Photographer Peter Turnley was in Cambridge, Massachusetts on the morning of September 11. Having used his camera during the past two decades to tell stories about conflict and refugees, about natural disasters and human revolutions, Turnley, a 2001 Nieman Fellow and Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, knew he had to get to the site of the World Trade Center attack. He shared with current Nieman Fellows his story of how he came to be one of the only photographers to capture images of the catastrophic devastation through the night of September 11 and into the dawn of the next morning. He also spoke about the role visual representation plays in helping us try to comprehend the toll of this experience on people who have been touched most directly by it. Excerpts from his remarks accompany a gallery of photographs Turnley took during 10 days he spent near Ground Zero.

I’m very passionate about visual storytelling. Always have been, and I don’t miss any occasion to promote the power of visual storytelling because in journalism, particularly when it comes to photography, it’s a bit of a service industry, often used to illustrate words. I feel very strongly that when photography is well done, it can be a very full-bodied compliment to words as a form of storytelling and communication. To those who work in newspapers and magazines and who are not photographers, try to think of visual storytelling in a different way.

I knew this was going to be a tough logistical story to cover. I figured Manhattan would be closed off, and I was going to be late. Journalists know what it feels like to be late on a story, but that’s often a misnomer because there is no time frame. When I left for New York, I told myself, “You’re definitely not early here, not with a city full of photographers.” But this story was going to be around for a long time. Particularly in war situations, the most important pictures are not in the midst of the bang-bang; they are after the battle when one sees the human impact.

As I am driving, I’m imagining what this is going to be like, what it is going to look like. I’d covered four earthquakes, so I had a sense of that, but each time I heard the news on the radio (“Today, planes have hit the World Trade Center, another has hit the Pentagon, and another plane has crashed in Pennsylvania.”), it would hit me and I’d think, this is just unbelievable. That was really an important part of that drive down for me, that notion of incomprehensibility.

It’s now about five p.m., I’m in Manhattan, and it’s getting dark. Manhattan was like a ghost town; there were no cars on the road. I drive toward the World Trade Center, and I get to a point where I can’t go any further and start to see television satellite trucks and lights about 15 blocks from Ground Zero. And nobody can go beyond this point. So I put my cameras under my dark coat and try to walk past some policeman. I get about 10 yards past and somebody says, “Hey, stop. What are you doing?” He brings me back to the barrier. I start to think about how I am going to get to where I need to be. I don’t feel like because I’m in New York City, with American laws, that my sense of purpose in needing to document what has happened is going to change any more than if I was in Ceaucescu’s Romania trying to show what oppression looks like there. It looks dark to my left, so I started kind of going around streets, heading east. I get to a place where ambulances and fire trucks and rescue workers and police cars are going. I start to walk that way, and I don’t want to blow it because, as I say to myself, “I’m getting real close. This is not the time to get thrown out of here.” At one corner where there were a lot of policemen, I hid underneath an awning and just watched what was going on for about a half an hour. I didn’t see a single cameraman or photographer or journalist. But I did see two people wearing fire and police jackets with cameras so I asked them whether there were any photographers at the site. “Not a soul at this point. Everyone’s been thrown out. There’s not a single photographer there.”

Turnley managed to get to Ground Zero by about 6:30 and was surprised to see very few other journalists or photographers there. After looking around for a while, he found his way to an office on the second floor of Brooks Brothers, just across from the site. He described his surroundings as “surreal:” Computers flashed, cash register drawers were left open, and two inches of dust encased the clothes. “I had a view right on Ground Zero,” he said.

I covered the Armenian earthquake in 1988, then one in Iran and in Turkey. In Armenia, there were 35,000 people killed. I was totally unprepared for what I saw; I had never seen death on that level. There were bodies everywhere, coffins everywhere. The first thing I expected in looking out over this site was to see a lot of human suffering, a lot of human destruction. I wasn’t seeing that anywhere. I was standing where they’d set up a triage center and makeshift morgue, right where Brooks Brothers store is. I still had my cameras underneath my coat and was just hanging out. At that point I see a photographer arrive, take a picture, and immediately get thrown out by the police in a very forceful way. And I said to myself, “Just lay low. You’re late getting here but this is a really important scene to shoot tonight. And if you’re here all night, you’ll be here at first light tomorrow morning and no one is going to be able to get back in this area. And that’s going to be a really important scene to see and document.”

I spent the whole night by myself in this office looking out at this scene, at one of the biggest disasters of my lifetime, sitting by myself. It was an incredible experience of solitude, a chance to think. What struck me absolutely, sitting there at midnight, was looking at these rescuers. It’s cold, really windy, smoky. And I say to myself, “Look how many human beings, decent people, working-class people, have gotten out to do the right thing with their lives, to use their skills to help.” Welders were busting their butts to cut through beams. It was dangerous and dirty. Beams were flying through the air. I was so impressed by how quickly they were organizing themselves and using their skills to put wire around the beams and lift them up. I actually asked myself the question whether I had that kind of strength and courage. And I wasn’t sure, but I hope I do.

There was this humming silence. It was very quiet and that really added to this sense of profound destruction, of the world coming to an end. Just quiet, but the quiet was punctuated by the humming of these welding generators. The smell was very acrid. It burned your nose. The smoke burned your eyes and there was dust everywhere. That next morning I stayed until about 11 o’clock and then I did get thrown out by police. I had a whole night of film in my pocket, and I was ready to leave. Every day after that, for the next four days, I made my way back in and spent several hours at Ground Zero each day.

When a Nieman Fellow asked Turnley if, in taking these and other intimate shots of people, he was ever accused of preying on their grief, he responded by talking about how he works to relate to the people he wants to photograph.

There’s no principle, no rule. It has to do so much with one’s self, with the person who is behind the camera. There’s nothing objective about that dynamic. You can most definitely show someone in your eyes and in your face and in the way you look at them that you want to honor them, that you’re not taking something away. If you avoid their glance, of course they will be angry. I think it’s a wonderful dynamic because that lack of objectivity means that it’s all about that sort of sense of interrelationship with people. So a lot of people are surprised that people all over the world, in situations of suffering, want other people to know and to feel and to think about their suffering. They want people to take heed of it. They want them to consider it. And, very often, they’re in fact honored by the presence of a camera, if it’s wielded in the right way. In New York, I didn’t encounter any hostility.

Turnley, in responding to a question about whether there are moments when he is taking photographs that he feels he could be doing something to help people, rather than taking their pictures, talks about the value of the work he does.

I’m fascinated by the human experience, and I don’t feel a sense of guilt about that. I hope that the reason I do what I do is not so I can go home and look at these pictures in a closet and get some sort of kick out of it. It’s to communicate with you, so that we can think of this as a collective experience, that this doesn’t just stay there. That events in your country or something that might have happened to someone in your family, if it had a dimension beyond only the private matters of your family that other people could contemplate and maybe it could help them take their lives further. I’ve very frequently picked up victims and gotten them to a hospital in difficult war zones. If I have the option of whether I knew I could help someone or make a picture, I can’t imagine that I would not choose to help them.

At the World Trade Center, there were other people who were much better prepared than I was to rescue these victims. I felt that what I could best do with my energy was, in fact, pay tribute to the men and women who got out in those difficult conditions and made those gestures of help. The reason I would justify that cameramen and photographers and journalists be present in these situations is not because they’re making money or because they’re parasites—it’s because 50 years from now, it’s important that people contemplate the decency that so many people demonstrated in trying to do the right thing in a situation that was difficult. I don’t know how that can be communicated without images, without words, without film.

All photos and captions by Peter Turnley.©

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