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Keeping The Faith: Empty Sky Project

Image © Steve Simon

By Steve Simon—

Faith is an element of my photography that continues to surface in my work, not only in the stories I choose to pursue, but also in my philosophy and approach to shooting. What happened to me with my project Empty Sky: The Pilgrimage to Ground Zero was an exercise in faith and belief in my work, and a great example of what can happen when you put your work out there.

The story dates back to just after 9/11. I decided to do a set of pictures documenting the pilgrimage of people who felt compelled to go to Ground Zero, to see with their own eyes the site of such unbelievable destruction. I wanted to do the project, partly to express my own grief and bewilderment after 9/11 but also because of the reactions I witnessed, which were very powerful and told a story about the event that was different from the photographs being made at the site itself.

Images © Steve Simon

After shooting more than 100 rolls of 35mm Tri-X film during a three-month period from late September to Christmas 2001, I felt I had a series that would work well as a book. I created multiple copies of a book dummy and had done my research looking for publishers of photography books, to whom I then submitted the work. Though the project was well received—judging by the positive comments in some of the rejection letters—I received rejection letters nonetheless.

Many rejection letters. Photography is a great way for us to communicate what we think is important or beautiful or scary in life, or for us to call attention to a problem that needs attention; in other words, it is a very personal way to communicate. So when you are rejected, it can hit you pretty hard. But it’s important not to take it personally; to pick yourself back up and learn from the experience.

A flurry of rejection letters arrived.

If you’re planning a book, expect rejection and keep the faith. Persevere. Despite the many rejection letters, I believed in this work and did not give up on my dream of getting it published in book form. I learned from the constructive criticism the letters would often contain and finessed the book dummy to improve it.

After the flurry of rejection letters, I looked for a different way of approaching my publishing problem. The late Susan Sontag lived in my building. She was connected to photography through her seminal book On Photography. She was also an opinionated and well-known New Yorker. I thought that if she would agree to write a foreword for this project, then maybe book publishers would take more notice of the work.

Ralph Garcia, the doorman.

So I got the doorman, Ralph Garcia, to get my book dummy to her, which he did. I know that, because the very next day I got a call from her assistant telling me how busy she was and it might take a few months for her to even look at it. (He said she gets about 150 similar requests in a year.) I mentioned that I had extra copies and no expectations; I really just wanted her to see the work. By the end of our conversation I was convinced that he would keep his promise and show Ms. Sontag the book dummy. That was that.

Months passed and I continued to seek a 
publishing deal but kept getting rejection letters. I never heard back from Susan Sontag or her assistant. But one day, I did get a call out of the blue from a photographer named Andy Levin, who told me he was looking at my work from Ground Zero and that he liked it very much. He told me that he had purchased a book dummy of my work from a guy who sold it to him on Seventh Avenue for four dollars.

Susan Sontag’s recycling bin.

“What? Who are you?” I asked.
He told me that the guy who sold it to him said he’d plucked it from Susan Sontag’s garbage!

“Hmmm,” I thought. This was a lot to take in. But Andy Levin continued our conversation and told me about his friend at Life Magazine (the late Barbara Burrows) who was publishing a commemorative volume of images post-9/11 that would be published on the one-year anniversary and asked if he could show her the work.

To make a long story shorter, the Life book, The American Spirit, with an introduction by George W. Bush, published eight pages of my work from Ground Zero. I got my biggest paycheck since moving to New York in 2000 ($8000), and with the credibility of the Life book, I was able to find a small publisher in Montreal who published Empty Sky: The Pilgrimage to Ground Zero.

I went back to Ralph and told him my amazing luck, and he said, “Sure, that’s Steve.” Steve is an enterprising gentleman who takes advantage of good things discarded by New Yorkers and often would set up a stand on Seventh Avenue to sell stuff that people throw away. (Today, he uses Craigslist.) I don’t know if Susan Sontag ever actually saw the book dummy, but that’s okay.

A book dummy of the Empty Sky project. Image © Steve Simon.

In my acknowledgments, I thanked all the players in this story, from Ralph to Steve to Andy to Susan Sontag. I had done all the right things in trying to find a publisher, but it was a recycling bin in my building that led to my biggest success in publishing up to that time.

For me, the moral of the story was that if you truly believe in what you are doing, things will work out. Persist and persevere. You never know where your next success will come from, so don’t give up. Get the word out. Share, and keep the faith.



Image © Steve Simon

Steve Simon has been passionate about documenting the beauty and drama of the human condition his entire photographic life. The author of five critically-acclaimed photography books, he teaches travel/street & documentary photography globally. His book The Passionate Photographer (first edition) was chosen one of Amazon’s Top Ten Arts and Photography books and the newly revised and remastered second edition has just been released.


The above excerpt from The Passionate Photographer © 2019 (2nd Edition), has been reprinted by permission of the publisher, ilex Press, a division of Octopus Publishing Group, Inc. The list price of the 256-page, hard back photo book is $29.99 and is available at Amazon (for $20.22) and at other booksellers.


Look inside the book at Amazon before ordering.

Check out Steve Simon’s website to see his work and get information about his masterclass workshops.

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Original Publication Date: September 16, 2019

Article Last updated: September 16, 2019

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