Photo exhibition of images by Barrington High School alum and official 9/11 photographer opens in school’s art gallery: ‘It’s powerful’
- Posted by Barrington Hills
- On September 14, 2021
Chicago Tribune/Pioneer Press | Sep 13, 2021 | Elizabeth Owens-Schiele
Gary Suson, an official Fire Department of New York ground zero photographer and Barrington High School alum, captured photos of death, devastation and despair from the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and now his images line the walls of a new special photo exhibition erected at Barrington High School.
“In this exhibit, I put great attention on diversity. I wanted to portray the presence of African Americans at ground zero,” Suson said.
Suson spent seven months amid the ruin and recovery efforts after the twin towers at the World Trade Center in New York City were destroyed Sept. 11, 2001 by terrorists who had hijacked two commercial airplanes. A plane was flown through the top of each tower, and the iconic buildings, which each had more than 90 floors, fully collapsed moments later.
He received unparalleled access to the site and surrounding areas after he was recruited as a photographer by the New York City Fire Department to work alongside firefighters, documenting the historic, tragic events.
A day before the nation would commemorate the 20th anniversary of the attacks – which also included hijacked planes crashing into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and into a field 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh – Suson, local first responders and elected officials, and Barrington High School District 220 leaders were on hand for a sneak peek of the exhibit
“It’s incredible, it’s overwhelming,” SD220 board President Ficke-Bradford said about the photo exhibit, adding that she was pregnant at the time of the attacks. “One of the stories [in the exhibit] was about a woman who gave birth to a baby right away. … It was impactful in my life; my son was born, one of the first babies after 9/11 and in the class of 2022.”
She called the photos “powerful.”
“Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11,” she said.
The exhibit features 100 images and artifacts, and audio stories narrating the history behind each display. It is a recreation of Suson’s 9/11 Museum Workshop in New York, and SD220 officials said it will be open to the public Oct. 2 and Nov. 6.
A Barrington Hills native, Suson had proposed curating an exhibit at the high school where he first learned to be a photographer. School officials, who honored him with a “Distinguished Graduate Award” for humanitarianism in 2019, were receptive of his idea and helped fund the creation of the exhibit. After three months of planning, it opened Sept. 10.
The display includes “Oscar prays at sunrise,” the title given to a photo of New York firefighter Oscar Garcia on his knees in the rubble, his eyes closed as he faced the sunrise. There’s also a photo of an African American welder who used his torch to create crosses from the steel beams of the World Trade Center for victims’ families.
Suson explained how the 120-pound steel crescent moon positioned in the corner of the exhibit – once on display in 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York – honors the 24 Muslim office workers who died in the twin tower attacks. Their deaths were not acknowledged, he said, because it was a time of hatred against Muslims. Islamic terror groups were almost immediately believed to have orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.
Suson narrates the stories behind each photo displayed in a one-hour-and-30-minute personal audio presentation accompanying the exhibit. Artifacts include shovels, pick mattocks, dust covered boots and gloves, and more.
Overall, Suson said he captured more than 3,000 images at ground zero, using a special medium format camera purchased by his mother. Many of his photos are published in books and are on display at his “9/11 Museum Workshop: Images & Artifacts from Ground Zero” in New York City.
After his work from 9/11 was published and displayed, Suson went on to be a couture fashion photographer for the editorial department of “Playboy” magazine and to photograph celebrities, he explained. But he said he gave up shooting full time in 2003 due to health issues that resulted from his work at ground zero. He receives daily oxygen treatments and now works full time on exhibitions and educating others about the history of 9/11, he said.
When Suson returns to his home in New York, his exhibit at Barrington High School will remain, said Principal Stephen McWilliams. It is currently housed in the school’s art gallery, which recently underwent a more than $70,000 renovation, McWilliams said. The principal explained that the exhibit may eventually find a permanent home elsewhere in the school building following a “reimage” expected to take place following passage of a recent tax referendum.
“It’s really amazing especially because I wasn’t alive when 9/11 happened. I was the next generation heavily impacted by this,” said Annie Thyfault, 17, a BHS senior who helped curate the exhibit alongside with her father, Chuck Thyfault. The father is president of the Barrington High School Alumni Association, who supported Suson in creating the exhibition.
“I feel like students always learn about 9/11 in the history books but they learn about it as something that happened and not something that happened to people,” Annie Thyfault said. “These photos show people were affected. I think students will be really surprised. I now know how much of an impact 9/11 had.”
Many first responders were also invited for a first-time look at the exhibit. Retired Highland Park Fire Department Lt. John Jacquette toured the exhibit with retired Lt. John Kwasny, also of the Highland Park Fire Department. The two traveled to New York City after 9/11 and attended the funeral services of multiple FDNY firefighters. The exhibit, particularly the video presentation of Suson’s images with audio of actual firefighter radio calls playing in the background, brought tears to their eyes.
“This is their Pearl Harbor,” Jacquette said of the importance of high school students learning about the historical event. “Hopefully, it’s never forgotten.”
Elizabeth Owens-Schiele is a freelancer.