Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Richard Drew. Credit: CBS News.

Richard Drew on photographing the “Falling Man” on 9/11

After almost six decades as a photographer, Richard Drew has learned a basic rule: “That you can be two hours early, but you can’t be a 60th-of-a-second late. In other words, if you’re not there when it happens, you can’t take a picture of it.”

Drew, who has worked for the Associated Press for the past 51 years, was there in time to capture Frank Sinatra escorting Jackie Onassis … Muhammad Ali delivering a knockout punch … and Ross Perot bursting into the 1992 presidential race in a way that so captured the pepper pot billionaire, it helped AP win the Pulitzer Prize.

But on September 11, 2001, when he made one of the most searing pictures of that day, he was not at the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., or 9:03 a.m., when the planes hit the towers. He had been on assignment at a maternity fashion show in Midtown when his office called: “‘A plane has hit the World Trade Center,’ very calmly,” he recalled.

He dove into the subway and emerged on the southern tip of Manhattan.

Correspondent John Dickerson asked, “When did you start making pictures?”

“The minute I came out of the subway,” Drew replied.

“What’s going through your mind when you’re taking them?”

“It’s all reflexive. You just do it. You just do your job.”

“All of your senses are heightened – then, on the other hand, you have to basically shut something down in order to do your work?”

“You do,” Drew said. “You have to just pretend that it’s not there. You just do your thing.”

Richard Drew has been “doing his thing” since age 19 when, growing up in a suburb of Los Angeles called Temple City, he bought a police scanner: “And I would listen to the police, and then I could, you know, go chase a car accident or a fire or something.”

If he wasn’t chasing breaking news, he learned to put himself near where news might break.

On June 5, 1968, he decided to see presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy speak at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. “The office didn’t know I was there; I just assigned myself to go to this job,” he said.

Drew went into the kitchen looking for a glass of water. Robert Kennedy was there, too. So was a gunman.

As the 42-year old junior senator lay on the ground, Drew climbed on a table, photographing the chaos. Kennedy’s wife approached Drew and the other photographers.

“I also have a picture of Ethel going like this. You know, like, ‘Don’t, please, don’t take pictures of that.’ She was asking us, myself and the UPI photographer, not to photograph it.”

Dickerson asked, “What did you think when Ethel said, ‘Don’t take the picture’?”

“Well, that was her choice, but not mine.”

“What’s your choice?”

“My job is to record history, and I record history every day.”

“What happens if you mess with that rule?”

“You’re not a journalist,” Drew replied. “Then, you’re just a person with a camera.”

Dickerson asked, “What’s the difference between a photograph and just a picture?”

“Whether you’re gonna wanna look at it.”

Or, in the case of his most famous photograph, whether you’re going to want to look away.

Warning – Graphic image:

Richard Drew’s photo of a man falling from the burning Twin Towers on 9/11.
RICHARD DREW/AP

Dickerson asked, “When you made the ‘Falling Man’ picture, did you know that you had done something extraordinary?”

Drew said, “I didn’t take the picture. The camera took the picture of the falling man. And when these people were falling, I would then put my finger on the trigger of the camera and I’d hold the camera up, and I’d photograph and follow them going down, and then the camera would open and close and take the pictures as they were going down. I have, I think, eight or nine frames of this gentleman falling, and the camera just happened to cycle in that time when he was completely vertical. I didn’t see that picture really until I got back to the office and then started looking at my stuff on my laptop. I didn’t see it.”

“Were you scared when you were making pictures on the day you were at the World Trade Center?” Dickerson asked.

“Not really,” he replied. “It’s interesting that this camera’s a filter for me. I didn’t know that the building, the first building had collapsed because I was looking at it through a telephoto lens. And I’m only seeing a piece of whatever’s going on.”

Drew’s image, which came to be known as the “Falling Man,” appeared in a number of newspapers the next day. Many people found the lonesome vision too shocking.

One high-profile viewer was mesmerized by its deeply-human pull. Five years ago, Sir Elton John told “Sunday Morning” correspondent Anthony Mason that that he had to purchase the photograph for his personal collection. “It’s not a shot that a lot of people probably would want to hang on their wall,” John said.

Mason asked, “Why did you want it?”

“Because it’s, again, it’s just the most incre … it’s the most beautiful image of something so tragic. It’s probably one of the most perfect photographs ever taken.”

Twenty years after the attack, it captures, perhaps more than any other picture, the horror of that day.

Drew said, “It’s still sort of that ‘verboten’ picture. I’ll show it to somebody and they’ll say, ‘Oh, the “Falling Man” – Oh, no, I don’t wanna see that.'”

“Why do you think they have that reaction?”

“Because they can identify with it. They can identify, I think, that that could be me.”

“When you look at the pictures you made from that period today, what do you think?”

“I think that I would do it the same,” he said. “I wouldn’t change anything, ’cause, like I said before, it’s my job to record history.”

Dickerson said, “A picture stops a moment in time. It captures a moment in time.”

“And, hopefully, I can stop a reader for that moment in time to catch their attention. And that’s what it’s really about.”

“And is it about transporting them back to that moment?”

“It’s to show them what happened in that moment in time, that they weren’t there to see,” Drew said. “I have that privilege that I can do that.”

“And the reader can then come to their own conclusions?”

“They can come to their own conclusion about the ‘Falling Man’ also, and that’s what that’s about.”

The identity of the falling man has never been determined, though journalists have found two possibilities. Their names, Jonathan Eric Briley and Norberto Hernandez, are only one name apart on the parapets of the 9/11 Memorial.

But Drew was able to help identify another victim on that day: “I can’t remember how many actual people I photographed during it, but it wasn’t just one or two people. A gentleman called the AP and said that he knew what his fiancée was wearing that day, and they had not recovered her body or anything. And he was wondering if he could look at my photographs at the AP. I actually sat with him on my laptop, and we looked at it, frame by frame, of the people falling from the building. And he saw it. Yeah, he said, ‘Oh, that’s her.’ And that was it.”

For a month after the attack, Drew photographed the aftermath: “And my cell phone rang. And it was my daughter. And she says, ‘Dad, I just wanna tell you that I love you.’ And to this day, she calls me on September 11th no matter where I am to say, ‘Dad, I love you.’ Because I might not have survived.”

Twenty years of phone calls that, in an instant, conjure the searing emotions from that day … just like Richard Drew’s photographs.

Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Joseph Frandino.

Author: CBS News
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