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Joe Woolhead, the Poet-Photographer of Ground Zero

Joe Woolhead, the Poet-Photographer of Ground Zero

Sep 19, 2011
By By: Matt Chaban | NY Observer | NY Observer

The World Trade Center site may be the most famous construction project since the Tower of Babel, if not the most contentious.

But most of the work has taken place behind some 13,000 feet of blue construction fencing, and so to the extent that we have watched the progress, we’ve mostly relied on the images sent out from behind the fence-many of them the work of Joe Woolhead.

The official photographer for Larry Silverstein and the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, he has spent almost every day for the past seven years documenting the slow pace of construction at Ground Zero. If it was not one of his images gracing a magazine spread or appearing in a documentary still, then he almost certainly was helping to guide the lens of Annie Liebowitz, Robert Polidori, NOVA, or Korean news crews-whomever might be parachuting in for a shoot.

No one has spent more time at the World Trade Center site than Joe Woolhead. No one knows it better. To see it through Joe Woolhead’s eyes, or lens, is to witness the halting, hectic, heartfelt transformation of the 16-acre site from ground zero to the World Trade Center, from a warzone back into a workaday corner of the city.

“The great satisfaction is knowing I’m documenting what is probably the most significant building project in the whole world,” Mr. Woolhead said earlier this month. “This site, no matter what it will be, will always be associated with 9/11. And yet we, as humans, to move on, we have to build bigger and better than ever before.”

Mr. Woolhead was giving The Observer a tour around the “east bathtub,” the section of the site on the far side of the 1-train tracks. This will be home to 200, 175 and 150 Greenwich Street in the near and not so near future-the structures currently known as Towers 2, 3 and 4, the work of brand-name architects Lord Norman Foster, Sir Richard Rogers and Fumihiko Maki of Japan.

“It’s a very exhilerating experience to see the buildings come together,” Mr. Woolhead said. “I can see that the workers are very involved in what they do. It’s nice to be able to step back, take in the big picture, capture action that show progress. I want to be a part of that progress.”

To walk the site with Mr. Woolhead is to join the entourage of a rock star. Every construction worker knows him, clapping him on the back, nodding their heads, striking poses or waving from afar. Hey Joe, they call out from 20 stories up in Tower 4 or across the 100-foot chasm separating the rising Tower 3 from terra firma. These gestures are almost always followed by a simple question: Got any stickers?

“I don’t know when it started, but it just blew up,” Mr. Woolhead said. “I’m not the photographer anymore. Now I’m the sticker man.” It is hard to believe, whatever Mr. Woolhead might argue in his quiet Irish lilt, that the stickers were anything but part of a clever plan to win over the 3,200 construction workers at the 16-acre site. They are his eyes and ears, ensuring he knows what, where and when anything is being built, so that he might capture it for his collection of 2-million-and-counting photographs.

In exchange for their knowledge, he trades his playing-card-sized stickers, printed with his photos of concrete and steel, an American icon on the rise. Or, if the workers are lucky, pictures of themselves building these downtown monoliths. Onto their helmets they go, beside logos for the locals; flags of Ireland, Italy, Puerto Rico paired with the stars and stripes; X’d out bin Ladens; those leggy mudflap silhouettes; most often of all, the silhouettes of the old Twin Towers.

On Joe’s helmet, in addition to his own stickers, are those of a shamrocked “Win With Quinn,” a reference to the City Council Speaker; a NASA mission sticker reading “failure is not an option”; and a two-faced mask of some sort. He also wore a NASA lanyard, but Mr. Woolhead said it was a poet he dreamed of being as a boy-he freely quotes Yeats-not an astronaut.

Even now, he says, “I’m a poet with an eye for photography.” “He has an eye for the action on the site, he really captures the construction in an uncanny way,” said Diana Horowitz, an artist-in-residence on the 48th floor of 7 World Trade Center. She called him “the mayor of Ground Zero” for his easy way with the construction workers and foremen on the site.

Mr. Woolhead is not pretending with his helmet and heavy leather boots. After graduating from college in his native Dublin, he moved to London, where he found work in construction. He wound up in New York in 1990 the way so many men do-following a woman. Things did not work out. He took to working the odd construction job, until an accident in 1996 at a building not far from where he now works, at Liberty and Nassau streets, seriously injured his legs.

In 1999, tired of wallowing in bed and with his workman’s compensation running low, Mr. Woolhead enrolled at Hunter. There he earned degrees in communications and film. He also met his wife Ozy at Hunter, a Nigerian native who was working in the office of accessibility. They have a 22-month-old son whom Mr. Woolhead does not see much of, since he still works the hours of a construction worker-up at dawn, on the site all day, then off to the bar until well past sunset.

It was a few years later, in 2004, when he was working in a warehouse in Queens, that Mr. Woolhead got a call from Dara McQuillan. A fellow Irishman, Mr. McQuillan had been roommates with Mr. Woolhead for a brief period in the early 1990s. Now he was director of media relations at Silverstein Properties, and he needed some new portraits of Larry Silverstein and the other executives for a new website.

Freelance photography had not exactly been paying the bills for Mr. Woolhead, but he agreed to take the job anyone. It was good timing, because Mr. Silverstein was just finishing 7 World Trade Center and as he turned his attention to the rest of the site, he was looking for a range of artists to document the construction effort-not only a photographer but a documentarian and those artists like Ms. Horowitz. Joe got the offer thanks to Mr. McQuillan and his head shots but above all because he knew his way around a work site.

“He’s got a great eye for detail, he’s got a great eye for the men and women of this project,” Mr. McQuillan said. “They get up at five, he gets up at five and is on the site with them. Joe’s patience about capturing these people and life on the site is unmatched.” It took some convincing to get Mr. Woolhead to take the job. “I guess I’m really reflective by nature,” Mr. Woolhead said. “When I came back to the site, it brought back all the memories from the time I spent down at ground zero. But I knew I had a job to do, and I didn’t continue to dwell on the past.”

On the morning of September 11, while eating breakfast and getting ready for class, he heard the news of the attacks on the radio. For reasons he cannot fully explain, he immediately grabbed his Cannon and rushed to the F-Train, ducking into a bodega to buy 10 rolls of 99-cent Lucky brand film first. “It has a really beautiful quality, actually,” Mr. Woolhead said.

He rode the subway from his apartment in Jackson Heights all the way to Canal Street, as far as it would go. “Easter 1916” was reverberating in his head, “changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born,” as well as the last line of “The Second Coming.” Thousands of people were streaming by, fleeing the flames. Mr. Woolhead walked against the tide. He had reached the corner of Franklin and West Broadway when the south tower began to collapse.

Click, click, click, click, click, click. He got off six quick shots of the World Trade Center in free fall before diving into a hotel lobby.

“It was just a wave of destruction,” Mr. Woolhead said. After about 15 minutes, he decided to head back out. A maid gave him a wet handkerchief to tie around his face, and Mr. Woolhead recalls feeling like a protester at an anti-globalization riot.

It was utterly quiet out, the atmosphere had turned to gray smoke. He made his way around to Battery Park City, where Mr. Woolhead connected with a professional photographer. They cut through the World Financial Center, only to be confronted by “utter chaos.”

He wandered the wreckage for hours before one too many close calls with the police or national guard, whom he feared would take his film, even destroy his equipment. He left and filed his pictures to the French Sipa Press. One wound up on the inside cover of BusinessWeek, his first published photo.

Mr. Woolhead went home and slept for almost the entire never day, but on September 13 he returned. Along with a New York Post photographer, he quietly sidled up to a contingent of FBI agents, passing through the rings of security with them, apparently unnoticed. A homeless man gave him a hazmat suit, which helped protect him from too much scrutiny and provided a convenient place to stash his camera. He spent the next two days, barely sleeping, feverishly sneaking his camera out for shots of police cordons, workers tearing through the rubble. When he came upon the makeshift morgue inside the World Financial Center on the evening of the 14th, he decided it was time to leave. The only time he returned to the site before he began reporting for work was on the first anniversary.

“I wanted to be a witness,” Mr. Woolhead said. “I didn’t realize I was going to be a witness to something so catastrophic. I expected firefighters rescuing people from a fire, not two buildings collapsed into total rubble. I still can’t believe I was there.”


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