5 Photographers Reflect on Their Images of 9/11
Twenty years later, the events of September 11, 2001, live on in the minds of all who witnessed the attacks, whether they were there in New York or watching it all unfold on TV. The photographers on the ground on that day, and the days after, chronicled history as they captured moments of humanity, fear, despair, and hope. Their work forever changed the American consciousness, and the photographers themselves forever. Artsy spoke to five photographers—Jennifer Altman, Stan Honda, Joel Meyerowitz, Melanie Einzig, and Gulnara Samoilova—about their experiences and the images they made at a time none of us will ever forget.
People flee the engulfed World Trade Center Twin Towers prior to their collapse after the terrorist attacks in Manhattan, NY, September 11, 2001. Rose Parascandola is seen running after she escaped from the World Trade Center, where she worked. © Jennifer S. Altman. Courtesy of the photographer.
I was driving to another assignment in Brooklyn that morning. On the FDR, I looked up and I think the first plane had just hit the towers. I saw it go up in flames. I actually stopped my car on the highway and started shooting pictures. A cop made me get off the highway. I immediately looked for any place to park and started running toward the towers. Somehow, I called my editor and said I was doing that instead of going to Brooklyn. While I was running to the World Trade Center, the second plane flew over my head. I went down there and realized I needed to get closer to the main location, then I went down to Fulton Street and Church.
One particular image I found impactful was of this woman named Rose Parascandola running in a red shirt, screaming, with the towers on fire behind her. It symbolized everything all at once. I was able to find her doing follow-up stories afterward, and we met back down there and took pictures. I met her several times after that and found it cathartic to know she was okay. I felt like our lives were forever intertwined. The last time I saw her was for the 10-year anniversary. We met back down there and I was nine months pregnant and I thought how far our lives had come, that we’re still part of each other’s lives.
I felt like all of my training throughout the years culminated in that moment. I knew I was doing important work and I felt this was my calling. My pictures reside in me now. When I think about that day, I can see those pictures clearly, that day clearly. I was capturing people at their most vulnerable, but simultaneously tried to show there was community surrounding them and love and strength emanating from those moments.
Since that day, and before and after, I always go into assignments with open eyes. I understand as a photojournalist one of our main objectives is to capture these decisive moments with humanity, compassion, and understanding.
Edward Fine covers his mouth as he walks through the debris after the collapse of one of the World Trade Center Towers in New York, September 11, 2001. Photo by Stan Honda/AFP. Image via Getty Images.
I was working for Agence France-Presse as a contract photographer then. I think for many journalists that day, it was beyond any disaster experience they had. When I got out of the subway, there was smoke coming from both towers. I didn’t know of the second plane crash, so for me that was really confusing. As I got closer to the World Trade Center, there were probably thousands of people running toward me, trying to get away. After the first tower had collapsed, there was this huge cloud of smoke and dust enveloping the area. On the ground it was like night, so dark you couldn’t see very well. I was near an office building and a police officer was pulling people into a lobby to get them out of danger. I went in and at one point this woman walked in covered with grey dust. She paused for a second, and I took one frame and that’s all I have. She turned out to be Marcy Borders.
When the dust started clearing, I went back out to photograph. It was very eerie. I remember it looked like it snowed because everything was covered in greyish dust—streets, buildings, people, cars. People were walking away from the area through this debris. I think that’s when I shot the second picture of the man in the business suit who turned out to be Ed Fine. Sending out the pictures later, I realized Ed was still holding a briefcase after walking down from the 78th floor of one of the towers. People were the story, so I tried to focus on people trying to escape, emergency workers, and ordinary people helping each other.
I had to look for pictures to illustrate what was happening. I think a lot of photographers can focus their attention better through a viewfinder, because through the chaos they’re concentrating on pictures. In a sense, the journalists who were on the ground near the World Trade Center had no idea what was happening, even though we were in the middle of it. This was way before smartphones and most of the cell phone service was out.
I think it’s important to talk about the people. Marcy unfortunately has since died. And Ed Fine survived. Eventually we were able to meet them, interview them, and photograph them. That was amazing, to realize they survived. Like other photographers and journalists, I was just trying to chronicle history.
I was away on Cape Cod on September 11th. I couldn’t get back for five days because they closed New York. I was desperate to get back. As a native New Yorker, I wanted to offer whatever help I could. When we did return, I walked to Ground Zero carrying my Leica. They had erected fencing and covered it so you couldn’t see in. When I raised my camera to take a picture, a policewoman said “No photographs, buddy, this is a crime scene.” And I said, “What are you talking about? This is the street. The crime scene’s in there.” She said “No, Mayor Giuliani said no photographs allowed,” and I said, “Really, the most historic moment in contemporary American history and he’s gonna ban photographs?”
Giuliani had been afraid of people making money off of tragedy. That wasn’t my concern as an artist and a historian: I wanted to make the record before it disappeared. I basically said, well, fuck you, I’m going in and I’m gonna do as much of this as I can: make videos, make pictures, cover as much as possible. I got a Parks Department badge, but cops would still throw me out. Eventually, I met people who got me a real NYPD mayor’s photographer badge. That took weeks. It was that kind of impulse to do something of significance for the city that would leave a history of this event rather than have none at all. I didn’t get everything that went on, because how could I on my own? But I did make 8,500 photographs of what I thought were significant developments as the site was taken apart.
I worked 12- to 14-hour days carrying 40 pounds of equipment, walking 10 to 12 miles a day around the site, coming home after midnight. It informed the rest of my working life because I began after that to do more public service rather than my own work.
Inside the site, the ground trembled, smoke rose. Giant machines grappled, scraped away. The noise level was unbelievable, the human activity incredible. I stood there weak in my knees. I literally knelt on the ground crying because it was so overwhelming to see the scope of the disaster, two hundred-story buildings collapsing. It was beyond the way we conceive of ourselves in the city. The images have never lost the persuasiveness and the immediacy of being there for me.
Melanie Einzig, Church Street, New York, September 11, 2001, 2001. © Melanie Einzig. Courtesy of the photographer.
Melanie Einzig, Ground Zero, New York, September 12, 2001, 2001. © Melanie Einzig. Courtesy of the photographer.
I didn’t run out the door to take photos on 9/11. Like this delivery man, I just happened to be down there. I was on jury duty on Centre Street that morning. As a street photographer, I never went out the door without a camera, so I had a small one with me. I was reading Rumi poems waiting for my name to be called when the second plane hit. It sounded like a bomb explosion in the courthouse but we quickly learned what it was. Officials tried to hold us in the courthouse but I left and walked West to see what was happening. I had been freelancing for AP and other news outlets but I didn’t feel any urgency to rush the photos into the news cycle. In fact, I waited eight years before I released this photo. I was coming to realize I wanted to make a different kind of historical record, one more contemplative and less explicit. The day was hard to make sense of while juggling the disbelief, trauma, and fear. When the first tower fell I heard the words “youuuu coulllddd take a picture” in my mind. The cloud of debris was coming up the street and people were running. I took few more shots and then ran, terrified, all the way home to East 12th Street and Second Avenue. Many things have been said about this photo. The best being Luc Sante here.
When I look at the photos I still feel saddened and nauseous. Now, mostly for people who lost people and are still living. For all the firefighters and workers who tried so hard to find people. For the guys I met in the “pit” who were cleaning up into the winter. For all of us who were nearby and survived and have a scream stuck in our throats and other forms of PTSD.
Photo by Gulnara Samoilova/AP. Courtesy of the photographer.
On September 11th, I was working for the Associated Press and lived four blocks from the World Trade Center. I didn’t have to go to work until noon, so I was at home asleep until I heard nonstop sirens. On TV, one of the towers was on fire. When I saw the second plane hit the South Tower on TV, I also heard it because I lived so close. I got dressed, threw rolls of film into my camera bag, and ran out to the World Trade Center.
While taking photographs, I saw the South Tower start to collapse through the viewfinder. I managed to click the shutter, then heard someone yell “Run!” I ran up Fulton Street, fell, then threw myself behind a car. The ground rumbled, the car shook, then a massive cloud of heavy, sharp debris came through like a hurricane. Everything went black. I couldn’t see or hear. I thought I was buried alive. I had dust in my eyes, nose, and mouth and started gasping. I was in a daze. I picked up my camera and started making photographs. I was an observer, detached, watching it unfold. A lot of photography is like muscle memory: You learn to act on instinct. My camera saved my sanity: I was able to function and stay focused because I was on autopilot. I took a few photos, including the one that won first prize at World Press Photo.
I don’t remember taking it, but somehow I did. That day I shot about 100 photographs (2.5 rolls). I got home and started developing the film in my bathroom. Then the North Tower collapsed and all the dust came into my apartment.
For me, and so many others, 9/11 did not end on that day. We have been living with it for 20 years. For a long time, I couldn’t speak about what happened, but by continuing to look at, share, and speak about my work and my experiences that day, I feel a sense of healing.