'Pilgrimage: Looking at Ground Zero': Photographer shares how he documented the days after 9/11



Photographer Kevin Bubriski's days spent at Ground Zero in the weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks landed his work in magazines, a book and the Smithsonian, now he's taken time to speak with AOL about how "Pilgrimage: Looking at Ground Zero" came together.

Bubriski, who lives in Vermont, had not originally planned to visit Ground Zero but found himself there only weeks after the towers fell when an acquaintance asked him for a brief tour of the city. The rest is history.

The Green Mountain College photography and documentary studies professor drove a visiting Japanese artist to the city on September 27, 2001, he said, it was his first trip into Manhattan after 9/11.

"I didn't feel any compulsion or need to be in New York after the tragedy," he explained.

Bubriski parked in Midtown Manhattan and brought along a medium format Hasselblad camera with five or six rolls of film, he recalled. The pair took the subway to Wall Street and walked a few blocks over to the site.

"I remember sort of being apprehensive to be down there and heading toward Ground Zero," said Bubriski. "It didn't feel like an appropriate place to be."

The veteran photographer said the site was mostly walled off and not able to be seen from the street, but that an unnatural smell hung in the air as the remains of the World Trade Center continued to burn.

"There's the smell of firewood, something from nature, a regular fire," said Bubriski, "but this was not natural. It felt very acrid and toxic."

He compared the smell to "burning plastic" before recalling the lack of conversation as people looked up at what was no longer in the skyline.

Bubriski immediately decided the people were more interesting than the hole in the skyline.

"There was not much to photograph...but there were these 20 or 30 people just looking," he said. "It was so compelling, the look on people's faces.

"I worked silently and photographed people from the side... I realized I was seeing something I hadn't been aware of so much through the mainstream media," he added, "the individual response of separate people, their personal encounter with the site."

Dozens of rolls of film later, Bubriski was back in Vermont developing his pictures and realized he had struck upon something different, something important.

He accompanied his wife to New York again only two weeks later.

"By then there were lots of people that would come down to the site and just look," he recalled.

Bubriski continued his silent work. Weaving in and around the masses of humanity gathered at "The Pit."

No one could see much of anything, but his camera lens saw everything – their shock, sadness and disbelief.

One thing did not change: the gathered crowds remained mostly silent.

"The nature of the place was not a place for conversation unless you were with someone close to you," he said. "It was a place of silence... of contemplation, almost like a sacred place."

Bubriski was there October 7 when the U.S. Army began it's assault on Afghanistan, there in November and again on December 19th, the 100-day anniversary of the attack.

The old pro decided this would be his final visit to the site, his "day of closure."

His most iconic photo, of Karen Scarborough, her mother and cousin, found its way onto the cover of Double Take magazine, and then into the Smithsonian Museum of Art's 9/11 exhibit. It was chosen as the iconic image of the tragedy.

That picture then became the cover of his book. The best seller contains 96 pages of images from his trips to Ground Zero, of which Bubriski agreed to share 21 with AOL News.

Close to a dozen people shown in the book have contacted him, he says, including Scarborough.

She told him the picture "represents without words what she felt."

It began to ease his concerns that not everyone would appreciate being shown in such a way, but still he worried.

"It was difficult to put this work out in public, that sense of what will someone feel if their photograph is in the book," he said. But the response has been unanimously positive. "They were all very appreciative."

Scarborough told him she made the trip to Washington, D.C. with her cousin and mother to see the 9/11 exhibit titled "A Democracy of Images" and convinced the security guard to let the trio take a picture with the image on display – no one is allowed to take pictures in the Smithsonian, Bubriski quipped.

Bubriski's newest work, a book published by by the Peabody Museum of Press of Harvard University and Radius Books, is called "Nepal: 1975-2011." It was released earlier this year.

The pictures come from decades of trips and off and on living in the mountain country, he said.

The first pictures were taken in 1975, when he was only 20 and referred to in Nepali as "little brother." They continue all the way up to his last trip in 2010, when the locals called him "grandpa," he joked.

In addition to chronicling his growth as an individual, Bubriski says the pictures also chart the changes in photographic technology.

From his handheld 35mm Leica in the 1970s and his tripod-mounted 4 by 5 view camera in the 1980s to his medium format Hasselblad in the 1990s and finally digital photography in more recent years, he said.

It shows the industrialization of Nepal and the population explosion since he first arrived as a member of the Peace Corps.

Nepal has greatly affected Bubriski, he is very fond of the remote country. But his pictures at Ground Zero may be his defining work.

The well-traveled photographer compares his iconic photo, of Scarborough, to raising child.

"You bring it into the world, you nurture it and you watch it live its own life," he said. "That's what this photo has done, it has been shared by audiences I don't even know."

Bubriski's pictures can also be seen on his all black and white Instagram feed: @KevinBubriski.

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