Courage, outstanding achievements and noble qualities were the common thread as I did a series of portraits in New York. These photos where of the rescue workers who survived 9/11, to be used for a magazine article about the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Project, a project founded in in 2002 with the purpose of treating rescue workers for toxins inhaled from the smoke of the September 11th attacks.
The collapse of the World Trade Center brought unprecedented toxic exposures, beginning with a dust storm of pulverized concrete, steel, asbestos, carpeting, office equipment and more. Toxic particles so small that normal body defenses were useless.
Doing a handful of portraits in two days criss-cross New York required quite some coordination. The heroes of 9/11 I found to be very active in their communities, as if the responsibility from 9/11 had been replaced by numerous new activities. One of the portraits we had to drive three hours north of New York City to make with available light at 10 PM in the evening. But I got them all, in two days.
One of the portraits was of Steven Mona whom we met in central Manhattan just few hours after he landed from overseas travel. To the magazine article he reported how repeated exposure to toxins at the World Trade Center site in the months after 9/11 took their toll on his health. Things rapidly detoriated until he had aches and pains in his arms and numbness in his hands and could barely walk without becoming short of breath.
Steven visited multiple doctors and even lung specialists but was told he had nothing wrong. He knew he wasn't imagining his symptoms - it just didn't make sense to him. He watched some of his friends become extremely ill and many even died, wondering when it would be his turn. After a friend told him about the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Project, he said, "I finally got tired of being sick and picked up the phone".
After only five days on the program he noticed a difference. On completion, he no longer had the shortness of breath or the chronic pains and was able to exercise again. Steven had been given his life back.
Joy Villa doing makeup on NYPD officer Steven Mona before the photo shoot on 30th Street.
The portrait of Steve Mona took about one hour. I had scouted a couple of locations at 30th street and Broadway that I felt would communicate New York, and that's where we went and did them. One camera and one assistant to hold a reflector, in the middle of the traffic.
The way I normally do portraits is that I know the frame of the story and what it is for. What it must communicate. As I mostly meet people at their place, or a location that works for us to meet at, I do location scouting based on where there is the best light for a portrait, coupled with a background setting that will help the message of the photo. Driving people from one end of the city to another is not feasible, you have to work with what is nearby.
Joe Higgins. Leica M9 with Leica 35mm Summilux-M ASPH f/1.4 FLE.
The next portrait was of a legend in firefighting circles, Joe Higgins. He has fought over 1,000 inner-city fires and trained over 4,200 New York firefighters. To the magazine he told how he six months after 9/11 he suffered multiple asthma attacks, was hospitalized and feared for his life, sleeping only two to three hours a night with constant nightmares.
By the third day on the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Program he was sleeping seven hours a night and was safely off all his inhalers. In Joe's own words: "I'm in better shape physically and mentally than I was before 9/11 - the results were far beyond what I could have hoped."
I met Joe Higgins at the gym where he trains young boxing talents, and the background with the American flag seemed appropiate. The light wasn't that inspiring, but we opened a large gate and that worked.
For the next portrait of "Izzy" we drove to his home a couple of hours from central Manhattan. His wife was cooking, so he offered dinner before we went out to photograph in three different locations around his home. To the magazine he told how he, as the Health and Safety Coordinator for a union of New York emergency medical technicians and paramedics at the time of 9/11, saw the crippling effects that toxic exposure had on his members and other first responders. He was looking for solutions to help others infected. He had spent months at the World Trade Center site and knew the extreme conditions that people had been exposed to.
After discovering the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Project in the months after 9/11 and personally benefiting from the program, he became one of its most passionate advocates: "All they were doing was medical screening. Nobody was aggressively treating these people to give them a better quality of life. I fully support the project staff in their goal of making detoxification available to every rescue worker for whom it is appropiate."
Michael Kenny I met on the way to Montreal, three hours north of New York. I arrived late at night, which was the only time he was home. Given the limited light - it was dark outside - I had to improvise and the photo above is taken on his terrace under an outdoor light.
Thorsten von Overgaard is a Danish writer and photographer, specializing in portrait photography and documentary photography, known for writings about photography and as an educator.
Some photos are available as signed editions via galleries or online. For specific photography needs, contact Thorsten Overgaard via e-mail.