A body of work by photographer Jennifer Judkins now lives in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection.
When the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, Chet Davis Judkins Jr., father of Jennifer Judkins 08 PH, happened to be in Connecticut, and not in Massachusetts, where he shared a home with his wife and children. He worked for a company that rented bulldozers, Caterpillars, staging lights—equipment one would need to clean up a major disaster.
Following his moral compass, Chet headed not north, but south to Ground Zero. For six days he stayed, ensuring that the equipment arrived and everyone was trained on how to use it. He also made roads with a grappling hook, delivered body bags to Battery Park in the hopes that there would be survivors and cleaned the machines’ air filters. When he needed to rest, he slept in his truck on the side of the road. Finally, Chet returned home to his life, his routine, his family.
One year later, after frequent back to back colds, bronchitis and trips to the ER he developed blood clots in his legs. Over time he got sicker and sicker and eventually was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2007, which some believe is caused by exposure to jet fuel. It was the summer before Judkins’ senior year at RISD.
“I started photographing him,” she says. “My family lives about an hour from Providence, so I would drive home. I did that for almost a year.” Thirteen of those photos became Judkins’ thesis. But her documentation of her father continued well after she graduated, until his death in 2013.
A decade later, the Smithsonian acquired thirty-four prints of Chet and the last days of his life. They also took a book that Judkins’ mom wrote a year after her husband died. It’s about their love story, the family they built and the life they led together.
“This body of work will be searchable in many different parts of the museum, like terrorism, health, medical and military,” Judkins says. The work will be used to educate the public about 9/11, the long term impact of that day and the many, many victims. Victims with wounds that slowly and silently festered for years. According to the World Trade Center Health Program there are about 30,000 people who can directly trace their cancers to 9/11.
Words by Abby Bielagus. Photo of Jennifer Judkins selecting prints. Photo by Ian McAlpin.