Photographer Eric O’Connell photographed the chaos and atrocities of September 11, 2001 and survived. Speaking with him recently about the upcoming twentieth anniversary, he said “it brings him reflective pause on what happened to him personally” and added, “that all the struggles we (the nation) are going through today spun from that day.”
The Wittliff will commemorate the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 with O’Connell’s photographs. Our memorial exhibit will be on view September 10-12 in the foyer.
On September 11, 2001, Eric O’Connell was at home—four blocks from the World Trade Center that morning. He heard the initial report of a small plane flying into the trade center building and intuitively took his camera with him as he exited his apartment to investigate what had happened. Encountering falling debris—mixed with heavy ash and bodies, broken concrete, and steel—he and other bystanders ran into the lobby of 90 West Street as the South Tower fell, a decision that saved their lives. Panicked, suffocating and blinded by the ash, they helped each other out of the building. All the while, O’Connell took pictures by unscrewing the lens filter and then screwing it back on, trying to protect it from the thick fog of dust, since it was impossible for him to see through the camera. He was outside when the North Tower fell, and in the darkness, he made his way back home.
Surviving that day affected him a great deal and he was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. His healing and path to recovery included, in 2011, self-publishing A New Reality: A first person account of 9/11 which feature all the black and white photographs he took that fateful day. These photographs will be on exhibit at the Monroe Gallery of Photography in Santa Fe, New Mexico and he will also have a solo artist exhibit at the Monochrome Gallery in Flagstaff, Arizona beginning in September 2021.
O’Connell eventually moved out of New York City to California where he earned a master’s degree in visual anthropology from University of Southern California. He is currently the Associate Professor of Practice (photography) at Northern Arizona University and has worked as a commercial photographer for over 20 years. His work focuses on adoption and adaption of cultural change, which can be reflected in people, in architecture, and in the created landscape. The Wittliff Collections house 14 photographs by O’Connell including three taken on 9/11 and many from his Cowboys of East Germany series.