Ground Zero Persective

JOHNSTOWN – When the World Trade Center was devastated in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Johnstown resident Louis Pabon was one of the hundreds of laborers called on to help clear away the debris in the months that followed.

What was different about Pabon was he had always carried around a simple point and shoot film camera around in his Carhartts. A small Fuji “you just put the batteries in and shoot.”

“I had over 25 years in construction and I carried around a camera I kept in my Carhartts,” said Pabon. “I would take pictures of the guys and places.”

Those years of photographing his fellow workers resulted in a body of work that is unparalleled – a documentation of the men, women and animals who actually worked at Ground Zero in the months that followed the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Pabon was a professional laborer in New York City’s local 731 of Excavators and Concrete Union. He worked at Ground Zero from September 13, 2001 through March 2002.

One hundred and seventy of his over 3,000 images, along with some Ground Zero artifacts, are on display at Fulton-Montgomery Community College’s Perrella Gallery through Nov. 10.

While Pabon is modest about his talent as a photographer – “I’m not a professional, I just take pictures,” – his prints of the men and women who worked at Ground Zero clearing away the debris and devastation are stunning.

“I spent six months at Ground Zero and I was blessed with great eyes,” said Pabon, who credits his relationship with the workers for part of the success of the images. “My mindset was to document the workers – I felt it was important.”

Pabon said working at Ground Zero was emotionally hard on any one who was there.

“It was very emotional,” said Pabon, who admits he sought out therapy following his stint there. “You knew you were on sacred ground.”

Pointing to one image of workers in the midst of debris, Pabon said, “If you look close enough, there is an angel rising up and touching the hand of the worker. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”

In another image, Pabon pointed to the spot where he found a Bible, unharmed, at the bottom of what was the World Trade Center.

“The owner’s name was in it and I tracked them down and I felt it was a mission given to me to return it,” said Pabon. “The owners had been at the concierge’s desk when the elevators blew out and they cried when I returned it to them.”

Gallery Director Joel Chapin said Pabon had been a student at FMCC taking some theater, English and art classes.

“One day he said to me he had some pictures he wanted to show me,” said Chapin, who helped Pabon put the exhibit together. “I looked at them and realized they are a unique window into a piece of American history.”

While Pabon had been fascinated of the images of the buildings, Chapin knew the images he had taken of the workers and how his relationship with his fellow workers helped make the images even better were the most powerful of the collection.

“We started pulling out different themes and as an artist you sometimes have your own perspective,” said Chapin. “I said to Lou, ‘What are some the most rare types of photographs from important events in American history? The people. In the end, it is the human perspective.”

Referring to Pabon as “the dream student,” Chapin said the pair worked for a couple of years to pare down the images to the 170 in the exhibit.

“We wanted to tell his story – it is not like others.”

Lacy Spagnuola, a student at FMCC, was looking at the exhibit Friday. She said she was in high school when the attacks happened.

“I remember this day and I was so scared it could happen here, that it could happen again. I already felt violated because it is New York state,” said Spagnuola.

The exhibit, which shows many of the workers who worked to search for survivors, the laborers who had to clear away the debris, the police and emergency responders, as well as family members who lost loved ones in the attack.

“The pictures he has taken show the devastation and transformation that was the cleanup of Ground Zero,” said a news release on the exhibit. “[Pabon] feels that there is an image of Ground Zero in the mind of the public that was nothing but devastation, that was on Sept. 11, then came Sept. 12, 13, 14 on through to March 2002,” said the release. “This period of time is a different story that needs to be told. He knows we carried on, but the pain will never be forgotten. These images represents one of the many firsthand stories from Ground Zero. This is an account of the history of what happened in the aftermath of Sept. 11 as seen through a laborer’s eyes.”

Perrella Gallery hours are Mondays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with extended evening hours until 9 p.m. on Thursday or by appointment. The gallery is closed weekends and holidays.

For more information, call Chapin at 736-3622, Ext. 8977.