Lions DE Romeo Okwara's passion project honors New York City firehouse

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Romeo Okwara crouches down into the corner, trying to make his 6-foot-4 frame as tiny as possible. He waits on the roof of the two-story firehouse in the Crown Heights neighborhood. Three firefighters are standing in front of him pulling on ropes. Another is hanging off the side of the building.

Firefighters from Rescue 2 are working on this exercise: the retrieval of a window washer on a high-rise. They practice this every Monday because when tones -- their lingo for alarms -- sound and they climb in their red-and-white rig, anything less than perfection can mean disaster.

Okwara's eyes dart everywhere, searching for the shot he wants, the angle he needs. He pulls the camera to his face, staring through the eyepiece. His right index finger lingers over the trigger, trusting his vision.

Click. Click. Click. Click.

Photography is Okwara's pleasure. Rare is the moment when his black Leica M6 isn't strapped across his chest. The favorite of his 12 cameras, it traveled with him to Dead & Company shows around the globe and to the Detroit Lions practice facility, where he took photographs of his teammates earlier this summer.

He daylights as an NFL defensive end, leading the Lions in sacks in a breakout 2018 season. When he isn't trying to bring down quarterbacks, he's capturing the world with his camera. That is how he ended up at Rescue 2 for at least 20 days and nights over the past two years, documenting the lives of those who have chosen to protect and serve.

What began as a speaking engagement from then-Rescue 2 firefighter Jay Brezler at a New York Giants practice in 2017, when Okwara was on the team, turned into a firehouse tour during Okwara's bye week and, eventually, an idea.

"I came over here, and it was an experience I had never seen, had never experienced anything like this before," he said. "Something so historic and very lived in. That's kind of how it started. I didn't go out seeking a firehouse.

"I kind of visited [Brezler] in this place and realized this place is pretty special."

Rescue 2 is the firehouse you would picture in almost any movie. It's a thin building at 1472 Bergen Street in Brooklyn, in the middle of St. John's Park down the block from the Albany Projects, a relic as much a part of the lore of the FDNY as the firefighters themselves. A firehouse has been on this site since 1893, with the current building constructed in 1921. It began as the home of Engine 234 and then Salvage 1 before Rescue 2 took over in 1985. Rescue 2 lost seven firefighters on Sept. 11, 2001.

The company's history is tied to some of the biggest disasters and triumphs in the city's history -- lives saved and firefighters lost, responding to plane crashes, aircraft carrier fires and two attacks on the World Trade Center. This is a veteran company. A transfer here means you're considered among the best of the best firefighters in New York City.

Okwara learned this as he started a personal project, intended to be a photo book for Rescue 2. He showed his work to photographers he knew and trusted, including Kiran Karnani, the marketing director for Leica in the United States, whom he connected with through a mutual friend.

Karnani saw a story in Okwara's photos. She loved the photo quality. On Aug. 21, 2018, Leica and Okwara decided to turn this into something bigger. They offered the opportunity for a solo exhibition at their New York store, debuting Sept. 10, 2019.

"He created something pretty magical," Karnani said. "So we decided to show his work in New York in September, just before September 11, to celebrate the firemen in New York and the brotherhood. ...

"Romeo has this uncanny ability to connect with these groups and find his way into these inner circles. It's not easy to become a fly on a wall in a firehouse, and Romeo was able to do that."

Okwara always seeks something different. He is comfortable with the unknown in any experience. He's a creative, unique soul who picked up photography his sophomore year at Notre Dame because of a fascination with visual images.

At first, he photographed his friends around South Bend and anywhere they traveled. That continued when he left Notre Dame for the NFL. He bought his first 35-millimeter camera -- the Leica M6 -- his rookie year with the Giants.

"You're just freezing time, just documenting and capturing a moment," Okwara said. "Just capture the moment, some type of way that makes you think. Something different than the iPhone photo that you'd look at on the internet. Just something that's different, makes you stop and look at it a little longer."

His first photos, he says now, were "all terrible." Never classically taught, he learned through experimentation. First, get a clear image. Then, learn to control the exposure, work the shutter speed and the connection with the F-Stop. Once he mastered that, he studied the corners of his photos, how light plays a role with objects and colors -- though he enjoys shooting black and white.

He traded ideas with other photographers at New York camera stores. Miranda Barnes, who jokes now that Okwara has become her personal photographer, and Ruddy Roye, the Time magazine Instagram photographer of the year in 2016, became pseudo-mentors and friends. They exposed Okwara to the world of New York photography. They saw his potential and pushed him to do more.

"I told him that, Romeo, you have a really good eye, but if you can, I want you to do an actual body of work," Barnes said. "You're shooting random. You're posting a lot.

"He totally heard me, said I was totally right. Absolutely correct on it. I feel like I've seen him struggle on what to do, find out, and as soon as he got the opportunity to meet the (firemen) when he was on the Giants, it just clicked for him."

Okwara first walked into Rescue 2 on his bye week during the 2017 season, knowing very little about the company history, firefighting or firefighters. He saw it as a cool thing to do, something to expand his worldview for a day.

"He comes to my firehouse in Brooklyn, and it's the Yankee Stadium of firehouses," said Brezler, since promoted to a lieutenant covering lower Manhattan. "It's the busiest firehouse in the world and been that way for several decades. It's a very, very Spartan, simple, no-frills building.

"But namely because of the caliber of guys who have worked there and the amount of fires these guys go to."

At the time, Okwara had no idea there would be times when he would fly into town, not book a hotel and spend the weekend essentially living at Rescue 2.

He sent Brezler a handwritten thank-you note after the first stay. He asked a question: Could he return and tell the story of the house and its inhabitants through his camera and create a book? Brezler, who had experience with photojournalists during military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, knew a real photographer when he saw one.

"He's here for a good reason," firefighter Duane Wood said. "Sometimes we get guys coming to the firehouse, and really all they want to see is tragedy because they want to get a picture of tragedy. He came here with just an interest in the fire department. He seemed to like it."

Historically, Brezler said, Rescue 2 can be a difficult place for outsiders to assimilate. The firefighters' humor and ability to rib on anyone can make it tough. These are the firefighters called when other firemen are in trouble.

They prefer distractions to be minimal and their free time unrecorded. Okwara could respect that. The football player and the firefighters bonded quickly. They all understood the mentality of a team, and the men of Rescue 2 enjoyed Okwara's energy and enthusiasm for them and his work. Okwara wanted to know them as people instead of only as the men running into burning buildings.

Every time the tones go off, there's a chance that danger could be high. Etched in small initials on the sidewalk in front of the iconic building is a reminder.

The chalk sign-in board from 18 years ago remains untouched. The plaques on the wall as you head up the stairs list the seven firefighters who died on Sept. 11, 2001, a permanent reminder of one of the nation's worst days and the men who gave their lives trying to save others.

Above the bathroom, next to the individual lockers lining the left side of the house, adjacent to the rig, is a large, brown plaque with the red-and-blue Rescue 2 logo in the middle and a bulldog in the center. On it are 15 names: the seven Rescue 2 firefighters and eight alumni who were promoted out of the department, including famed Deputy Chief Ray Downey, who died on 9/11. Most of the firefighters who have lockers here now were not part of Rescue 2 that day. Turnover is high enough that they get cycled out, due to promotions or other moves.

Every year, there is a Mass at Rescue 2 on Sept. 11. Last year, more than 150 people came to pay their respects. This year will likely be the last one at the old house, and that is part of what attracted Okwara to this project. Rescue 2 is expecting to moving to a new, 20,000-square-foot firehouse later this year.

When he walked in the first time, Okwara didn't know this. He stared at the pictures and read the articles on the walls. He researched the history of the house, Rescue 2, 9/11 and the FDNY. As he began to shoot, he became more mindful of that history.

When he landed the exhibition and heard the premiere date, he knew it was going to be worked into his plans. It added pressure on the first-time show photographer to make sure he got the story he wanted right.

"Obviously, you want to respect them too," Okwara said. "It's pretty huge, a really, really big deal in this city -- all over the world, but especially in this city -- because all these guys' lives were affected by it, touched by it. Just their profession, that's what they do. Or they had friends, family that were involved and are still affected by it today."

Okwara received a real feel for Rescue 2 the first time he spent a full night shift with the firefighters. It gave him an entirely new appreciation for what they do.

His third or fourth visit to the house, he showed up around 6 p.m. with his friend and former Notre Dame teammate Corey Robinson, who tagged along because, like Okwara, he tries to seek new experiences. If Rescue 2 got a call, they were in the rig. They participated in everything short of fighting fires on the half-dozen calls that night.

"You'd get back, shut your eyes for a little bit, and the alarm is ringing again, and you're running downstairs half-asleep," Okwara said. "I'm like, 'I don't know how you guys are awake.' I could barely open my eyes."

Okwara laughs at the memory. He and Robinson were supposed to stay with Rescue 2 and complete the 24-hour shift. By morning, both had had enough.

"You could tell by 4 o'clock in the morning, when the tones go off, him and his boy Corey, they were in denial, man," Brezler said. "Like, 'Oh my gosh.' But for us, it's normal. There's a picture of me, Corey and Romeo that night. He planned to stay until 6 [p.m.], and by 8:30 in the morning, he was out of here and said, 'I might just come and do the days from now on.'"

Brezler joked that he'd be missing out. Okwara, who called those nights "brutal," returned for at least 10 more. None, though, was as crazy as the first.

He showed up for the first day of his last week of shooting in June with 12 rolls of film, making sure he had everything he needed for the 30 prints he submitted to Rene Perez, the show curator at Leica Store SoHo.

The firefighters joked about his contract extension and asked how the Lions are going to be this season. They inquired about the show opening and a potential trip to McSorley's Old Ale House after. They gave him grief because Okwara got stuck in the elevator of his building during OTAs and had to wait to get out. He called Mark Hershey, one of the firefighters, who in his own joking way answered by saying "What the f--- do you want?" Okwara told him he was stuck in an elevator.

The conversation came up again weeks later, when Okwara was back in New York.

"If you weren't f---ing enormous, maybe the elevator would work," Hershey said. "Who got you out? Fire department?"

"Building manager," Okwara replied.

"How long?"

"An hour."

Open banter -- and requisite ribbing -- often comes from Hershey, with whom Okwara shares a strong bond. When the tones go off, Okwara knows his place, piling into the rig and standing as close to the front as possible -- first one in, last one out. It gives him a better vantage point for photographs and allows him to stay out of the way. Between calls, he searches for shots and lounges on one of the two brown recliners in the kitchen.

During one stay, while the firefighters were outside washing the rig -- the only time Okwara saw them do that, which led to a photo that made the final cut for his exhibition -- he noticed the initials with the date 9-11-01 carved into the sidewalk. He had never seen them before. Every time he showed up at Rescue 2, he discovered something new.

He remained committed to the project even after the Giants released him last year, days after he agreed to do the exhibition. Detroit claimed him a day later. He stayed in constant contact with Rescue 2 and flew back when he could to shoot for a day or a weekend.

"The only thing I told him to do is create a relationship at the firehouse," Roye said. "To go there regularly, go there a lot. So then, he becomes invisible. But he will still be like a participant, he won't be a stranger anymore. ... Football is almost the same thing. It's being in the locker room and allowing yourself to be a member of the team, as opposed to having an ego and being outside the team. So I think he already understood the role he had to play in the firehouse."

In March, with the exhibition approaching and at Barnes' urging, Okwara submitted his work to The New York Times' portfolio review two hours before the deadline. One of 160 photographers accepted -- a feat that "kind of shocked" him -- he spent a day in mid-April with photo editors reviewing his work. It was the first time he received feedback from professionals who weren't collaborators or friends.

"I was definitely nervous. Absolutely," Okwara said. "Just opening my work to different eyes, which is what I wanted and what I needed. Got a lot of good advice from really good people."

They offered encouragement and pointed out some blind spots. Okwara said when he submitted the photos, he was "kind of all over the place." The review helped him focus on the story he was trying to tell.

Well before the photo review, Roye made a suggestion to Okwara after the second batch of photos he sent -- around the time the project turned into a future exhibition. Roye told him to pay attention to corners and use different lenses.

"I could capture more and get more in the frame, but I should also pay attention to what's in the background of the images in terms of framing," Okwara said. "He helped me with some of the technical aspects of photography that I wasn't trained in because I was not trained formally. So it was great to have that mentor kind of guide me in that aspect."

By the summer, with Perez and Karnani guiding him, Okwara curated the photos he wanted to illustrate a day in the life of Rescue 2 and the building the company inhabits.

"There was a relaxed look to all the firemen that he was just there," Perez said. "It's a very good thing in that kind of photography because you may have to wait hours, even a day, for something to happen.

"It's a firehouse. They could have a huge fire or emergency one second and then nothing for the next day. He was obviously able to mesh with those people very well."

The two-month exhibition at Leica Store SoHo could alter Okwara's photographic future. But that was never the intent. It was to capture a part of life he wouldn't otherwise have access to and give Rescue 2 something to memorialize this moment in its history, to remember the house it came from.

During his last week, the firefighters took Okwara to their under-construction new home, showing him where the offices and kitchen would be. They even pointed out a place where, in the future, he could sleep.

"We did this for you," a firefighter joked to Okwara. "So you can feel more at home."

Okwara chuckled. They walked down the stairs. He pulled the camera to his face again.
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