Jonathan Hyman documents public artistic displays that emerged after attack

Flag Trees by photographer Jonathan C. Hyman
Flag Trees in Newtown, Connecticut, 2003 Photographer Jonathan Hyman has documented public artistic responses to 9/11 far afield from New York and throughout the city.
Photo by Jonathan C. Hyman

'We've seen photographers go out for a month, or go cross country once, but no one has done it as long as Jonathan has and with the eye that he has and the sensitivity that he has'
– Jan Seidler Ramirez, chief curator, 9/11 Memorial Museum

As countless lenses were pointed in every direction throughout New York City following the 9/11 attacks, photographer Jonathan C. Hyman had a different instinct.

“When everyone with a camera was at, or running to, ground zero, I ran in the other direction,” the Rutgers alumnus said. Every day for several months, before traveling to the city to take pictures, he photographed how people were publicly responding to the devastating attacks around his upstate New York home, roughly 100 miles northwest of the city.

Hyman, a 1982 Rutgers graduate who majored in art, kept driving and widening his radius. He discovered displays by people who likely didn’t consider themselves artists but were compelled to express their emotions through murals, painted mailboxes and homes, signs on lawns, tattoos and illustrations on vehicles. Some images were angry, demanding retribution. Others signaled peace, hope and healing.  All combined to create a unique vernacular response through public art to September 11, 2001.

He has taken more than 20,000 photos, driven more than 200,000 miles to 23 states. Five years after the attacks, 63 of Hyman’s photographs were displayed in WTC 7 in the first and only exhibit and public programming by the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation ahead of the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s opening in May 2014. 

Now, as many of the museum’s nearly 3 million visitors a year line up to enter a theater in the South Tower Gallery, they take in 38 of his photographs, nine enlarged to mural-size.

“We’ve seen photographers go out for a month, or go cross country once, but no one has done it as long as Jonathan has and with the eye that he has and the sensitivity that he has,” said Jan Seidler Ramirez, chief curator for the 9/11 Memorial Museum. 

Mounted high on one wall in the L-shaped exhibit is the Warwick, N.Y. “Mural with Silos”, depicting the iconic image of firefighters raising the American flag in the ruins of the World Trade Center. Also enlarged is his 2003 “Flag Trees” photo taken in Newtown, Connecticut. The property owner, a Wall Street broker, commissioned the painting of the American flag on maple trees as a memorial to nine colleagues and the son of another killed at the World Trade Center.

 “I took a picture of everything I saw, whether or not I liked its sentiment or content and whether or not I thought it was artfully done,” he said. “If you are going to call yourself a documentarian, that’s what you do.”

All Gave Some, Some Gave All by Phographer Jonathan C.Hyman
All Gave Some, Some Gave All, Manhattan, New York, 2003 Photographer Jonathan Hyman captured many unique, personal tattoos inscribed on backs, torsos, legs and arms by loved ones who vow never to forget.
Photo by Jonathan C. Hyman

The museum owns 55 of Hyman’s photographs, included in its permanent collection of 52,000 artifacts and artwork. Currently, 1,100 pieces from the permanent collection are on display in the museum, which divides visitor experiences between the historical events leading up to and including the day of September 11, 2001 in the North Tower Gallery and South Tower Gallery tributes honoring the many lives lost.

The fact that Hyman spent so much time diving in to tell the stories behind the photos made his work stand out even more, Ramirez said: “He took so much care to capture the backstory of each photo.” Many of those stories are shared alongside the exhibited photographs and in his book, The Landscapes of 9/11: A Photographer’s Journey.

Hyman’s photographs have been featured in TIME Magazine and on PBS. Angus Kress Gillespie, an American studies professor in the School of Arts and Sciences, said no artist has done what Hyman has since 9/11. " I predict that, in the years to come, the artistic and intellectual community will come to see Jonathan Hyman as the key photographer of the War on Terror, just as we now recognize Matthew Brady in terms of the Civil War," Gillespie said.

Flower Power Mural by photographer Jonathan C. Hyman
Flower Power Mural, Manhattan, 2002 This mural photographed by Jonathan Hyman on an East 6th Street building is gone.
Photo by Jonathan C. Hyman

Through the years, Hyman has returned to murals to see if they have been altered or still exist. Some, like the "Flower Power Mural” on an East 6 th Street building – which shows the twin towers, made of bright, cheery flowers, still reaching for the sky  – are gone. Others have been amended, like “Rockin Ray’s Handball Court” in Brooklyn, transformed in 2001 by Ray Fiore as a memorial to many who died in the attack. Fiore returned every few years to repair damage to the well-used wall and to make note of the May 1, 2011, military operation that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Still others have been expanded from makeshift memorials into more lasting ones.

Along his journey, Hyman started asking people to share the stories behind the evocative tattoos they brandished to create some of his most powerful photographs. One firefighter who spent months at ground zero searching for missing colleagues spent nine months getting a tattoo emblazoned across his back to commemorate colleagues who were killed. “The pain in my back was good for the pain in my head,” he told Hyman. You can find more of the photographer’s  9/11-related photos on his website.

It may be three decades since he graduated, but Hyman’s Rutgers connection is strong. The Henry Rutgers Honors Scholar who grew up in Highland Park was at home on Rutgers’ campuses long before he was a student. His father, Ronald T. Hyman, was a faculty member in the Graduate School of Education for 42 years, while his mother, Suzanne K. Hyman, taught English at Douglass College and was managing editor of The Raritan Review literary journal for 20 years.

At Rutgers, Hyman took a sculpture class as a freshman with Philip Orenstein, and one art class led to another for a guy who came to Rutgers planning to become a lawyer but who left as an artist. The art major who minored in education said he found lots of support to pursue his art. “Rutgers was a great place for me,” said Hyman. “I was able to pursue my education as an artist and as a person.”

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