Aspen Times Weekly: Bearing Witness
Soot-covered firemen working together to extinguish hot spots. Search and rescue teams looking for bodies in gnarled shrapnel. Warm sunlight splashing over seemingly endless rubble. These are some of the historic images Aspen-based photographer Andrea Booher captured in her more than two months embedded with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at Ground Zero after the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.
Booher has a rare eye for finding hope and humanity amid despair. Following fire and rescue workers, her work is the photographic embodiment of Mr. Rogers’ sage advice on coping with tragedy: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Her photographs have hung in the 9/11 Memorial & Museum since it opened in 2014, in a section dedicated to the recovery efforts. But this month marks her first solo exhibition in the space, in a show that includes more than 70 of her photos – some blown up to stand as high as two stories.
Titled “Hope at Ground Zero: FEMA Photographs by Andrea Booher,” the exhibition opened May 18.
Booher arrived at Ground Zero on Sept. 12, 2001 not knowing what she’d be doing. Working for FEMA, she spent the next 10 weeks following them as they searched for survivors and recovered bodies.
When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani cut media access to the site, Booher became one of just two FEMA photographers granted unrestricted access to Ground Zero. She immediately understood the historical import of her work.
“It was clear to me that the photos I was shooting would be the historical document of the event and would be important,” Booher told me before heading to New York for the exhibition opening. “It was this incredible honor but also a huge responsibility.”
As a photographer for the federal government, priorities could get “silly,” as Booher puts it – a congressman, for example, might request her to photograph him touring the Ground Zero field office instead of sticking with the recovery workers in the rubble. She credits her boss at FEMA, Ed Conley, with keeping her focus on documenting the recovery.
“He had to come up with some creative stories to keep us in the field,” she recalls with a laugh.
Brought together by tragedy, Booher has stayed in touch with the rescuers and relief workers who were her subjects. Her intimacy with them comes through in her evocative 9/11 images.
“My work on 9/11 was about people, and I have a very unique bond with so many of these people,” she says. “It’s the bond of a shared experience, to be working at Ground Zero, searching for survivors. It’s not something that you just kind of put away like a photograph of your vacation in Tahiti. It stays with you and becomes a part of you.”
Booher has covered more than 200 disasters as a photographer and with FEMA. She spent the recent winter in Texas, documenting the extreme weather there that sent floods and tornados across the state. But she’s managed not to be numbed by jumping from catastrophe to catastrophe through her career. Putting together her show for the 9/11 Museum brought back strong emotions and surprisingly good memories.
“It’s a good experience when I look back on it,” she says. “What I saw and the humanity that came out at the site and tenderness amid this very brutal, harsh environment — we experienced so much tenderness. And I think the whole world did. We saw a good side of humanity come forward.”
As an artist with a deep personal relationship to Ground Zero and the aftermath of 9/11, Booher has been pleased with how the museum and memorial came together in recent years – becoming a place for remembrance and an educational tool for the generations to come.
“I think they’ve done a really good job at honoring a lot of different people, from the deceased to the responders to the families,” she says. “Overall it’s a very solemn museum. It’s a place where you can’t help but reflect deeply.”
For her next project, Booher is looking at exploring countries that have initiated models for forgiveness in the wake of genocide: “I’m interested in the themes of forgiveness and reconciliation.”
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