. He said, "You know, there was light streaming in. The cross was lit, everything else was smoking and jumbled." He said it was like a sign. He immediately got some guys to come in with a crane and to haul this thing out and erect it on top of the remaining pillar that held up the bridge that went across West Street from the World Financial Center Winter Garden onto the deck of the mezzanine of the World Trade Center.

So this cross was always the first thing you saw when you entered the zone, the work zone of the site. It was powerful; you passed it every day. They held Mass under this cross repeatedly. ...

[Frank told me] about the transformation that he went through. This big, gruff construction worker had these pools of tears in his eyes when he was talking, quivery, and vulnerable in a way that you wouldn't expect on the face of it. He took me, grabbed me with this great big paw, he just took me by the hand and said, "Come on, I'll show you where I found it." He took me into what was the remains of the Customs House. He had painted on the floor arrows and crosses, like an Arthur Murray dance step. It was the way to the site where the cross was found. He had spray-painted on the wall, "God's house." He was trying to lead everybody in there, to see the mystery of this occurrence. Like, how could that have happened as perfectly as it did? Amazing. ...

[What did it look like when you saw it?]

Oh, it was startling. The cross in its first incarnation in the site was a powerful symbol. First of all, it was perfect -- each side equidistant from the center. It had thrown over it a cape or a mantle, a huge piece of lead sheathing from somewhere, crumpled up. But that this great piece of lead was draped over it was horrible-beautiful in some way. It made the image complete. And to see it against the skyscrapers -- because you could see behind it the Woolworth building, white, a castello in the sky, or else turning around and seeing those crew-cut towers of the Chase building, or One Liberty -- the cross is always playing against the city.

[Was it eerie for you, as an agnostic Jew?]

You know, it doesn't matter what your religious practice is; these are symbols that have been with us our whole life. They carry their own iconography, their own weight. Just to walk in and to see this accident produced this thing, a piece of luck out of all of this, that's luck. You want to walk by and kiss it like you would kiss a mezuzah. What does it matter? It's a symbol of something that connects you with the world religion and a belief in something that's operating there, around our own fate.

[There's a story about butterflies--]

I was lucky enough to have as my guardian angels a team of detectives who were the arson explosion squad. These guys were my protectors. They kept me in the site when everybody else was trying to throw me out. They understood the project. I would catch up with them almost every day that I was there, but sometimes I missed. One day I came down there, it was actually evening time, and one of the first things they said to me was, "Oh, Joel, you should have been here this afternoon, you missed something."

They told me that they were in the pile, in the smoke, raking away, on their hands and knees ... as they were every day. Suddenly in this cloud of smoke, they were surrounded by a flight of monarch butterflies, maybe 50-100 of them, flitting around their heads. They said it was astonishing to be in the smoke and to have these insects doing this dance. One of them stood up and said, "Souls." They were wishing that I had been there to capture that moment. But maybe it could never be captured as well as the story.

[What does evil mean to you? Did you feel a presence of evil?]

I think the experience I've had in my time down there is that the loss of life and the sadness and tragedy of that is the dominant expression of feeling. That's what I connect with. It's not about the quote, "evil" act that did it, it's about, look, this is where we are now, the worst has happened already; it's gone, and one is standing in front of the remains of the towers. It's such a spectacle and so overpowering that concepts like good and evil are dissipated by the reality. I mean, evil's not a tangible reality the way the pile is and the efforts of people.

So I see the commitment, and in a sense, the goodness of these workers who've either volunteered themselves and/or have stayed in at risk of their own well-being to bring this to some kind of closure -- the unifying spirit of the place -- is the most lasting component of it.

We hear always, "I was a member of the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War." "I was in such-and-such a troop in the Second World War." People have these moments of epiphany when they've lived in and through a moment of human challenge, and they rise up to that occasion and it stays with them. They were more alive at that time than any other time in their life.

I think that out of this rescue operation at the World Trade Center will be bonded a group of men and women that will always remember that they were the privileged ones who were inside the forbidden city and had this task to bring it together again. I personally feel privileged to be a small part of it --even though I'm the eye watching this thing, and I'm not lifting it with my hands -- I'm a part of this, so I can understand it from that point of view.

[What does "God" mean to you? And has that changed since Sept. 11?]

Since Sept. 11 and the time that I've spent down at Ground Zero, what's emerged for me as a possibility is a unifying spirituality. Not necessarily identifiable with a God figure, but a sense of the human capacity for spiritual practice. To see the salvage efforts of the workers down there, where the continuity of it and the discipline and the practice of it ... seems to have enlarged the possibility of this unifying embrace. That there is a force that brings people together in a moment of crisis and holds them together, so they don't fall out of this, back to the individual corrupt ways of daily life.

But there's something that's patting them into shape so that they stay connected. It's inspiring. I believe in that ability now, of the generosity of individuals to form a congregation around a necessity, in a sense, and coming up out of it is this sense of practice, just practicing. ...

I think since Sept. 11, I feel a greater sense of human goodness from individuals -- not from an outside force, a divine force -- but that people are capable of this incredible givingness and how it unifies their sense of purpose. There's an ambiguity here around this issue of God and faith. Maybe the ambiguity is absolutely necessary so that we could fill it in, in our own individual ways.

We can approach it without having to be in lockstep with a religious concept, but just with a sense of what goodness is, what it means to us. What the practice of doing something over and over again, of needing to go down there and do that work, as smelly and dangerous and noisy and possibly injurious to the individual. Yet every day they show up and they're on their hands and knees. It brings tears to my eyes every day to see the humble act of these gleaners, these firemen with those enormous hats and all their equipment. They've got a little rake, and they're gleaning. And they do it; it's so humble and so powerful. It's an icon unto itself, that image. ...

[Is there a tension between beauty and horror?]

One of the most aesthetically daunting issues that's come up for me as an artist working down at the site is that any given day in this enormous disaster can seem beautiful. It's as if nature, which doesn't make any choices to be nice or not, just is nature; it plays itself out on any given day over this site. I remember being there on a fall day, a pristine fall day. The air was light, the sky was endlessly blue, the clouds were soft, velvety clouds, sunlight was warm on my back. I felt it's so good to be alive, what a wonderful October day. No sooner did that feeling course through me than I realized, "I forgot where I am. I'm standing here and looking at acres of rubble and thousands of dead people, and all of this machinery and buildings wrapped in red nylon." It was a red, white, and blue day, and yet, how could I feel so good to be alive when all of those people weren't?

I felt that stab of guilt and horror. Then it passed, because the reality is that's time and nature doing its course, erasing away the pain, erasing away the image of the disaster. Sooner or later it won't be there. Some day it'll be a green field. Some day soon it'll be buildings, too. We could see that it would be a peaceful place at some point. That that's just the way life is, and one has to accept it. One has to also accept that in places and sites of great tragedy, beauty can exist, because nature is not going to be bound by any human demand for persistent sorrow.

[Do you feel changed personally?]

... If you go to a cathedral every single day and sit inside that space, with its smells and its tones and its experience of place, you would know something about what emotions are embedded in that space. This 16-acre plot is an enormous open-air cathedral, and if you go into it every day, you will be changed. It's a visitation. It's knowledge. You know the currents that are in there. You know the ceasing of things that have existed and you miss some of those elements. You can feel the impact of this on yourself. I feel this on myself.

Someone once said to me, "You go to the sea every day and stand at the edge of the sea, and you will know something about the sea; it's not an abstract concept." And that's what happens here. I go to this place and I stand in this space and I feel myself as being this insignificant single person against this huge ruin, which is now just space, and I feel changed by it. ... It's not easy to define the change, but it does have to do with a kind of spiritualizing recognition. ...

[Do you have an image of God in all this?]

I don't have a sense of a God-like act that has redefined our time. What I do have that's biblical is the sense of the apocalyptic moment. If the apocalypse is viewed as a moment when the world as we knew it is ended and we have a chance for a fresh beginning, I see this event in apocalyptic terms. Forces beyond our understanding have brought this about and produced an opportunity to engage all cultures in the world in a new, more reasoned or reverent way. In spite of our actions in Afghanistan, there's a chance for understanding the various religious belief systems in a new way, honoring them. All of us are capable of beginning again in this apocalyptic divide that we have. ...

[Do you feel a connection to the souls at Ground Zero?]

I don't feel a connection to souls down there, but I feel a connection to the people who died. Being in that space has brought me closer to their deaths -- trying to make a record of the place that reflects how they died, in some way to give solace to those who look at this record later on and see the place in which so many perished.

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