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Interview With Ground Zero Photographer Gary Suson

Aired June 2, 2002 - 11:47   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: You're now looking at live pictures from Ground Zero. Relatives of 9/11 victims are holding a memorial service near this site at this hour. The ceremony marks the end of recovery efforts last week. It is the second such ceremony in recent days.

For many Americans, their only view of Ground Zero is from pictures on TV or still photographs, pictures like this one, conveying the horror of September 11. This clock is at the centerpiece of the photo. It stopped at 10:02:14. That's when the first Tower came down.

Ground Zero photographer Gary Suson captured that image through his lens and he joins us live from New York. Gary, you said you hid behind the camera and you let your heart follow. Is that because you found that this was so emotionally overwhelming for you as a photographer to capture these images?

GARY SUSON, GROUND ZERO PHOTOGRAPHER: Yes, well trying to capture humanity in such an inhumane place as it was down in the hole was definitely the biggest challenge of my life. Like all artists who wanted to contribute to 9/11, I just wanted to contribute through my camera and so each day shooting down there was definitely a great challenge under very emotionally tough circumstances, so many times I did have to shut down emotionally to try and get through the day.

WHITFIELD: A challenge for everyone that day wasn't it? And for you, you've been shooting pictures since you were 13 but you eventually became a fashion photographer and now somehow have landed yourself as a photographer for the firefighters association.


WHITFIELD: You must have developed some incredible relationships while you spent, was it five months at Ground Zero with these emergency crews and search crews?

SUSON: That's correct.

WHITFIELD: What were those relationships built upon?

SUSON: Well, most importantly when it comes to the New York City Fire Department, the relationships were built on trust. As proud as I am of the job that I feel I did capturing the emotions of Ground Zero, I'm equally as proud of the relationships that I've built with many firefighters who I am now proud to call friends, and it took many months to earn their trust and I did so by not selling any of my photographs. They knew that when I took a photograph, the next day it wouldn't wind up in the tabloids. Go ahead.

WHITFIELD: I'm sorry, go ahead.

SUSON: No, that's OK.

WHITFIELD: And among those relationships, you have talked very poignantly as your pictures have depicted very poignantly the relationship between one firefighter who was in search of his son, who was also accompanied by his son-in-law who happened to be a police officer. Tell me about that image and that relationship.

SUSON: Well, actually my friendship is with the Geidels (ph). The photo that you're referring to is John Tipping, who showed up at Ground Zero one day and approached his son-in-law, who was a New York City police officer and said, are we making any recoveries today and his son-in-law said yes, I believe we have John, Jr. It was a very emotional thing to see, a father, a courageous father come down and carry his son out.

But one family that I've become very close with are the Geidels, Paul Geidel and his son Michael and Ralph.

They lost Gary Geidel from Rescue 1, and I just developed a very special friendship with them and through that friendship, it's been a very eye-opening experience both into the world of New York City firefighters and also I've grown a lot as a person because they're just very special people to me and what they've gone through in losing their son has touched my heart greatly.

WHITFIELD: And what were your observations like in terms of the dedication that these firefighters, police officers, and other search crews seemed to exhibit as they came out there exhausted...

SUSON: Unbelievable.

WHITFIELD: ... yet somehow would muster the energy to get through all of this every day.

SUSON: Unbelievable. Oftentimes I feel five inches tall when I'm around them. These guys, the firefighters, they come down there. They don't talk much. They go about their jobs. They're down there in the mud.

They would pick a spot and dig. There was no rhyme or reason to it and then they would after five hours of digging, they'd take 30 minutes. They'd sleep in a church pew, and then they would go back to work. They'd have candy bars in their pockets to get through the hours, but the public doesn't really understand what the rescue workers went through. But I would love the world to know that these men and women also of the fire department and the police department, they were down there on their hands and knees digging, not just for their lost brothers, but for the civilians and for everyone who was lost and it blew me away, touched my heart to see the determination in these men and women's faces.

WHITFIELD: And as a photographer, how did it touch you once you developed the film to see that here you were using color and a lot of the images almost appear as though black and white because of the ash, because of the shadows? What were your observations when you saw the final product?

SUSON: I was -- well I was very pleased with what I was doing. I shot on two types of films. I shot the sepia and I show the color. The color I would choose to shoot because I wanted the colors of the firemen's jackets to come out and I want it to be a good representation. The sepia, I shot a lot of my work in sepia because I felt that sepia had a lot of emotion to the work. It conveyed the feeling, the mud, the grit down in the hole and so, I did probably 50 percent sepia and another 50 percent on the color. On the Web site, there's both, 50/50.

WHITFIELD: Did you feel that some of your most memorable or poignant shots involved the September 11 calendar for one, as well as there was a page open from the Bible? Talk to me about why you chose to take a picture of the calendar we're looking at now, the today is September 11 and the Bible shot.

SUSON: Well, first off, the clock really stopped me in my tracks because so much life. The clock is like a non-living witness to the incident. When I saw the clock stopped, I knew that those 14 seconds represented thousands of dead.

WHITFIELD: Now quickly, we're looking at the Tower of Babylon.

SUSON: I'm sorry, the Bible page. Sorry, the Bible page was very inspirational to me. I was getting -- I was seeing a lot of horrible things down there and the Bible page that I found near a steep incline -- the Bible itself was gone. It was just a torn page, and I didn't realize until the next day that it was 11 and the Tower of Babylon. I saw it as a positive sign that God was watching over all the people who perished when the towers went down. On a personal level, that page gave me an incredible inspiration to go back down into that hole and finish the job that I had started.

WHITFIELD: And Gary Suson, you said you will not be selling these images. These really are for the enjoyment and for the memory of all the workers from Ground Zero that you're recording?

SUSON: Actually, now the union has given me permission to go ahead and release the images in a book, with the agreement that all proceeds are shared with the widows and children's fund and other charities. So, most likely this fall in the next year, most possibly this fall, there will be a book, a coffee table book out with all my work from day one through the entire recovery. WHITFIELD: All right, Gary.

SUSON: And also people can also see the work at if they wish to see some more images.

WHITFIELD: All right, we'll look for that and we'll be looking for your book. Gary Suson, thank you very much for joining us from New York.

SUSON: My pleasure, thank you. Thank you.




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