Richard Drew’s ‘The Falling Man’: AP Photographer on His Iconic 9-11 Photo

Photographer Richard Drew on his iconic image of a man free-falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11.

Richard Drew / AP Photo

“I had been two weeks at the U.S. Open tennis tournament out in Queens and it finished on a Sunday, so I had Monday off and then Tuesday morning was my first day covering fashion week. It was my first show and I was covering a maternity fashion show by Liz Lange at Bryant Park. I was doing hair and makeup feature photos and it was interesting to see that they were using pregnant models. I got those backstage pictures out of the way and then went to the end of the runway to stake out my real estate for the fashion show. I was talking to a CNN cameraman who was shooting the fashion show and all of a sudden, he puts his finger to his ear and says, ‘There’s been an explosion at the world trade center… an airplane has hit the World Trade Center.’ Then, I got a call from my editor that said, ‘Bag the fashion show. You have to go.’ I took the 3 train down to Chambers Street to the World Trade Center. It was just before 9 a.m.

“When I came up the steps of the subway station I looked up and saw that both of the towers were on fire. I only knew of one airplane. I immediately started photographing people. I photographed one guy who was walking towards me with his head bleeding because I think it had been hit by debris. Already, some police had taped off the debris that had been blown over, cars had windows knocked out, and I slowly made my way over to the west side of the building by the West Side Highway because the wind was blowing west-to-east and I didn’t want the smoke obscuring my view. I ended up at the northwest corner of West and Vesey Street—where the Goldman Sachs building is now—where the ambulances were congregating. I had a perfect view of both buildings and figured that was where I could cover the assignment. I had a Nikon DCS-620, which was one of their early models—a hybrid Kodak-Nikon camera—and I was using a 70-200mm zoom lens. And I did my assignment.

“Myself as a photojournalist I’m like a first responder, as all journalists are in that situation, so we run to something instead of away from it when something happens. When I’m there I get in a zone and do my job and capture what’s there. I don’t really think about if I’m scared or not. You want to make sure you don’t miss that photograph. You get in a mindset. You have to commit to journalism, remember what your job is, and not get emotionally involved. The camera is like a filter for me, too. It’s not like I’m experiencing it, I’m seeing it through my camera. I have to remain emotionally uninvolved.

“I was standing next to a New York City police officer and a woman who was an EMT. We were looking up at the building and I was photographing it, and the police officer said, ‘I was here when the second plane hit. It was a big f—king airplane, like a 737 or something.’ That was the first time I heard of a second plane, and then he said he heard the Pentagon may have also gotten hit. I was like, ‘Whoa.’ The EMT then pointed up and said, ‘Oh my god, look!’ And that’s when we noticed people coming down from the building. We don’t know whether they were overcome by smoke. I was photographing several people coming down from the building and I have a sequence of photographs of this guy coming down. The camera captured the photograph in a sequence, since it had a motor drive on it, so the camera captured a moment. If the camera functioned a fraction of a second earlier, I wouldn’t have had that picture. It was the camera that captured the photograph, not my eye and quick finger. Can you imagine how fast people fall? They’re falling really fast, and while you’re photographing this you have to pan with them so I picked this guy up in my viewfinder, put my finger on the button, and kept taking pictures while he was falling. I had to time my vertical motion of the camera to his descent.

“After the first building fell, I went down to North End Avenue where people were leaving the area and they were all covered in soot, so I was photographing them. There was a ranking police officer wearing a white shirt saying, ‘We have to get everybody back now because the other building is in jeopardy.’ I didn’t want to leave the area. I tried to hide myself in a little traffic median in the street in some bushes and get out of his view so he wouldn’t see me. I took off the 70-200mm and put on a smaller lens—a 35-70mm lens—and put my camera up to take pictures of the North Tower. I picked up my camera and just as I started to do that, the top of the building exploded and mushroomed out from the North Tower. All that debris started coming towards me so I said to myself, ‘I think it’s time to go.’ I made my way up North End and ran into Stuyvesant High School. At the time, the building was still full of students because they hadn’t evacuated everybody. I was looking at my images in the lobby and a student over my shoulder said, ‘What’s that?’ And I said, “That’s the second building coming down.’

“I had to walk all the way back to the AP office in Rockefeller Center because there was no public transportation. I remember walking by St. Vincent’s Hospital at the emergency room entrance and all these people were waiting for the injured to show up. Then I made my way up 6th Avenue and got up to 14th Street and someone asked, ‘Where were you?’ because I was covered in dust, and I said, ‘I was at the World Trade Center.’

“I never counted how many people I photographed falling from the building that day. I think there were seven or eight photos in the ‘Falling Man’ sequence. He was wearing a white tunic and you can see he’s wearing an orange T-shirt under it. I’m not drawn to want to figure out who he is. If people are drawn to want to investigate who it is, that’s okay. For me, it was never a priority.

“I think people are drawn to it and I guess repulsed by it in that they feel it could be them in that situation. For me, it’s a very quiet moment. It’s not a violent picture in any way. I think some people are turned off by this picture because it could be their fate. But it’s not a part of this man’s death, it’s a part of his life. It’s also very symmetrical, and I trust that to the camera. It bisects the north and south tower and he’s almost like an arrow, in a way.

“I’m not haunted by it. I’m just interested that people still want to talk about it now. Maybe we’ve had 10 years of other images that are out there and it’s become not as shocking 10 years later. But I’m very humbled that people think of it as such an iconic photograph and that it will be part of my photographic legacy. This may sound cold, but it’s one of the images that I shot that day that’s become an iconic picture. I have never looked at it as an iconic picture. I’ve looked at it as an ‘Unknown Soldier’ that I hope represents everyone who had that same fate that day.”