Human Consciousness must evolve and our task is to demonstrate the possibilities ….
The extraordinary story of Pia the crane driver points to deeper issues of the changing consciousness of our time. Traditions, habits, old methods and ceremonial rituals of the past are being replaced by thinking, awareness, a new honesty, and a flatter, non-hierarchical ‘structure’ where human beings are equal. It is not those who have the most money, but those who are the most conscious that are now the ones who have more. The more conscious you are the more respect you have for all human beings.
President George Bush flew in the face of this when he spoke to those attending a fund raising dinner saying “you are the haves and the have-mores.” It is not about having more any more, it is about integrity, spiritual morality (experiencing firsthand what the other person’s experiences), goodness and truth – the kind of truth that is portrayed in the brutal image of the giant crane claw barring the way to the dead body until a flag not a bag arrives to wrap them in.
Joel Meyerowitz on his pictorial chronicle of ground zero
Reporter: Kerry O’Brien
KERRY O’BRIEN: Joel Meyerowitz there are some things we can look at in life and they’re just too big to comprehend, like standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or simply too horrible, like a mass grave of the holocaust or the bombing of Nagasaki. You likened and the site to Pompeii 2,000 years ago – in what way?
JOEL MEYEROWITZ, THE GROUND ZERO PHOTOGRAPHER: Well, Pompeii happened in the midst of an ordinary day and it came rushing down and swallowed people up in their quotidian lives. When I walked around the site, particularly in some of the buildings, you would see the hasty exit that people had made – things left on their desk, cell phones, wallets, all of the knick-knacks that people have on their desks – everything was covered in two inches of dust. And it seemed to me that this frozen image, if we could collect it and put it in a vitrine in a museum, we could look at that as a picture of the 21st century, New York in the 21st century. This is what ordinary life looked like. And so it had that parallel to ancient Pompeii.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Well, I might ask you briefly to explain some of your reflections in the book. First, the crane operator Pia Hoffman and her reaction to the way different bodies were handled as they were recovered?
JOEL MEYEROWITZ: Wasn’t that a remarkable act on her part? You know, when the uniform services – the police and the firemen – found their dead, they would cover them in a flag, because they are, in a sense, built upon military lines. But when civilians were found, they would call for a bag. So if a body was found they would yell out ‘bag’ or ‘flag’. I mean, it’s kind of harsh if you think about it, but it’s practical, down there. One day, Pia, who was the only female crane operator and grappler operator in the union of operating engineers, she dug in and she uncovered a woman’s body and she called someone to come over and the guy yelled for a bag and she was horrified. And suddenly she put her claw down over the body and she said, “No, not a bag – a flag. Go get a flag and get an honour guard and you bring this woman out just like everybody else.” And, from that day on, it changed the activity on the site. It was no longer flags only for the uniform services, but everyone was treated equally. So…
KERRY O’BRIEN: Another reflection of yours – the firefighters in their yellow jackets raking the land “like shepherds in the field”, or as one of them said, “We’re like gardeners in the garden of the dead.”
JOEL MEYEROWITZ: That was a guy named Tooly O’Toole. (Laughs) You know, it was the single most consistent act in Ground Zero was to see a man or a woman – mostly men – raking away, a kind of humble gesture that you would see somehow, in ancient times, you could see people standing in a garden someplace with a wooden rake just doing that work. And here, the devotion to finding every last bit, whether it was bone or flesh or tooth of any killed person, was the effort that I thought was the most magnanimous effort in Ground Zero, and that these men were doing it with this humble and consistent method was just incredibly moving to see and truly, one afternoon when I saw them leaving the raking field, and I stopped to talk to this one guy and I said, “You know, I see this every single day and it moves me deeply. I said, “You’re like ancient shepherds.” And he said, “That’s us. We’re just gardeners in the garden of the dead.” And, you know, to have that come out of the mouth of a fireman, someone you don’t think of as perhaps having the poetic moment, but it was a gift from him and I felt I had to name the photograph that.
KERRY O’BRIEN: And here we are, five years later, and the headlines in New York’s paper at the moment as much as anything else, are about the anger of workers and the revelations of health effects from exposure of that workforce to the hazards of the work site.
JOEL MEYEROWITZ: Well, and I can understand that. I have this little tickle in my voice and I think you can hear how reedy it is, and I think that developed some time after 9/11, and I wasn’t down there working in the thick of the smoke the way many of those people were on the first day. But I think the big issue is people volunteered to go in and do this work, and now that they’re becoming sick they don’t feel like there’s any coverage for them; that the Government has really stepped up to the plate to do it. I know that these concerns will bring the Government to some kind of financial sense. They’ll start to make that money available. But you know how hard it is to prove that you’ve gotten this illness at that site? It’s the same stuff that went on when the families of the victims were to receive whatever financial remuneration they could. You’re going to have to prove yourself over and over, and I think it’s going to be a picture of the American health care system in its disarray to watch these guys fight for their due.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Is it too silly to ask if there was any one moment or any one image that, for you, was more powerful even than all the rest?
JOEL MEYEROWITZ: You know, so many of these images taught me things about our basic humanity or about my capabilities or about what to expect in the world. So, each one has, for me, a variety of possibilities. But there was one, early on, that was a signal to me about the possibilities of this work. It was on an October afternoon, and I had just been thrown out of the site, once again, and told to leave; heading south. And as I walked out of the site, I came upon a scene that was remarkable. It was all the buildings being draped in red nylon netting and they were erecting a thousand-tonne crane – the biggest crane in America. And it was a sunny Fall afternoon, and I remember standing there and the sun was warming my back and it felt good, that kind of “It’s good to be alive” moment, and I felt that way and suddenly I stopped myself and I thought, “How dare you feel like this if you’re standing in this cemetery.” And I had a moment of wrestling with my conscience about whether I make a picture or not. And I tell you, at that moment, I felt nature is indifferent to mankind’s behaviour, and if nature provides this beautiful moment, it’s my responsibility as the witness to open myself to it, because, in the long run, it’s nature and time that is going to help us gain some perspective and help set this moment back, back, in the past, so that we can go on and live our lives. And I think that moment, both aesthetically and philosophically, was an important turning point for me.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Joel Meyerowitz, thanks very much for talking with us.
JOEL MEYEROWITZ: Thank you very much, Kerry.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Meanwhile, on the fifth anniversary, Osama bin Laden is still at large.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation TV PROGRAM TRANSCRIPT LOCATION: http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2006/s1735664.htm Broadcast: 07/09/2006