The Law of Unexpected Consequences

Ten years ago, on a beautiful morning in September, my life changed profoundly. Much has been written about that day, and much has happened as a result of two planes crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Ten years later, it is as difficult for me to write about those events as it was then.

I take pictures to understand the world around me. Photographs help me to digest events that in the moment are too dynamic to immediately comprehend. Each frame or sequence of images is a small homage to the moment lived and can be eventually retrieved, pulled from the archive, referenced, studied, and savored. To photograph the World Trade Center burning and eventually collapsing was the most profound experience of my life to date. For some of the resulting frames I was barely able to see through the viewfinder due to the constant tears obscuring my vision, splattering on my glasses and wetting the camera. To relive these moments has become something of a burden. They are not happy images. They still make me cry.

To be powerless in the face of adversity is an unsettling and humbling experience. I cursed myself for not having medical skills, not being able to pull people from the wreckage, not being able to do anything meaningful or of consequence for the thousands in danger. Having no other skill set, I exposed all the film in my possession. As soon as I could get into the City, I got some more film and headed down to Ground Zero to make more pictures. 

Security was tight around the pile. Checkpoints manned by National Guard soldiers, NYPD officers, and private security were everywhere. I met a woman named Nazan, and like magic, we walked together past them all without question. We helped the Salvation Army to hand out water to beleaguered firefighters, not raising a camera for the first few hours inside Ground Zero. Eventually, one of the Salvation Army workers told me to take a few cases of water bottles to another outpost on Church Street. “Take your cameras,” she said.

Walking south on Church, I was confronted with a very familiar landscape now powder covered in grey, and the scattered, smoldering remains of two 100+ storie towers. For a few blocks, I walked, hands filled with cases of water bottles, taking it all in, resisting the urge to drop the heavy load, and use my Mamiyas. I passed a huge man, a firefighter, sitting on the steps of the Millenium Hilton, exhausted, caked in gray mud, his expression blank, staring across the street at the fire that would not be extinguished for months. I offered him water.

I eventually made my way to Brooks Brothers. On the corner of Liberty and Church, it was across the street from the WTC. From inside the store, one could see the steel skin that had once been the upper floors of the south tower. I remember holding my breath while taking the few frames that were to become ‘The Brooks Brothers Picture.” The store was mostly dark, only a few emergency lights were working. The predominant light was filtering in from banks of construction lights set up outside to aid emergency workers. Empty ambulances were parked at the curb. Most of the windows had been blown in from the force of the implosion. All color was muted by the ubiquitous grey dust. I held my breath to steady the camera, a half second at f5.6, slowly aiding gravity to settle my index finger onto the shutter release, and repeated the zen exercise a few more times to allow for bracketing.

Many of the resulting pictures have now been published and shown in newspapers, magazines, galleries and museums in many countries. When the World Trade Center Memorial Museum opens, some of the pictures will be shown there as well. I recently went back to Brooks Brothers to re-photograph the store as it is ten years later. An exhibition of this work is now installed on the second floor, in the custom fitted suit area, pictures from before and after: “The Law of Unexpected Consequences.”

Special thanks to Shane Connors, my printer, who lost his father on this day ten years ago. I can’t possibly know what it must be like for him to work with these pictures, but his hand is in all of these images, and he makes them sing.  Also, a very special thanks to Kelly Stuart at Brooks Brothers who facilitated the entire project, and whose indefatigable spirit inspired so many to meet an impossible deadline.

23 Responses to “The Law of Unexpected Consequences”
  1. jeffrey says:

    Fantastic work Sean, kudos. And thanks for the care and attention in executing such incredible work.

  2. ari burling says:

    great stuff ! can’t wait to see them in person –

  3. A wonderful article Sean. Thank you for this insight.

  4. Suzanne Baxter says:

    I recall seeing your Brooks Brothers pictures 10 years ago…so very eerie. Everything must have been so horriffic and surreal as you walked with the cases of water. Such memories to carry with you all these years…

  5. Andrey says:


  6. Ben says:

    I remember the staff was giving away shirts to victims that day.

  7. paul says:

    the photography is great; however, what makes this is the writing. Thank you sir, for helping me understand how this date is so meaningful to my friends.

  8. a friend says:

    pictures hold the memories and spirit of the past; the lives lost and especially those that were never found live on in all the pictures taken during that time……..even if you were unable to help medically or physically doing what you do best captured a moment in time that we will never forget and it because of those pictures that people like you took it also helps some of us understand the world around us as well….so you did help that day without even realizing it….the memories will live on in your pictures

  9. Bob Sanders says:

    Thank you Sean for sharing with us your walk through the devastation of 9-11. I have often wondered what it would have been like to have been there and witnessed it first hand. Your outstanding photography and your descriptive recollection of this historic event have satisfied that wonderment for me. The message I received came with the addition of the pictures of the present as they state how we as a nation have this innate ability to rise from the ashes and began again. Thanks again, you have done a great job as an artist and as a member of this society.
    Bob Sanders

  10. You truly amaze me, I am very grateful for you and your ability to share such an event.
    Your loving sister,


  11. Jerry Fish says:

    I was the HR Manager for Brooks Bros and I re-opened that store 9/11/02. Seeing the destruction down there was heartbreaking and was wonderful to have the store back in business. Thankfully we didn’t loose any employees.

  12. cabbagerose says:

    sean, thank you for your courage in sharing this event…sending love your way. katherine

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