To walk the site with Mr. Woolhead is to join the entourage of a rock star. Every construction worker knows him, clapping him on the back, nodding their heads, striking poses or waving from afar. Hey Joe, they call out from 20 stories up in Tower 4 or across the 100-foot chasm separating the rising Tower 3 from terra firma. These gestures are almost always followed by a simple question: Got any stickers?
“I don’t know when it started, but it just blew up,” Mr. Woolhead said. “I’m not the photographer anymore. Now I’m the sticker man.” It is hard to believe, whatever Mr. Woolhead might argue in his quiet Irish lilt, that the stickers were anything but part of a clever plan to win over the 3,200 construction workers at the 16-acre site. They are his eyes and ears, ensuring he knows what, where and when anything is being built, so that he might capture it for his collection of 2-million-and-counting photographs.
In exchange for their knowledge, he trades his playing-card-sized stickers, printed with his photos of concrete and steel, an American icon on the rise. Or, if the workers are lucky, pictures of themselves building these downtown monoliths. Onto their helmets they go, beside logos for the locals; flags of Ireland, Italy, Puerto Rico paired with the stars and stripes; X’d out bin Ladens; those leggy mudflap silhouettes; most often of all, the silhouettes of the old Twin Towers. On Joe’s helmet, in addition to his own stickers, are those of a shamrocked “Win With Quinn,” a reference to the City Council Speaker; a NASA mission sticker reading “failure is not an option”; and a two-faced mask of some sort. He also wore a NASA lanyard, but Mr. Woolhead said it was a poet he dreamed of being as a boy—he freely quotes Yeats—not an astronaut. Even now, he says, “I’m a poet with an eye for photography.”
“He has an eye for the action on the site, he really captures the construction in an uncanny way,” said Diana Horowitz, an artist-in-residence on the 48th floor of 7 World Trade Center. She called him “the mayor of Ground Zero” for his easy way with the construction workers and foremen on the site.
Mr. Woolhead is not pretending with his helmet and heavy leather boots. After graduating from college in his native Dublin, he moved to London, where he found work in construction. He wound up in New York in 1990 the way so many men do—following a woman. Things did not work out. He took to working the odd construction job, until an accident in 1996 at a building not far from where he now works, at Liberty and Nassau streets, seriously injured his legs.
In 1999, tired of wallowing in bed and with his workman’s compensation running low, Mr. Woolhead enrolled at Hunter. There he earned degrees in communications and film. He also met his wife Ozy at Hunter, a Nigerian native who was working in the office of accessibility. They have a 22-month-old son whom Mr. Woolhead does not see much of, since he still works the hours of a construction worker—up at dawn, on the site all day, then off to the bar until well past sunset.
It was a few years later, in 2004, when he was working in a warehouse in Queens, that Mr. Woolhead got a call from Dara McQuillan. A fellow Irishman, Mr. McQuillan had been roommates with Mr. Woolhead for a brief period in the early 1990s. Now he was director of media relations at Silverstein Properties, and he needed some new portraits of Larry Silverstein and the other executives for a new website. Freelance photography had not exactly been paying the bills for Mr. Woolhead, but he agreed to take the job anyone. It was good timing, because Mr. Silverstein was just finishing 7 World Trade Center and as he turned his attention to the rest of the site, he was looking for a range of artists to document the construction effort—not only a photographer but a documentarian and those artists like Ms. Horowitz. Joe got the offer thanks to Mr. McQuillan and his head shots but above all because he knew his way around a work site.
“He’s got a great eye for detail, he’s got a great eye for the men and women of this project,” Mr. McQuillan said. “They get up at five, he gets up at five and is on the site with them. Joe’s patience about capturing these people and life on the site is unmatched.”