Being There: Medical Student Morgue Volunteers Following 9-11--Portraits and Interviews

Goldstein, Barry

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Photography

Genre: Photography

Annotated by:
Clark, Stephanie Brown
  • Date of entry: Jan-30-2006
  • Last revised: Aug-28-2014


Following the 9-11 terrorist attacks, approximately 20 New York University medical students volunteered to work with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York (OCME) attached to the NYU School of Medicine to sort, catalogue and identify human remains recovered at Ground Zero. On September 11, Barry Goldstein, Adjunct Professor of Humanism in Medicine at NYU, was to begin teaching a course on aspects of photography to medical students. After 9-11, Goldstein decided to photograph and interview the volunteer medical students in order to document their individual experiences and memories of the events of September 11 and their personal reflections of working with the dead.

Photographed with a simple black background in the "scrubs" they wore while working in the morgue, and with a personal "prop" of their choosing, the colour portraits are intensely sorrowful and candid. Goldstein, who is an experienced portrait photographer, observed that "for reasons I still find unclear, these students were surprisingly adept at absenting themselves from the entire process of picture taking. As a result, the masks that we generally put on for the world when faced with a camera were absent." Accompanying each student's image is an excerpt from his/her interview about memories of working in the morgue and the meaning of that work.


What makes the images and stories of this small group of (mostly) first year medical students so compelling is the visual and textual strain between what is ordinary and typical and the enormity of the catastrophic 'seachange' of 9 -11 for the photographer and his subjects. The students perceived themselves as very "ordinary" and unheroic; their portraits, taken in ubiquitous "scrubs," pictured with their chosen "props"--boyfriends, stuffed animals, pets, pictures-- are familiar and unremarkable. However, their body postures and facial expressions are intense and disturbing. Similarly their narratives strain to convey in ordinary language and idiom what they have seen and what it has meant. The result is a visual and textual narrative that bears witness to the catastrophe of 9-11 through the stories of medical students.


Foreword by Charles S. Hirsch, M.D., Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York. Order from Boydell & Brewer, 668 Mt. Hope Ave., Rochester, NY 14620; Tel. 585-275-0419; Fax 585-271-8778; e-mail; www.boydelland Barry Goldstein holds M.D. and Ph.D. (in biophysics) degrees and is on the faculty at the University of Rochester.


Master Scholars Press, NYU School of Medicine

Place Published

New York



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