9/11 photographer Gary Marlon Suson lives in New York City. On September 11, 2001, his life, just as all American’s lives, was turned upside down by the attacks on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon. Initially, after photographing the Towers’ collapse from his rooftop, Suson returned to his studio, deciding he wasn’t going to shoot anything else having to do with this tragedy. He didn’t want the stress of being in the midst of the chaos taking pictures, and especially didn’t wish to be wrongly viewed as someone trying to exploit a situation. Besides, he felt that trying to document something of this enormity was pointless – “Who am I to think I can capture the magnitude of all this?” he thought. However, he slowly realized he had a responsibility to try to document for future generations what terrorism was.
After creating a website called SeptemberEleven.net he posted his photos and captions, providing a pictorial commentary on what had happened. Unexpectedly appointed the Official Photographer at Ground Zero shortly after the tragedy at World Trade Center, Suson took photos on behalf of the Uniformed Firefighters Association and Uniformed Fire Officers Association. The culmination of his efforts became the Ground Zero Museum Workshop, a not-for-profit museum that houses not only his stunningly gripping images, but exhibits of relics and effects recovered from the site.
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International Business Times
Ground Zero Workshop Museum Founder Marlon Suson is a professional actor-playwright who resides in Manhattan & an Honorary Battalion Chief in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). Just months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, he stepped away from his theatrical career after he was requested to take on a unique role: To be the Official Photographer at Ground Zero for the Uniformed Firefighters Association & Uniformed Fire Officers Association (FDNY). Like all New Yorkers and wanting to contribute to the relief efforts in any way he could, he began shooting on the morning of 9/11 and was appointed Official Photographer at Ground Zero in late December of 2001. He spent six days per week and approximately 17 hours per day “living” at Ground Zero, where he documented every phase of the ‘Recovery’. His work was overseen by FDNY Chief of Department Daniel Nigro. He was allowed access to every area at Ground Zero and given strict guidelines, which included:
• Not to release any of the images until the Recovery was over
• Not to shoot images of human remains.
• To share future proceeds with 9/11 charities.
In addition, he was not salaried by anyone and had to take out bank loans in excess of $8000.00 in order to finish his documentation of the “Recovery.” The FDNY first caught wind of Mr. Suson’s work in December of 2001, when the Manhattan Trustee for the Uniformed Firefighter’s Association, Rudy Sanfilippo, was receiving complimentary immunotherapy and vitamin drips at a well-known holistic clinic. Mr. Sanfilippo, a survivor of the WTC collapse on 9/11, was having lung complications. Mr. Suson had arranged the free care for several firemen who were experiencing breathing problems from September 11. It was this impromptu meeting between Suson and Sanfilippo that led the Uniformed Firefighters Association to view Mr. Suson’s award-winning website, SeptemberEleven.net, and then allow him full, unrestricted access to every area of Ground Zero. Early on, he didn’t shoot very much; choosing instead to focus on becoming friendly with the Chiefs and fixtures that ran the WTC site. Firemen were at first spooked when they saw Mr. Suson shooting and were uneasy. They feared he was exploiting the sacred site but this changed quickly as they got to know him and also noticed that none of his images were showing up in any of the daily newspapers. This spoke volumes to the many men who had lost family members and whole fire companies on September 11. Slowly, he was welcomed into the Ground Zero “brotherhood” and was even allowed to document the private Honor Guards from only a few feet away without the men so much as blinking an eye. Mr. Suson recalled, “I have to say I felt as if I was always at home there. I looked forward to seeing the men (and women) every day. It was an honor for all of us to be the ones to help out firsthand in the recovery efforts. We knew we were making a difference.” Whenever financially possible, Marlon Suson’s non-profit Museum donates to assorted charities and is particularly supportive of charities having to do with Mesothelioma research, such as the Mesothelioma & Asbestos Awareness Center (MAA Center).
One Battalion Chief in particular, Stephen Zaderiko, took Mr. Suson under his wing. “He spent time educating me on different aspects of the site, which included the art of making a recovery. He literally taught me how to dig when I wasn’t shooting; showing me what to look for in the way of remains. It was an honor to be able to dig but quite frightening the first time I did it. That’s when everything got quite real for me. No more hiding behind the lens. I really looked up to him; he was always at Ground Zero, even on his days off and always stayed upbeat.” Another Chief Mr. Suson credited for his images and emotional support was Battalion Chief Jim Riches. “Chief Riches lost his son on 9-11 and God himself couldn’t pull Chief Riches away from Ground Zero. I called him the gentle giant as he never spoke much but when he did, it mattered. He was very supportive of my work and genuinely cared about everyone at the site. It was quite a day when Chief Riches finally found his fireman son, Jimmy, Jr. in the North Tower area.” One last catalyst to Mr. Suson attaining his unique images at key moments during the recovery was a volunteer recovery worker known simply as “Mike The Beard.” A bear of a man who sported a thick beard, overalls, size 14 work boots, coke-bottle thick glasses and was always covered in the trademark brown-gray, Ground Zero mud, “Beard” often drove Mr. Suson around the site in an ATV. “He’d often wake me up at two or three in the morning while I slept in St. Paul’s Church and told me to be outside in two minutes. He would do this when he thought there was something happening down in the hole that should be documented, so he’d pick me up in this muddy, Honda ATV “Gator” and whiz me down to wherever the action was happening. I attribute some of my best photographs to his being so attentive and involved in my documentation.” Mr. Suson, who stockpiled his collection of images for many months, was virtually unknown to the media until the fire union granted him permission to release the images in the last week of the recovery at Ground Zero. On May 28, 2002, the New York Times broke the story of his singular journey into Ground Zero with a feature, half-page, color photo story entitled, “From a Camera at Ground Zero, Rare Photos of an Agonizing Dig” by Susan Sachs. The morning that the story broke, Mr. Suson was contacted by every major media outlet in the world, including Fox News Channel, CNN, SKY (UK), CBS, NBC and ABC. His first major interview, a five-minute featured segment on CNN Worldwide, was shaky. “I was only a few days out of Ground Zero and suddenly I had to talk about my experiences with a camera in my face and I couldn’t do it. I got choked up every time I opened my mouth, so CNN was kind enough to pair me up with a very sensitive producer who made sure I felt comfortable, which included my not being able to see the video camera. It was a slow process, that first interview, but the final product was an accurate tale in words and images that told the story of my journey into the heart of Ground Zero. I still get choked up every time I watch that interview as I can see just how emotionally vulnerable I was during that period.” That five-minute segment remains to this day the longest taped story ever produced on CNN. Gary Marlon Suson was a guest numerous times on Fox News Channel and recently did radio interviews on INSIDE MAC RADIO and for AUSTRALIAN RADIO for the 7-Year anniversary of the W.T.C. attacks.
Book offers quickly followed and Mr. Suson, courted heavily by Judith Regan of Regan Books, signed with the smaller Barnes Noble Publishing to release, “Requiem: Images of Ground Zero”, a 200-page pictorial of Day 1 through the closing ceremonies. The book was endorsed by the most notable firemen in the FDNY, with the foreward penned by highly respected Assistant Chief of Operations Joseph W. Pfeifer, whose brother Kevin was lost on 9/11. In keeping with his promise to the fire union, he donated hundreds of autographed books to the Uniformed Firefighters Association, to FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn, to 9/11 families and to firehouses all over the New York area. In addition, he sold books and museum posters for the UFA Widows Children’s Fund. His works were featured on the FBI Training Network in Quantico for their Homeland Security and Policing videos and in 2003, 8 of his images were reviewed by the Pulitzer Prize Committee for the 2002 awards. In August of 2002, Mr. Suson was a guest of the U.S. Secret Service at The White House, where he was given a private tour and signed dozens of books for the staff. From there, he came back to New York where he was an honored speaker at the U.S. Postal Service’s “Tribute To Heroes” ceremony, moving the packed audience with an emotional power point presentation of his Ground Zero images set to music. In September of 2002, Mr. Suson was a guest on Fox News Live with David Asman and then appeared on CNN with Connie Chung, accompanied by FDNY 9/11 Family Members Lee Ielpi and John Vigiano. Says Suson,”This was an emotional segment to be a part of, to say the least. I admire both men’s incredible courage to subject themselves to such a tough interview just one year after losing their sons.” His travels also included going to England, where he accompanied British Fire Chief David O’Dwyer of the Hereford Worcester Fire Brigades to the peak of a centuries-old, mountain fortress called “British Camp”, where Mr. Suson dug a hole and buried World Trade Center glass and dirt in a secret location in memory of the British citizens who died on September 11. The dirt was given to Mr. Suson by retired FDNY Lieutenant Paul Geidel, who spent nine months looking for his missing son, Gary Geidel, of Rescue-1 in Manhattan. Since then, Mr. Suson has spoken all over Europe on his work and experiences at Ground Zero, often showing up at firehouses with historical images for people on the opposite end of the world to remember the fallen. In 2002 and 2003, he had two different museum exhibits at The New-York Historical Society. One exhibit, “9/11: Loss and Remembrance”, featured the “Band of Dads” from Ground Zero.
In 2004, Mr. Suson, feeling unfulfilled in his mission to educate people as to what transpired during the Ground Zero Recovery, began writing his next Off-Broadway project, AMERICAN BROTHER – a ground zero-themed play. Mr. Suson recently penned a feature screenplay based on his own experiences at Ground Zero as the Official Photographer of record during the Recovery. Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis has offered to act in the project when it comes to fruition. Mr. Suson travels to different fire expos around the USA to sign books & museum posters for 10 assorted charities, including Artists 4 Hope, NYC Fire & Police Widows Fund, The FDNY Chief Raymond Downey Memorial Fund, The UFA Widows & Children’s Fund, HugsAcrossAmerica.net, Firefighter Ralph Geidel 9/11 Fund and the Brian E. Sweeney Memorial Fund. In 2004, Mr. Suson participated in a Ground Zero chemical detoxification program designed by the Church of Scientology and campaigned by actor Tom Cruise. Mr. Suson continues to raise awareness of the courage of the Ground Zero firefighters, police and volunteers through his unique and singular images. Most importantly, these images keep the memory alive of all those who perished on the fateful day of September 11, 2001 . Mr. Suson has often stated, “Time has a way of dulling our memories and so I hope these photographs will keep people from forgetting how we need to consistently fight the war on terrorism.” Mr. Suson, in 2005, opened the Ground Zero Museum Workshop in the Meat-Packing District of New York, which conducts daily, guided tours for tourists from all over the world, as well as hosting 9/11 families and survivors groups. Mr. Suson speaks around the world about his experiences as the Official Photographer at Ground Zero for the Uniformed Firefighters Association & Uniformed Fire Officers Association. Mr. Suson’s role as Official Photographer at Ground Zero for the Fire Unions (UFA & UFOA) was a one-time position that ended when the Ground Zero Recovery ended and he no longer shoots photography for either union. His affiliation was with the 2001-2002 UFA administration from the Ground Zero Recovery period and not the current UFA administration, whose members were not elected officials nor were in office during the events of September 11 or during the “Recovery” at Ground Zero.