Laura Mayer is an Associate Producer at WNYC.
Richard Drew worked as a photographer for the Associated Press for 32 years before he took his most powerful image on Sept. 11, 2001. Drew has called "The Falling Man" “the most famous photograph no one has seen,” since many outlets refused to publish the photo in the wake of 9/11.
Drew began his workday on 9/11 at a New York City Fashion Week event. He’d gone to the end of the runway to set up his camera equipment when he heard about the first plane hitting the World Trade Center.
“And so, at that very moment, my cell phone rang," he said. "And it was my editor. She said, 'Bag the fashion show, you have to go.'”
Drew hopped on an express subway train down to Chambers Street. The subways were still running, and when he got off and came up to the street’s surface, he glimpsed both of the twin towers on fire.
“I was standing on West Street and Vesey, right next to the World Financial Center," he recalled. "I was standing next to a police officer, and I think it was her that said, ‘Oh my Gosh, look at that!’ And we looked up and saw the first people come down out of the building.”
Check out "9/11: The Falling Man," a documentary directed by Henry Singer that is based on an article written about Drew's photograph, below. DISCLAIMER: This video contains graphic footage.
As many as 200 people fell to their deaths on Sept. 11. The sight of those who had jumped from the North Tower after the first airplane's impact reportedly hurried the evacuation of those in the South Tower, who saw victims falling outside their windows.
“We didn’t know that they were jumpers,” Drew said. “I just knew they were people falling from the World Trade Center.”
At 9:41:15 A.M., Drew’s camera took an image of one particular man falling from the World Trade Center towers.
“'The Falling Man' is one of a series of photographs that I took of this person falling from the World Trade Center," he said. "And there’s like eight or nine frames of this man in various contortions. At the time [of the photo] he was in this perfect position where he was [a] straight arrow between the buildings. I didn’t push the button. That was a frame that the camera took. It had that symmetry — it had that certain something that really catches your eye.”
The 2006 documentary "9/11: The Falling Man" sought to identify the man in Drew's photograph. But the film proved inconclusive. In 2007, the anonymous falling man was tentatively identified as Jonathan Briley — a 43-year-old employee of the Windows of the World restaurant. His previous boss, Chef Michael Lomonaco, said he recognized Briley by his uniform. Yet this identification is still speculation and the absolute identity of "The Falling Man" remains unconfirmed.
Theologian Mark D. Thompson, who works at Moore Theological College, said the picture was “perhaps the most powerful image of despair at the beginning of the 21st century not found in art, or literature, or even popular music. It is found in a single photograph.”
Drew said documenting a tragedy like 9/11 was part of the job of being a photojournalist.
"We have to take pictures of it," he said. "And I guess for me the camera is a filter between what’s going on and what I do. I’m just there and I’m recording history.”
"The Falling Man" was published in several newspapers on Sept. 12, 2001 – including in The New York Times. The photo only appeared once in the Times in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, though, after much public outcry after its publication. Readers said that the image exploited an unknown man's death in particular, as well as the tragic fate of all of those who fell from the twin towers on 9/11. Six years after its first publication in a Times property, the photograph appeared on Page 1 of the New York Times Book Review.
When asked why the photo was not widely-published, Drew said the image was a very quiet picture and that this quiet image of tragedy shook viewers because of its personal impact.
"There’s no blood, there’s no violence," he said. "It’s just this quiet picture of this man falling. But people can identify with it a lot. That they may have to face it some time — or had to face it that day at the World Trade Center — what would they do?”
Prior to taking his iconic shot in 2001, Drew won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.