Interview with Jennifer Judkins of The Ripple Podcast
Jennifer Judkins is a photographer living in Brooklyn, New York. Jennifer and I are from the same town in Western Massachusetts, but we met in 2005 when we both transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design to study photography. After Jennifer’s father was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, she started a project documenting her family’s experience, their relationship, the progression of his illness and his passing. Chester Judkins, also known as Chet, was a US Navy veteran, a great and kind man, characteristics which drove him to volunteer in the recovery efforts immediately following the attacks at the World Trade Center on September, 11th, 2001. As the number of his diagnoses grew it came to light that his illnesses were likely linked to his time spent at Ground Zero. The project documenting Jennifer’s father became not just about a family’s struggle and perseverance, love and relationships while facing illness, but it also became part of the story of the aftermath of 9/11, a story of an experience many other families have had to face and still are dealing with today, 15 years later. This week Jennifer launched The Ripple podcast, in which she interviews people so they can tell their stories surrounding that day and the days since. We met up to discuss her family’s story, how she came to start her podcast and where she hopes to take it.
Amanda Stosz: Can you talk about how your dad ended up at the World Trade Center on 9/11?
Jennifer Judkins: My dad, at the time, in 2001, was the Northeast Regional Maintenance Manager for an equipment rental company. He ran 80 stores up and down the East Coast. He was at a company-wide meeting that day. Forever, I thought it was in Connecticut. My mom is convinced it was in Flushing, Queens. I’m going to go with Flushing. Mom knows. I think she thought Flushing was somewhere else. He was in Flushing. When the plane hit, he just got his whole crew mobilized, basically, to bring in bulldozers and excavators, staging lights, generators, and whatever they could. That’s the stuff they were renting. They just brought it all in. He stayed for the first 6 days and he slept in his truck. He had this big white truck. It was an F150 or F250, a big white truck.
AS: Did he sleep in Manhattan?
JJ: Yeah, on the street, in his truck. I don’t know where his car was parked or any of that. He was there. Some of the people who were there didn’t know … There were so many people down there. I can’t even imagine what the coordination was like. Because so many people didn’t know how to use the equipment, my dad stayed to use it for them. He would drive grappling hooks and pick up cars and make roads for people to be able to come in and out and move things in and out. He delivered 300 body bags to Battery City Park. What else did he do? He cleaned out the air filters and all the generators or all the staging lights. He would come back, I think, once a month for the next 6 months.
AS: After your father was diagnosed with cancer in 2007 you began photographing him and this became your thesis project at RISD. Having been present while your project with your father was developing and ongoing, it was a very emotional time. How do you think photographing your father affected your experience as his illness progressed? Did it help you to step back and process what was going on?
JJ: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I was just saying this to somebody the other day. Because they were like, “Wasn’t it heartbreaking to look at your contact sheets after you developed them?” I was like, “No. That was the easy part. Because the hard part was being in the moment and hearing doctors say things that I didn’t understand and hearing my dad respond and hearing my mom asking bunch of questions that were medical, and then take pictures during that but also try to understand what was happening.” Going back and processing everything, it felt really natural because that’s what we were doing. We’re studying. We are learning a bunch of stuff. We’re trying new cameras. We’re trying new films, new formats, and different ways of lighting.
Once I got back, everything was really chill, but I don’t know that it got any easier or any harder as I went. I think, if I wasn’t shooting, I don’t think I would even have fully grasped anything that was happening. It would’ve just been me getting phone calls from people telling me what was happening to him, or him telling me what the doctor was like that day or X, Y, and Z. Instead of me, actually, being in it and seeing it firsthand.
AS: Since his passing, how do you look back on the project and the images you took? What do you hope that the audience takes away from them? Because obviously, initially, they are outsiders removed from the situation. They weren’t there, they don’t have the emotional connection right away.
JJ: [It’s the reason] why I try to get it out as much as possible [in recent years], people have a better understanding of the after effects of 9/11 and that this is still happening to people. People still have family members getting diagnosed with cancers, and lung disease and still have family members that are dying from that experience. I think, if anything, the main thing that people should take away from it is that this is happening. Just because they don’t say it on the news doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
AS: This leads into my next question, which is that your project with your father highlights the ongoing aftermath, families directly connected to 9/11 are having to deal with beyond the events of that day. Your father died from illnesses that have stemmed from being exposed to the toxins and dust at ground zero. It’s something that had sort of been swept under the rug. The government had dragged their feet [with the Zadroga Act] acknowledging the health issues and now with giving financial relief to the families affected. How has that affected your family?
JJ: There are multiple parts to that question that I’m going to answer. First, the first time we heard anybody, at all, acknowledge that people got sick from being at [Ground Zero] was 2 or 3 years ago. When the museum first opened in New York, the 9/11 memorial museum, I was at an event.
AS: It was after your dad passed away?
JJ: My dad had already passed away. He had recently passed away within, I don’t know, 6 months to a year or something. I went to an event there with my mom, actually, and her friend was with us. That was the first time that there was a stage and people were speaking about 9/11. They had said they had acknowledged that people had become sick. That was, honest to God, the first time anyone had really heard acknowledgment from any authority in New York City.
AS: Right. I may be remembering it wrong, but there was talk that it was connected and that all these things were stemming from it, I think, before he passed.
JJ: Yeah, for sure. It was right before he passed that his cancer was added on with these 60 other cancers onto the Zadroga Act. He’s in the Zadroga Act which is another part to your question, and my mom is in charge of that whole scenario because she would obviously get any money that would be coming. Because he was covered on her insurance, I think. Every now and then, she’ll get a communication from the lawyers for the Zadroga Act. She hasn’t seen any money, zero money. The only people I know that have really seen money are children of people who have passed away who have scholarships setup for them.
AS: Is that a private foundation?
JJ: I think it’s [private] scholarships for school and for further educations and things like that that were probably setup immediately. Things have been developed long term. Whereas, maybe the Zadroga Act didn’t happen fast. Also, we haven’t seen fully what it can do yet. I don’t know a lot of people who are in the Zadroga Act. I can’t say who has gotten money and who hasn’t. We have not seen anything from it.
Here’s the last part that I wanted to answer. 2 days ago, not even, yesterday, I recently met this woman. She was a volunteer. I don’t fully know her story. She was there for a long time at ground zero, coordinating a lot of things. She called me yesterday at work. She’s been very helpful this week, in particular. She said, “Jen, do you want to come to all the events with me on Sunday?” I was like, “Yeah. Why not. I’m not doing anything.” She said, “Also, this year is the first year that when they do the name readings of the people who died, they’re going to name the volunteers who have died since 9/11 and they’re going to say my dad’s name.”
JJ: I know. It’s crazy. At 3:30 on Sunday at the church at St. Paul’s, they’re going to read his name. I think there’s 40 other people who are volunteers who have died since then. I don’t know if they died because they were sick. I think a lot of them have, maybe, half or more. I haven’t fully gotten into that. It’s crazy. Acknowledgment, 15 years later.
“I just want people to hear other people’s stories. I tried to do this 10 years ago and nobody would talk to me. Now that people are actually having conversations about it, it’s a huge change in how people are communicating.”
AS: Yeah. So, you’re launching the Ripple Podcast which seems to be a progression of your project with your father. How did you decide to step beyond photography and go into the realm of podcasting and what do you hope to achieve with it? What’s your mission?
JJ: One, switching from photography to audio documentation is terrifying because we are photographers.
AS: Yes. Not good with words.
JJ: Not good with words. I know. We’re very visual people. We’re not wordsmiths necessarily. I’m not a writer. Making a podcast requires a lot of writing. I’m not kidding. For the last 6 months, I have seen zero friends, unless they come to the coffee shop where I am at every single weekend, just working for hours on my laptop. E-mailing people, setting up interviews, just reaching out to anybody who I can get my hands on and just arranging how we’re going to do things. I was doing that for 6 months. Right off the bat, I had entered this podcast competition on Radiotopia. I didn’t get selected which is fair. It gave me a really quick start. It got me right off my ass. I immediately had to have a quick edit of the first episode. It was a real kick-starter to moving forward with the podcast.
When they told me that I didn’t get selected, they sent out this mass email to people who didn’t get selected and said, "Here’s a lot of things that will help you start your podcast.” It was articles from other podcasters or from new stations on the best techniques and practices to get your podcast off the ground. That was incredibly helpful. I read all of it. That was how the podcast started.
I’m doing all this leg work and finding the people and setting up the interviews and then deciding where we’re going to do our interview and how much should I know about their story beforehand or should it be full secret? I’m like, “I don’t know.” It’s all as we’re going. Putting out the first [episode] was great because a lot of people are coming back to me now with all this feedback. They’re like, “Oh, here’s what I think would really benefit you. Here’s what you did that’s great.” I love my friends for that reason because everyone has such great feedback. I’m sure you would agree with me. We went to college with a really eclectic group of people that have amazing opinions about things.
My hope for this podcast is that people will listen to it. I want it to be used as a teaching tool at some point. I would really like to have people use it in classrooms. There’s so many children that have no idea what 9/11 is. It’s never talked about [on their level], right?
AS: That’s one of the things I was thinking, because moving into podcasting, even though it’s so different from photography, as artists, we’re visual thinkers, it’s just another form of storytelling. The thing that’s so great about you doing this is that you’re archiving people’s personal stories and their experiences. It’s insane to think, for instance, my youngest sisters who are teenagers now, they’re going to be adults in a few years. They were born after it happened. They have no recollection whatsoever, don’t remember what it was like before. It shaped the world that they’ve grown up in. It’s so completely shaped that world.
JJ: Right. My nieces and nephews are all the same situation. They range from 4 to 10 and none of them know that it happened. They don’t know how papa died. They don’t know why he was sick or anything. If anything, all of this will be a nice way to show them what’s happening. Also, just to teach in classrooms and share with everyone … Because the stories I want to share are not just people in New York or in D.C. You can be anywhere and had a story that is fascinating. I think that that’s a really important part to share. Make it slightly educational on the way that people can utilize it in the classroom sense.
Also, I just want people to hear other people’s stories. I tried to do this 10 years ago and nobody would talk to me. Now that people are actually having conversations about it, it’s a huge change in how people are communicating. People would never talk about it and now, they want to share their stories. It’s a huge therapy for them to be able to tell me what their day was like or what that week was like. That’s what I’m noticing. It’s a release for people to be able to share it and have it out there. I’m so happy to be able to just sit and listen to them, share these stories.
AS: My last question is, could you to summarize the story of the woman that you interviewed for your first episode? What are some of the other stories you have coming up?
JJ: Colleen Piccone is the first episode. She was working for Homeland Security. Now it’s US Customs and Border Protection. We did her interview in her office, in a conference room on the 50th floor of the World Trade Center which was crazy. She worked at 6th World Trade. She had been working there since, I think, she said 1991. It was a long time. She barely missed the first attack on the tower. She just happened to take that day off. Her birthday is September 10th. The morning of September 11, 2001, she actually had switched her flight. She would fly out in the morning instead of a different time because she wanted to spend her birthday with her children.
She ended up being in the airport in Newark at the same time as the terrorists. They very easily could’ve taken her plane to San Diego instead of a plane to San Francisco which is what they did take. She flew and got grounded in Las Vegas and spent this quiet drive through the Mojave Desert, finding out what was happening in New York. Everything she learned that day, she heard on the radio. She was just having to visualize what was going on. It was so unbelievable to her that that’s what could’ve happened and that that was really happening. She had to figure out how to get back to New York because there were no planes and her children were there.
There was a lot of fears that she was having that week and trying to figure out what she was going to do. Eventually, she gets back to New York and gets to her children and her scared babysitter and gets into the city with her co-workers and go to 6th World Trade. Because they have contraband and things in the basement of their building for ongoing investigations. They had to go secure all of that stuff, drugs, and ammunition, and things like that. She spent a couple days down in the pile. For a year after that, she suffered with a bizarre illness that eventually did go away. She doesn’t know and wasn’t sure where it even came from. Colleen’s story has a little bit of everything. It’s a little all over the place and that’s why I like it. It’s very different. I’ve not heard a story like that.
Episode 2, I like to call him German Bert, because he is German. He’s a delight. His story is really fascinating. He was a young photography assistant working in New York. He wasn’t working on September 11th. He woke up and turned on his computer and saw his main page on his computer. It was a German newspaper. He saw that a plane … It just said like, “Small plane hit World Trade Center.” He was like, “Oh, I should go down there.” He took a shower because he didn’t think it was a rush. He went down there with 3 film cameras and 70 rolls of film, maybe. Almost immediately, when he got to the corner of Vesey Street, right where the back of the church is, the police stopped him. He had this German press pass. They stopped all these photographers there, all these reporters, and said, “Give us a minute and then you can get closer.” As they said that, basically, the tower fell. He had to run up the street and hide.
The whole day was spent down there shooting what was happening. Now, he has cancer. He has leukemia in his neck that’s really rare. The reason that he lives in Germany [now] is because he needs the health care. One episode will be 3 people who were all NYU students and 9/11 was their first day of school. They all have very different experiences of moving to the city a week or days before and then all of a sudden, the city that they barely know is completely flipped upside down. They don’t know where they’re supposed to be or should they be in class or should they not be in class. Why does everyone seem so scared? What does this mean? They were all very young. They just didn’t know.