BY ANGELA MONTEFINISE
Queens resident and former Tribune photographer Jason Eskenazi hasn’t missed many historical events in his seasoned career as a documentary photographer.
Queens photographer Jason Eskenazi made it his own assignment to capture the emotion of visitors at Ground Zero. The photographs that appear on this page are the result and will be the focus of an upcoming book.
He has captured the end of Communism in Russia, the brutal battles in Chechnya, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany. The Bayside resident’s photographs have been shown in exhibitions and prestigious publications, including Time Magazine, The New York Times, and Newsweek.
On Sept. 11, Eskenazi thought he had missed one of the biggest events in United States history – the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Instead of being in his native New York, Eskenazi was in a small motel room in the Ukraine on Sept. 11, “shocked” by the loss of the World Trade Center, and disappointed that he would never get the chance to capture the emotions of his New York neighbors following a tragedy that hit him close to home.
Eventually, Eskenazi got back to New York City and went to Ground Zero, where a lack of press credentials kept him shut out of the area. Still, he was able to capture the horror and loss felt by people at Ground Zero using a creative approach that never included the rubble that once stood as a symbol of American capitalism and success. His three week’s worth of panoramic black and white photos focusing on the facial expressions of Ground Zero visitors may soon be available for public viewing in a book entitled Vanishing Points.
Tears and Fears
When Eskenazi first got to Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, he said he was, “absolutely shocked,” and said, “Television and newspaper photos cannot capture the enormity of Ground Zero. The smell, the site of the rubble and the armed guards just make it seem surreal . . . It was devastating as a New Yorker.”
Eskenazi tried to renew his NYPD Press card before returning to New York, but the freelance photojournalist was unable to do so. He said, “It was frustrating. There were fences around Ground Zero and guards everywhere to keep people out. I was always on the outside looking in, and that made it tough.”
Instead of taking photos of Ground Zero itself, Eskenazi improvised and examined the faces of people passing the destruction. He said, “People’s reactions were fascinating to me. People of all races were stopping and just staring at the Trade Center. Some were crying, some were taking pictures, some were angry. The reactions were very interesting, so I started shooting them.”
The Bayside photographer snapped dozens of shots in three weeks at Ground Zero, including photos of a woman taking a picture of Ground Zero from a taxi cab, a woman sobbing in her hands, a baby staring at the site with his head sideways as if he’s concentrating on it, a girl covering her nose from the smell of the debris, a woman staring at the site in shock while a New York Sightseeing bus passes behind her, groups of Jews and Muslims looking at the site, and a group of people taking photographs of the destruction.
Eskenazi said he took the photos by holding the camera on his chest instead of looking through the viewfinder so, “The subjects wouldn’t pay attention to me,” he said. “I tried to capture every emotion at Ground Zero, including the people who were taking pictures and treating the disaster like an attraction. I wanted to show all of America in mourning.”
None of the photos actually show Ground Zero, but Eskenazi said, “[Ground Zero] is similar to the Sun – you don’t need to show the Sun to see its effects as light and shadow.”
Eskenazi has compiled his photographs of Ground Zero into a book, entitled Vanishing Points. He called it that for several reasons, saying, “Vanishing Points came about, I guess, by the panoramic effect that produced two vanishing points – down the street and then down another perpendicular one . . . It’s ultimately about loss, about the despair of loss, all kinds of loss.”
The book is ready for publication, but Eskenazi is waiting for a publisher to buy the rights. He said there will probably be no captions because, “I want the photos to speak for themselves.” He did know that the first photo in the book will be of a man holding his sleeping child on his shoulder. He said, “He’s bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders. We all felt that way on Sept. 11.”
Eskenazi is also trying to open an exhibition of his work, but nothing has been scheduled yet.
Eskenazi began photographing as a hobby at Queens College, where he received degrees in Psychology and American Literature. He became photo-editor of the college yearbook, and began working at the Queens Tribune.
He then moved on to work at Newsday and several other papers before becoming a freelance photographer. He works on a regular basis for Open Society Institute (SOROS) publications.
Eskenazi received several grants to take photos in the former Soviet Union to document the fall of Communism and in Germany to document the fall of the Berlin Wall.
He also took photos of guerilla battles in Chechnya and other parts of Russia, where he had to sleep in an underground bomb shelter at night to keep safe.
He said, “I remember I would hear dogs, scared out of their minds, scratching on the bomb shelter door while the bombing was happening. That was disturbing.”
Although he doesn’t consider himself a war journalist, Eskenazi said, “I have had to go near combat. It’s not my favorite thing to do, but I do it. It’s the thrill of danger, I guess.” He added, “Now with this Daniel Pearl thing, everyone’s on edge. But you just have to keep working.”