Artist/Photographer Melissa Cacciola (right) was inspired by the Kanien’kehá:ka ironworkers stories in building the city she grew up in. Her tintype portraits, such as the one of Lindsay LeBorgne (left), now hang at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in Manhattan. (Courtesy Austin Nelson)
Mohawk Ironworkers are part of the fabric of New York City, so it seems fitting that they are being honoured at a new exhibit at the 9/11 Museum & Memorial in Manhattan.
Twenty-six ironworkers from Kahnawake and four from Akwesasne posed for special old style portrait photographs with Melissa Cacciola back in 2012. Those photos go on display starting today at the commemorative museum on the site of the World Trade Center attacks.
“It’s been a great privilege to photograph the Mohawk Ironworkers,” Cacciola said from her home in New York.
Cacciola said she first came to realize the role the Kahnawake Ironworkers played in building the city, during the World Trade construction and then the rescue effort in 2001 when she heard some during a radio interview in 2011.
“Being a New Yorker and living through 9/11 I wanted to tell a positive story about what’s happened to our city,” she said. “But I wanted to focus on this unique community and the Mohawk culture.”
Cacciola said she wanted to do something different, more personal with her work, which is why she chose portraits on tintype.
“You have lots of job site photographs of these guys and that’s wonderful to give context,” she said. “But what kind of story can you tell in someone’s face?”
Her work was first featured in Staten Island in 2014. But the show was limited. Having it at the 9/11 Museum for the next year will drastically increase its exposure.
“It became really important to us to tell the story through the lens of Melissa’s work, highlighting the ironworkers story because they built this site,” said Tara Prout, the Memorial Exhibition and registry manager at the 9/11 Memorial Museum. “They participated in the rescue and recovery efforts after the attacks. With the World Trade Center site still under construction, we felt that this was the right time to tell the story so that the visitors can make the connection between the men who are actually doing this work and who have contributed most personally to the site that they see developing and unfolding in front of them.”
One of those men is Mohawk Council Chief Lindsay LeBorgne.
“I’m pretty proud because I’m a fourth generation Ironworker from Kahnawake. And I’m the last one from my family,” said LeBorgne.
LeBorgne recently returned to New York to voice the short biography about his photo for the audio walking tour of the exhibition. The museum is taking it one step further. They have also had those biographies translated and voiced in Kanien’kéha. The cultural centre’s Trina Stacey and Enhakanhoton Norton performed the voiceovers.
That idea came about when Prout made a special visit to Kahnawake in the summer. She met with officials at the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Center (KOR). Prout said the whole thing has been eye opening for her and her team.
“We were thrilled to learn about the multi-generational links between the Mohawk Ironworkers and New York City dating all the way back to that Hellgate Bridge project in 1916,” Prout said. “With the incredible commutes and the daring heights they have gone to in their work. Their dedication to their families, to their communities and to our city has been a really terrific thing to learn about.”
Prout says the KOR also lent the museum a piece of steel that was recovered from the 9/11 site by one of the Kahnawake ironworkers.
While the show opens today, there is a special evening planned on Thursday December 13. It will consist of a discussion on stage between Leborgne, Cacciola and Robert Walsh, who is the business manager of the Local 40 union. The Exhibition is slated to remain in place for one year.