Nantucket photographer Bill Hoenk remembers how his life changed in a flash.
Nantucket photographer Bill Hoenk was just forty feet away from the finish line when the bombs went off at the Boston Marathon. In a matter of seconds, he went from capturing the jubilation of faces of runners to documenting the worst terror attack on US soil since 9/11. In the days and weeks that followed, Hoenk’s photos not only appeared on the cover of Time, but they also served as crucial pieces of evidence in convicting Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Now, four years later, Hoenk — who recently participated in the filming of Mark Wahlberg’s Patriots Day — reflects on the horrors of that fateful day and his personal journey to return to the race.
N MAGAZINE: What was your first thought upon hearing the first explosion?
HOENK: I initially thought it was a cannon, but then we started hearing screaming. And there was too much smoke. I was shooting with a telephoto lens, so I brought it up to my face to see what was going on right when the second explosion happened. I was about as close as you could be without getting hurt.
N MAGAZINE: Why didn’t you run away?
HOENK: People started running away, and I was standing there in shock. I figured the safest place to be was where the explosion just happened. I wanted to see if I could help. When I was running back with the camera in my hand, I noticed there wasn’t anyone else around that was taking photos, so I instantly just started shooting. I figured that these photos might be really important. Over the course of about five minutes I took about fifty photos.
N MAGAZINE: Which photo sticks out in your mind most today?
HOENK: I had taken a photograph of a Boston police officer that picked up a child and was carrying him away from the blast. The little boy had blood in his hair and was screaming. That’s something I see every single day [in my mind]. It doesn’t go away.
N MAGAZINE: The photo appeared on the cover of a special tablet-only edition of Time? What was your reaction?
HOENK: I was dealing with a lot of guilt over the fact that I took those photos. As much as I wanted to contact these people in my photos, they had so much more to deal with than a photographer calling them. I followed all the stories online and learned who these people were and that they were recovering and doing ok. And that was good enough for me.
N MAGAZINE: What would you say to that young boy if you could meet him today?
HOENK: I’d probably just break down crying. I’d give him a big hug. I’d shake his dad’s hand. I’d thank them for being brave.
N MAGAZINE: What brought you to the casting call for the movie Patriots Day?
HOENK: I read that they were looking to speak with first responders because they wanted to make this movie as authentic as possible, so I made the trip up to Boston in hopes that I could help. I got a phone call from the casting department who said they had a special role for me as a finish line volunteer. I was a little bit worried because I hadn’t ever done anything like that before, and I didn’t know how I would react to re-living all those moments.
N MAGAZINE: What was it like being on set?
HOENK: They literally recreated Boylston Street. Every little detail, right down to the gum on the sidewalk — it was truly amazing. There was one scene they were doing a couple times, and I realized it was a direct recreation of my photo that was on the cover of Time. I had to leave the set because I became so overwhelmed with emotion at that point.
N MAGAZINE: How do you find peace after such an event?
HOENK: I’m able to get the time off every year to go back to Boston for the marathon. Last year, I was right in front of Forum, taking pictures of runners again. I like to go there and reflect, and walk around the city.
N MAGAZINE: What’s next for you as a photographer?
HOENK: I don’t really like to look too far into the future. I love life and my photography career will definitely evolve as time passes. Capturing this world and sharing my vision of it is something I will be doing until the day that I die.