First on the scene

The photographs taken by journalist Robby Berman in heat of the 9/11 attack in Manhattan are on display all this month in Jerusalem.

Sept 11 aftermath 311 (photo credit: Robby Berman)
Sept 11 aftermath 311
(photo credit: Robby Berman)
There is, as Robby Berman says himself, the matter of being in the right place at the right time.
But in his case, he could well have “enjoyed” his proverbial 15 minutes of fame posthumously.
On September 11, 2001, the 45- year-old US-born Israeli was on an assignment and was about to do an interview for The Jerusalem Post in midtown Manhattan when the news filtered through about the calamity taking place downtown. Without more than a moment’s thought, Berman decided to get himself down to where the action was, armed with his camera. But that course of action wasn’t scoop-driven. “I wasn’t a professional photojournalist,” says Berman. “I had medical training from the IDF, and I thought there might be people down there who needed help.”
As it turned out, Berman ended up being the only person shooting starkly memorable photographs at the epicenter of the unfolding tragedy. The fruits of his stalwart efforts will be on display as the “30 Days of Ground Zero: A September 11 Photo Exhibit” at the House of Quality in Jerusalem. The opening event, (Sunday at 4 p.m.,) will be attended by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, US Ambassador Dan Shapiro and Mark Regev, foreign press officer for the Prime Minister’s Office.
When Berman approached what is now known as Ground Zero, a policeman blocked his path saying it was too dangerous to go any closer.
After a while, however, when he looked away, Berman headed into a subway passage and out into where all hell was breaking loose. “It was literally an inferno, at times it was pitch black, and I had to use my camera flash to see.”
The thick darkness was only punctuated by fires burning in buildings and in smashed cars. There were explosions taking place all around as Berman ventured ever deeper into an area that was patently not safe to be in.
Eventually, after snapping around 300 pictures, he decided that enough was enough. “There was an explosion above me. I instinctively aimed my camera upwards and took one shot and then immediately sheltered my head with my hands as all this stuff started falling down on top of me.”
At that point, a vivid image came into his mind. “I saw a vision of my brother-law standing at the lectern of the synagogue that I attended as a child, eulogizing me in his Brooklyn accent: ‘Robby... was a shmuck. What did he go there for?’ I knew it was time for me to leave,” he recounts.
That evening, back in the safety of the apartment Berman mulled over the events of the day without considering the goldmine he had in his camera. “I was a journalist who tried to make a little extra money by taking photographs. On the 11th, I just walked home 100 blocks and went to sleep.”
The next day, Berman again managed to get into the cordonedoff Ground Zero area, this time by donning a fireman’s helmet he found lying on the ground and posing as a rescue worker. As he came out, he saw all the other photographers who were being kept out of the danger zone by police barricades. “On the second day, there was this whole gaggle of journalists and they asked me how I got in there, and I just said I snuck in. One guy said, ‘You have all these amazing pictures; go to my news agency.’ I showed them my pictures from the 11th, and the woman photo editor said that had I given her the pictures yesterday, she would have given me $10,000 for each one, but now they were worth only $1,000 each. So I made a few bucks, but not a lot of money.”
But Berman came to an epiphany about the documentary means at his disposal. “One of the reasons I stopped taking photographs is because, as dramatic as these pictures are, they don’t convey what it’s like to be surrounded by fire flames, the smell, the complete darkness during the day, being all alone and the booming sound. There’s nothing we have created today that could properly convey that.”
Berman’s harrowing 9/11 experiences left their mark on him, and he eventually opted for a sharp change of profession. “I decided I wanted to be a social activist and, after thinking about it for a few months, I decided I wanted to increase organ donation. I started the Halachic Organ Donor (HOD) Society,” he says. HOD has had significant impact and has helped facilitate more than 200 organ transplants.
“When I started the society, exactly 10 years ago, only two Orthodox rabbis in the world had organ donor cards. Now there are 238 because of our work. And 10 years ago, only three percent of Israelis had organ donor cards; today it is 11 percent. It is not enough. There is still a lot of work to do, but I feel better doing that than just writing a story about the need for donation.”
House of Quality,open Sunday- Thursday 4 p.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays after Shabbat. For more information about the Halachic Organ Donor (HOD) Society: