Intro from Jay Allison: One of the few documentarians allowed at Ground Zero in the months since September 11th is the photographer Joel Meyerowitz. His Studio Manager, Susan Jenkins, found a way in too and has been gathering stories on tape from workers at the site. Hers is one of the only oral records made in that vanishing place. Transom, in collaboration with the Open Studio Project, has been working with Susan on this piece as an observance of the six month mark. (see the notes and photos on the Show Page). We think of it this way: The workers at Ground Zero are performing a profound and terrible job on behalf of all Americans. Hearing their witness is a small way to share their burden.
Normally, in construction you begin with nothing and end with something. Here things are happening in reverse; it is a community in the throes of unmaking. Everyone works towards a disassembling from day one to the end, which is a new beginning. They’re all just trying to get to that beginning–to the clean slate, the point where there’s nothing left, except their memory, which is in itself a pile to excavate and clear. It seems to me the workers continue to think subconsciously of this as a rescue effort. To rescue the dead is unfathomable, but to leave them buried leaves families without consolation. They are the laborers of the missing, for those who miss. These workers have the most elevated of all jobs in the world, because they are ultimately the only ones who can convey the city from a state of loss and emptiness to a state of resolution and grace.
The first time I got in there, in November, it was night time, and I was escorted by a machine supervisor who I met in the food tent. He said to me…’you want to meet a crane operator? C’mon, I’ll introduce you.’
The voices you hear on this edit are all members of the International Union of Operating Engineers, and they work for different subcontractors at the site. New York’s Locals are 14 and 15, but some of the workers at ground zero are from out-of-state or Canadian locals. They operate or maintain backhoes, cranes, and excavators, which are machines on tracks with a single hydraulic arm onto which any number of implements can be fitted, such as a shovel or bucket. There are dozens of them at ground zero, nearly all fitted with an attachment called a grappler, which is a claw-like piece that picks with a scissoring action, like if you press the base of your palms together and curl and spread your fingers, then clasp your hands. It is the excavator that is used to move and sift debris to look for remains. The engineers operate these machines like extensions of their own body, with a kind of grace and fluidity that is mesmerizing when you see so many of them in one place.
This whole project started when I decided to interview my boss, photographer Joel Meyerowitz, about his process and experiences in becoming the city’s Ground Zero photographer. I set out to document the documentor, but Joel had such great stories of things and people and little events that happened day in and day out inside this hidden world in the middle of Manhattan. He painted a picture of the community there that nobody else was talking about–not the newspaper, not television, and not on the radio. So I decided to get in myself, to find the storytellers and collect stories of what this place is like. I wrote a proposal to Ken Jackson, the President of the NY Historical Society and a former professor of mine at Columbia, and offered to donate an archive of taped interviews with workers in exchange for institutional credentials. Eventually I got a restricted-zone badge, which allowed me to come and go from the site without restriction or escort.
My access to the site was unique among broadcast journalists, as far as I can tell. Like Joel, I carried the same badge as the workers, allowing unlimited passage whenever I wanted to be there. I returned frequently over several weeks between mid-November and early January and kept talking to people, trying to get a sense of who they were and what they could convey about this place. Mostly, though, I just tried to listen.
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I used a Sony TCD-5M bought last summer on Ebay and a new Sennheiser MD-40 cardioid mic. Occasionally I supplemented this with a Transom-provided Tram wireless lavaliere, which I would wear on myself, turned off, until I needed to pin it on someone. I started out with some big headphones but as soon as I was wearing a hardhat I had to find something that would stay on my ears when slid around the back of my head. I tried a pair of consumer Sony padded stereo phones, but finally settled on a $10 pair of Maxell ear-wrap walkman phones.
Additional support for this work provided by
with funding from the
The National Endowment for the Arts