Remembering 9/11: The Faces of Ground Zero

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In last week’s post, 6 Challenges to Improve Your Photography Dream Skills, I highlighted famed photographer Joe McNally in Challenge #4 –  Know your own “photographer persona.”

It read,

One of my favorites is Joe McNally, NY based photographer who has been around for 30 years in the business.  Did stints at Life Magazine and for National Geographic and now travels the world doing specialty workshops on lighting and composition.  I know enough about him (personally) to know he is passionate, caring, driven but casual and a real smart ass at times, and those characteristics live within the images he takes.  There is just something about them — you’ll look at the photos and say “that looks like it must be one of Joe’s.”

Joe’s photos are easily recognizable because of who he is.  He shoots with his heart, and worries about the technical details afterwords. There is so much emotion captured in his images, it feels personal and in some ways almost intrusive to look at them, like you are barging in on an intimate conversation between Joe and his subject.

He can bring out anything – joy, sadness, wonder, pride – if you can feel it he can find it in you.  He could be shooting a ballerina, a president, a golf team or a city transit worker – and the images would all show that connection he creates with them.

Is the lighting right, are the settings right, is the angle just right?  Yep, most of the time.

But I will always say his heart is the key to his success.

This week will mark the 10 year anniversary of 9-11.  Joe’s connection to this tragedy created one of the most famous works of art at the time.  On the days that followed the attacks, Joe felt motivated to help and did so the best way he knew how:  he took photos.

But not just any photos.

Faces of Ground Zero – Portraits of the Heroes of September 11, 2001 was an incredible project in the making, one that now is considered by many as the most significant artistic endeavor to evolve from that time.  It consists of 246 giant polaroids – measuring 9 feet by 4 feet – taken with the world’s largest polaroid camera.

Nothing like it had ever been done.  He and his crew worked tirelessly to honor those who made a difference on that day – by living or dying.

He was asked to recognize he 10 year anniversary with an update on some of the people he profiled in 2001.  Those images, along with some original photos from the project, will be on display in New York at the Time Warner Center through September 12th. Here is the link to the showing. If you are in New York, make it a priority to get there.

He was asked once by another famous photographer Scott Kelby about why this project was so important, he humbly said,

“Here’s the reason we kept pushing. At the end of the day, this is simply a collection of pictures of some very good people. Many of them I count as friends. The folks in these pictures saved many people on that day, and in a very real way, they also saved all of us. In a very dark hour, they reminded us all of the decency of the human spirit.”

Thank you Joe for simply doing what you love, and following your heart.


  • I remember being in a fugue state all day — nothing seemed real. That evening, when the magnitude of the day’s events started to solidify, is when I began to get deeply angry. That photo says it all.

    • Thanks Tony. I know many of us felt that way — lots of anger and despair — pain and yes, everything in that photo reflects it to me — the whole collection is amazing that way. Thanks for the note. xo Rem

  • Robb Corbett

    Have to tell you this is one of the best blogs I have been on in a long time. What I like to focus on as a lesson from 9/11 is—people have talked about fear and vulnerability, some humility, distrust—but others have talked about how people pulled together in the face of adversity. I like to remember the America that showed up for the first 6 months after 9/11–we were great to each other.

    • Rob, thanks for your note. I wish for that too, that we pull together in the face of adversity, and work together to rebuild America. Rem

  • Michael Victory

    I think people need to be reminded of the sorrow we felt and how we became a nation of one after the attack. We morphed into a strong sense of national pride with our fellow Americans. Let us hold on to that. Today, both political parties selfishly and childishly point fingers at one another rather than working towards a compromise that will get America back on its feet. Now, more than ever, Congress needs to set aside their differences and put mutual effort into making The United States united once again so that we can make those who lost their lives on that day proud of what America has become. Thank you for remembering.

    • Michael I agree. Thank you for your comments. Rem

  • Oh my God just look at that man’s face and eyes….

    We forget … we forget what we felt like. We forget just how much pain there was around this. It was a knife cut felt around the world.

    Very powerful post Remy. Thank you for the reminder of how far we’ve come and how grateful everyone should be for all that is in our lives today.

    Firemen … sigh. God I love them.


    • I love firemen too. If you have a few minutes click on the link and check out the images from then and now. Quite amazing. Sigh…. Rem

  • Hey there Remy,

    Thanks for sharing all of this. The photos need no description. No words.

    My dad, a firefighter from Chico, CA, was invited to fly to NY, stay with a station, sleep in the dorm, sit around the table and eat with the crew that had lost some of their brothers. He toured ground zero and even spent time gazing down on the devastation from a higher vantage point than any civillians were allowed even close to. He did not, however, take any photos. This was a huge problem for me and our family because every time he attempted to tell the story, he broke down emotionally. To this day, my dad cannot speak of what his eyes took in in any kind of detail. I really wish he would have taken his camera and used it, because I’d like to have saved him the 1000 broken, tear-filled words that only images can truly express.

    Thanks again,


    • Thanks Shellie. My gosh, what an amazing experience that must have been for your Dad, and obviously very hard to share. I know that thru this project, Joe was able to help those without words share their feelings, just by participating…if that makes any sense. If a picture is worth a thousand words, he’s got a few book drafts in the making. Thanks for your comment. xo Rem

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