A Special 9/11 Guest Blog from Joe McNally
Love and Pictures…
Around this time, during that fateful fall 12 years ago, Mike Wernick came into the Giant Polaroid studio, then on 2nd St., near the Bowery. He had walked over from his firehouse, Ladder Nine-Engine Thirty Three, tattered, dust laden bunker gear in hand. He got up on the stage we had built for subjects to stand in front of the behemoth camera known as Moby C, the 40×80, the world’s only Giant Polaroid.
The camera couldn’t be focused. It was the subject who had to be focused, shuffling, every so slightly, back and forth until their eyes resided within the slimmest of depths of field. The lights would go out. In the darkness, 25,000 watt-seconds of strobe flashed, like the briefest blare of the trumpet section of a mighty orchestra. Then all returned to darkness. The lights came back on.
Mike got down off the stage, and signed a release. In the comment section, he wrote, “Responded 1993 WTC, 2001 WTC, 2002 Retired.” He walked out of the studio. I had shot one frame. I wasn’t sure I would ever see him again.
He was a reluctant subject. He came over to the studio alone, having been deeply involved in the events of that day, and thus deeply affected, to the point of largely keeping his feelings to himself. He was unsure of the idea of a photo being taken. He wasn’t interested in describing what happened, and how he survived those aching, interminable moments when two of the world’s soaring structures tumbled to dust, and took nearly 3,000 souls with them.
Thus his image could not stand on the floor at Grand Central Station when the show called the Faces of Ground Zero opened. The stories out on that floor consisted of words and pictures. Without his description, his feelings, his thoughts, the searing photo I made of him that fall day would stay in a warehouse, rolled up in a dark tube.
Nuri, his wife, friend, and fierce defender, kept calling. She knew, as wives do, that being a part of this project would be a good thing for Mike, and, just perhaps, the beginnings of much needed healing. “Can you wait?” she would ask. “Can your writer call again?” Production deadlines were looming quickly. I told her that if Mike could offer some thoughts, I would guarantee he would be in the show.
She called back at the last wisp of time left. “He’s ready to talk. Please have the writer call him.” Melissa Stanton, one of my editors at LIFE, and the one responsible for interviewing all of the subjects in the show, talked with Mike. His story, his “caption,” was the longest of anyone’s.
“We were on the 27th floor of the north tower when the building shook—the south tower collapsing. When terrorists attack, they often do something after rescuers arrive, so we thought another plane had hit. In ’93, you always felt more (bombs) were going to go off. The fear of what will happen next is a tremendous fear. We didn’t run from the 27th floor, we just filtered down. Seconds after I got to the street the tower fell and I was blown off my feet. I was choking. Some guys picked me up. I went to the hospital. My lungs were filled with all that stuff. Three guys in our company did not make it out.”
It was a step.
Mike’s firehouse was the first of many to come by the Giant Polaroid. A grievously wounded house, having lost 10 of the 14 men who responded, they rolled the truck around to a photo studio of all places, rapped on the steel door with a Halligan tool, and asked, “Is this where you’re taking the pictures?”
My response to that astonishing leap of faith, an act of trust, has been to be at the house on Great Jones Street every 9/11 morning since that blue sky day 12 years ago. I stand to the side, and pay respects. And I see Mike and Nuri, every year. And, every year, being the family documentarian, she makes a photo of the two of us.
On the tenth anniversary, at the house, Nuri gave me a package. Inside a cube, she placed a Polaroid camera, and a couple thoughts.
And, she gave me a book of the photos—the snaps of Mike and I throughout the last decade. At the end of the book were pictures of Mike down at Ground Zero. He had not gone there for ten years.
She said simply, “Thank you. The pictures have been important. They helped him heal. I have my Mike back.”
I’ve been a photographer for many years, and in the natural course of a long career, have won the occasional award. Every once in a great while, I’ve even been asked to stand at a podium and accept a glass block, or a piece of brass carved into an eye, or some such thing. Nice enough, and, like a quick visit to the chiropractor, it makes you feel better. That feeling is quite temporary, and by and large, unimportant.
What is important, and lasting, through all this frenetic clicking and flashing, for all these years, are the feelings, and the power of memory, contained, or prompted, by a picture.
Photography, as has been said, can be a mirror, or a window. In this case, for me, it has been the latter, opened just a bit, onto the lives of two truly special, heroic people. My camera has just occasionally stood in service to their amazing love of each other, and their powerfully meaningful lives. The occasionally awkward, uncertain walk one takes with a camera in hand can, at improbably important, tough, or even desperate moments, intersect with such people.
The book of snaps Nuri gave me means more to me than any photo award ever could. In that single flash of light 12 years ago, there was trust offered, and hopefully, returned. They gave me a gift I can never really repay. I happened on them at the worst of moments, and the simple nature of my picture taking over the years has seemed a small thing to give back, by comparison.
I’m proud to know them, and to be witness to their deep and abiding love. I’m grateful the carrying of a camera made that happen. I remain proud to be a photographer. If we walk the world with open eyes and an open heart, the telling of such wonderful stories remains possible. The thought of that is enough, really, to take the cameras and put them on my shoulders every day.
Mike officially retired from FDNY. He and Nuri together run Rising Wolf Motorcycle Parking Garage, on the lower east side of NYC. It’s an amazing facility, filled with fancy, fast, two wheeled dream machines.
More, as they say, tk…..