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9/11 photographer returns to Ground Zero

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Tourists and onlookers view the World Trade Center site from the plaza of the Millenium Hilton Hotel on July 19, 2011 in New York City. The hotel is across the street from the World Trade Center and suffered significant damage in the 9-11 attacks. It was refurbished and reopened in May, 2003.

Mario Tama, a Getty Images photographer, was at home on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, when he got the call that something big was happening at the World Trade Center site. After grabbing his cameras and coming around the corner, Tama saw the huge hole in the north tower and immediately thought of war – a subject he hadn’t covered before. 

The events of 9/11 turned out to be Tama’s introduction to war photography, something he never wanted to do. Even after photographing Hurricane Katrina and the start of the Iraq War – two events with much human suffering – Tama says 9/11 is the “most shocking thing I’ve ever covered.”

So when Tama was asked to shoot a special series of photographs for the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, he understood the significance. But living and working in New York City, he’d been to the site so many times over the years (by his estimation at least 125 times), he felt he needed a new way look at it in order to reinvigorate his senses.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

During a blessing of the World Trade Center cross before it was moved into its permanent home at the 9/11 Memorial Museum on July 23, 2011 in New York City. The cross is an intersecting steel beam discovered in the World Trade Center rubble which served as symbol of spiritual recovery in the aftermath of 9/11.

Tama was looking for a different kind of camera to shoot with when he ran into another photojournalist, Craig Ruttle, who suggested he check out the Lomo camera known as the "Sprocket – Rocket." Manhattan is vertical, a city island of skyscrapers and vertical spaces. But Tama sees the former World Trade Center site as horizontal, as a crater, so the panoramic nature of the Lomo format seemed right to him.

Additionally, he felt that shooting on film, something he hadn’t done since before the attacks, would help bring him back in time. In particular, Tama would be using black and white film, which he thought would better connect the current location with its history. Tama vividly remembers the day of the attacks, but because of the dust covering everything, he sees that day in his mind's eye as essentially black and white. 

Over the last month or so, Tama went back to the site again and again with his Lomo and photographed it. He plans to continue going back there with his new camera until Sept. 11, and will be there on that day covering the memorial events.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

A couple embraces on the Hudson River waterfront with Lower Manhattan and the rising One World Trade Center in the background on July 6, 2011 in Jersey City, New Jersey.


Tama says he has been to Ground Zero so many times it often feels like "just another piece of real estate," which he characterizes as a "great thing" because it helps him cope. Still, he expects the approach of the anniversary to be heart-wrenching. But just knowing, he says, that people around the world care about what happened on 9/11 and can empathize what he and so many others are feeling will make it easier to complete his work.

More photos from Mario Tama's 9/11 project in our slideshow.