Here Are The Harrowing Stories Behind Some Of The Most Iconic Photos From 9/11
"I just remember it was so strange, him saying to everyone, 'He’s got it. He’s got the picture.' As if he couldn’t believe his own eyes."
Everyone watched, horrified, as planes crashed, towers burned, and the illusion so many had that the United States was invincible was brutally and tragically shattered on 9/11. The photos from that day are indelible, the result of dozens of photographers running toward carnage and chaos to document a pivotal point in history. They are still shocking and important because they helped shape the narrative of the past two decades. We spoke with 15 photographers and editors about what it was like to cover the deadliest terrorist attack in US history and what their images mean now.
Twenty years later, in the era of smartphones and constant notifications, it is hard to fathom rushing to a scene without any idea of what was happening and then capturing pictures on film. Sept. 11 was one of the last predigital news events, an important distinction — before the modern internet, people primarily got their information from mainstream news outlets, meaning the narrative of the attacks was broadly consistent, and images from the Associated Press and the New York Times had more meaning in the public sphere. Photographers risked their lives to make images that they knew would change our understanding of the world, even if they could not imagine how. Here’s the backstory on how some of the most iconic images from that day were made.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. For more behind-the-scenes interviews with photographers, sign up for our photo newsletter, JPG.
My wife, the photographer Rebecca Norris Webb — who has had little experience photographing conflict or violence — said she wanted to go with me. I balked. Shouldn’t she stay in Brooklyn, away from the chaos? Perhaps I shouldn’t even go. What if we were separated and unable to communicate during another wave of violence? So we chose to stay together and do one of the few things we know how to do: respond with a camera.
Even now, this image continues to pose questions about the future: Just what kind of world will our children inherit? Moreover, looking back at this photograph of a mother and child, I’m not sure I would have seen this particular photograph, with its note of tenderness and looming tragedy, if Rebecca had not been with me. —Alex Webb, photographer for Magnum
I was a very young and, I’ll be honest, naive photojournalist, but extremely ambitious. We really thought we had missed everything — the Vietnam War was over, etc. That all changed on 9/11.
At the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, all of these cars were stopped, and everyone was just staring at the first tower burning.
I had just started photographing, and then that second plane slammed in, and that fireball, which seemed to take an eternity.
I remember one of the cabdrivers came over as I was looking at the back screen of my camera. I was sitting in a state of disbelief and shock. And I just remember it was so strange, him saying to everyone, “He’s got it. He’s got the picture.” As if he couldn’t believe his own eyes.
The picture that stands out the most is a couple walking over a bridge. I remember I really liked it and wondered why it didn’t get seen more. It’s just such a bizarre scene. It’s so surreal. —Spencer Platt, photographer for Getty Images
My day-to-day role as the deputy executive photo editor was to make sure we had strong coverage from everywhere news in the broad sense was occurring. In addition to editing images that day, I spent time with the ash-covered photographers who returned from the field. I’d take them into a side room to hear their stories and make sure they were OK.
This was a different day from the usual editing, assigning, and planning. When the planes hit, security staffers at 50 Rock stopped people from coming into the building unless they worked there. They set up barricades to keep everyone 20 feet from the building. Every hour until late at night, I went downstairs to find people who had made their way to the AP office with film or digital images who were standing behind the barricades for the possibility that their work might move on the wire. They stood there, just waiting, during a day of unmatched emotion. Their patience and determination to get their truth out to the world was humbling. It was also a testament to the importance of news. —Sally Stapleton, deputy director of photography at the Associated Press
Twenty years later, I still stop, stare, and lose myself in Richard Drew’s image of the man falling from the north tower. It’s a quiet image that still raises so many questions and takes me back to that day of interminable fire truck horns and sirens. I can’t think of anything more important to see 20 years later than the body of work captured by photographers that day. —Sally Stapleton
I was assigned to a show on the first day of fashion week at Bryant Park, chatting with a CNN videographer, when he heard in his earphone that there was an explosion at the World Trade Center. Immediately, my photo editor called my mobile phone and said, “A plane has hit the World Trade Center. Bag the fashion show — you have to go.”
I was standing between a woman EMT and a police officer when she said, “Oh, look at that,” and we all saw people falling from the buildings. I, of course, instinctively began photographing them, as my job as a photojournalist. Of course, the image that came to be known as Falling Man is the image I remember most vividly from that day. —Richard Drew, photographer at the Associated Press
I only remember seeing the smoke and running toward the towers as they were collapsing. Everyone else was running past me. I left my bike a few blocks away and then slowly began to confront the eerie absence of the streets filled with debris and tried to make sense of what I could see had remained.
The primary image for me of all those I took that day is still the sculpture in Liberty Plaza, which captured what I was feeling — it was as if the whole world had stopped. —Susan Meiselas, photographer at Magnum
I walked across the bridge [from the Bronx] into Manhattan until I came upon this guy loading oxygen tanks into the back of an emergency vehicle. I asked him for a ride, and he goes, “I’m not taking you down there.” And I said, “Could you show me to the West Side Highway at 50th Street? I’ll give all the cash I have,” because of course the subway was shut down. And I opened up my wallet and he took the money, and I rode in the back with the oxygen tanks.
I was a person with a cellphone early on, and so I was calling people the whole way in, and I bought all this coverage — I was buying up every photographer’s work because we wanted to have the definitive story. I didn’t go home for like four days; we found a hotel room in Midtown to use for showers and stuff.
There were so many photographers. Our lab was open, and all these photographers kept coming to the building. We set up an intake table downstairs because we couldn’t let people all the way upstairs, and then we had a rotation of people sitting at the table deciding whether to take people’s film. We were taking film from mostly professionals, but we processed hundreds of rolls of film just to see if anybody had something that we might’ve missed. —MaryAnne Golon, picture editor at Time magazine
[James] Nachtwey heard the first plane hit because he lived in South Street Seaport, which is very, very close, and grabbed all of his gear and went out and started photographing. Nobody saw him after the second tower fell, so I was really nervous. Then he walked to the Time building from downtown — he was covered in dust. When he walked down the hallways at the Time building, there were these dusty footprints on the floor everywhere.
He has that picture of the church [from when the first tower came down]. That's the one I always remember. We had to fight to get that in the magazine because they thought the symbolism [was too much]. And I said, “What? That's exactly the point.” —MaryAnne Golon, picture editor at Time magazine
It never entered any of our minds that these buildings would collapse. I certainly credit the police with saving my life that day because I would’ve gladly gone in there. I wound up about a block away, and as I was switching lenses, looking up at the tower, it started to crumble. There were probably 400 or 500 people around me, and we all just ran, essentially for our lives, as this 50-, 60-foot tidal wave of debris just came at us at such speed. Everyone jumped into whatever building they could.
As the dust settled, my young twentysomething journalist sense snapped a bit — it was too surreal. This was not a movie. I just remember thinking, I need to call someone. I need to call my girlfriend, my parents. I ended up waiting in line for about 20 minutes at some bodega where someone was letting people use their phones.
I say this in all honesty: I was young, and I wasn’t ready for it. I took some photos, but I look at other, more experienced people back then and what they were able to make, and I think today I probably would have been able to do that, but I think my mind was just so rattled.
That day was, for me, a testament of just how powerful imagery is. I had the opportunity to witness history on that day. History is heavy, and history is never going to go the way we think it will. —Spencer Platt, photographer for Getty Images
To me, the image is still very raw and searing.
I had five rolls of 12-exposure film, so I was always shooting very sparingly, looking for the decisive moment as best I could. I came across a deserted bagel cart and took a bunch of napkins to try to help cover my nose and mouth, as I had started having trouble breathing by that point. That area was deserted, like a no-man’s-land. The air was filled with specks of dust, which looked like snow.
I saw a few firefighters that day, all alone and in various stages of shock or, I imagine now, grief and disbelief. When I noticed this firefighter walking toward me, I simply kneeled where I was and waited for him to come into my frame. He saw me shooting. We looked at each other and nodded. He continued walking north while I continued south. —Anthony Correia, photographer at Getty Images
We heard about the first plane hitting the tower on a car radio before walking into a reading event at a school. I thought it was odd when we heard the news because it seemed any pilot would do everything they could to avoid hitting any structure in New York City, let alone the World Trade Center.
After being in the reading event for several minutes, White House chief of staff Andrew Card walked up to the president to provide an update that a second plane had hit, and this is where the day began to get very strange.
From there, we photographed a quick statement at the elementary school and then proceeded to the airport to board Air Force One, but no one on the staff or airplane crew seemed to know our exact destination. While on the flight, we were trying to watch updates via television news, but since reception was spotty, we saw just fragments of what was going on in New York and Washington, DC. —Win McNamee, photographer at Reuters
After the first tower had collapsed, it became like night outside from the smoke and dust. I was near an office building where a police officer was pulling people inside. It was a small lobby. After a minute or so, a woman entered, completely covered with dust. She reminded me of some of the figures in photos from Pompeii. She paused in front of me for a second, and I took one frame. The next second, she was being helped by other people up some stairs, away from the lobby. I don’t remember any specific feelings. I think I was frightened after the first building collapse, like everyone else. Sometimes, as a photographer, I’m taking photos and not thinking too much, mainly thinking how this image might fit into the larger story. Looking at the photo afterwards, I realized how intense that time must have been.
I didn’t think I’d ever see her after that day, but a few months after the attack, her family contacted AFP, identifying the woman in the photo. A reporter and I went to Marcy’s apartment in New Jersey and heard her story. I was able to meet and photograph her in a much calmer setting. —Stan Honda, photographer at Agence-France Presse
The first photo I took was in Times Square at the Jumbotron, and people were looking up and watching after the first tower was hit.
As soon as that happened, I hopped in a subway and made my way to Canal Street. When I came out of the subway at Canal Street, there was another attack and the second tower was hit. Everybody was running the other way, and I made my way towards the rubble. Once the smoke settled somewhat, I made my way back to the pit and just snapped my camera a bit. I looked over to my right and saw this man. I took his picture and that was it.
The most vivid image was the death of Father Mychal Judge. The image of him was one of the most well-known photographs taken that day. This was a picture that I took, and it will always stick in my mind and a lot of people’s minds. He was the Fire Department chaplain in New York City, and they named a street after him. —Shannon Stapleton, photographer at Reuters
To view these powerful images is to experience the closest thing we can to time travel. For those of us who were here in New York at the time of the attacks, and to the billions of people around the world who witnessed the events of 9/11 through the media, these photographs vividly revive the visceral experience of trauma, destruction, and destabilization that the horrors of that day brought to us and to the city. They powerfully bring us back to a moment when we did not know what would come next, when our sense of invulnerability shattered, and when the illusion of the permanence and security of the city and its skyline dissolved.
Still, we can never today see these images, as evocative as they are, with the freshness with which they were originally received. The distance of two decades and all that we have been through since 9/11 creates a cascade of associations that we each bring to the pictures: The World Trade Center reimagined and now rebuilt. The individual and precious lives cut short. The health challenges suffered by first responders. The surveillance and targeting of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian New Yorkers. The streetscape transformed by cement security barriers alongside pedestrian plazas and bicycle paths. The empty streets and solitary figures at the height of the COVID crisis. The Brooklyn Bridge filled with protests in support of Black Lives Matter. We unavoidably see these 20-year-old images through multiple veils of connected history and experience. —Sarah Henry, deputy director and chief curator for the Museum of the City of New York
Around 5:00, the search and rescue came to a stop because World Trade Center 7 was in jeopardy of falling. Everybody gathered at this first-aid area on the southwest corner, and I saw the firefighters kind of fumbling with the flag and a little bit of a rise in the rubble. Within a minute or two of getting a position, they raised a flag up and I shot it. It was very much like shooting a play in football — it happened, I observed it, I shot it, and after the flag was raised, they climbed down off, and I walked right past them. I did not talk to them, which seems kind of crazy that I didn’t chat them up or get their names or anything, but I just walked.
The question everybody asks me is, “Did you know what you have?” The answer is no because of the magnitude of what had just happened. I recognized the symbolism, what they were doing. I recognized the similarity with Joe Rosenthal’s picture, but there was no way for me to really size up the importance of it.
I became kind of well known after making this picture, but I had an entire career before it. I feel that I drew upon that experience quite a bit that day, because there was a lot of emotional toll of working that day.
After the photo was published in my newspaper, the next day, the photo editor shared it with the Associated Press and it became a cultural phenomenon immediately. I still get emails from people — 20 years later, people will message me and they’ll still tell me something about how the photograph is meaningful to them. I try to be respectful of the fact that a lot of people have a very special relationship with the picture, and that’s not about me; that’s about them. I think it speaks beautifully to the power of photography, but it’s also about people’s relationship with what had happened that day. —Thomas Franklin, photographer at the Bergen Record
I arrived at ground zero in the morning and photographed on autopilot the entire day. I came upon these firefighters without a plan. The intense smoke overcame them and their eyes. The picture can be interpreted as a metaphor of tears — crying and anguish." —Jeff Mermelstein, photographer
As every museum knows, these photographs are stuck in time — they cannot tell us what came after, or the uses to which they themselves would be put. When these images were taken, it was hard to imagine if New York would ever recover: whether the vibrant economy, chaotic and richly dense street life, and creative diversity of the city would reemerge; whether tourists would ever return; whether the transformation of downtown in the 24/7 community would be undone. So much of what makes New York New York, in fact, survived and was reinvented in the past two decades, even as the city and its residents face new challenges that were equally unimaginable on Sept. 11, 2001. —Sarah Henry, deputy director and chief curator for the Museum of the City of New York
I was shooting from the southwest corner of the World Trade Center complex in a dark cavern of broken glass and debris that had been the Merrill Lynch Building. That particular location afforded the full, staggering panorama of ground zero at the same time that the sun was coming up to reveal the extent of the previous day’s disaster with a light that was as devastating as it was beautiful.
In the hours after this photograph was taken, it became increasingly difficult to effectively document the situation — batteries and film were running low, cellphones were completely useless, and the growing number of NYPD tasked to enforce the cordon around ground zero made it almost impossible to continue to work. I was also beginning to feel the stress and dislocation that being there had on so many. I needed to get home.
After having been escorted from the scene for the umpteenth time, and without the energy to slip my way back in, I called it quits and headed to the lab with my film. I consider the 36 hours I spent photographing the devastation of 9/11 among the most difficult assignments of my career. The situation called for the skills and detachment of a war photographer, which I am not. To the extent that my images do justice, in some small way, to the scope of what was experienced by the victims of the tragedy, perhaps that makes it also the most rewarding. —Porter Gifford, photographer at Corbis
Thanks to a friend who called me describing that she had just seen a plane fly into the World Trade Center, I found myself on a downtown subway filled with firefighters on my way to see what was happening just as the second tower was collapsing. One fireman handed me a tiny angel pin to attach to my camera bag for protection. I have never removed his little gift.
This image was made several days after the initial attack. I had managed to slip into the heart of Wall Street only because of the kindness and support of a man who had gotten permission to remove the hard drives from his company, which overlooked ground zero. I made my way through the floors, looking out the shattered windows in awe of the massive scale of the disaster.
The enormity of the size of the destruction is truly stunning with these two firefighters, dwarfed by the enormous size of the mountain of rubble, patiently and courageously battling to put out any smoldering flames. —Viviane Moos, photographer
We visited ground zero on Sept. 14. It was called the Day of Prayer, where we started the day in DC with a service at the National Cathedral with the president and former presidents, and then we headed to ground zero. The president wanted to see the destruction for himself and visit with the firefighters and the families of the missing. It was an intense experience, a roller coaster of emotions. It culminated with the bullhorn moment where the president stood on the rubble and addressed the firefighters. Leading up to that, he’s shaking their hands, they are exhausted from the search for survivors, they are tired and angry — it was like we were standing on a raw nerve. We can tell that they want him to do something, and that was the bullhorn moment where he said that the people who knocked the buildings down will hear from all of us soon. I knew that was a historic moment.
The ultimate job of the White House photographer is to create a visual archive of the administration, to capture the moments that can tell a story. With the context we have all these years later, it tells even more of a story. —Eric Draper, White House staff photographer for President George W. Bush
I remember being in Miami when the planes flew into the World Trade Center. All commercial planes were grounded shortly after, which meant driving from Miami to New York City.
I was given the assignment to cover a fireman’s funeral, of which there were, unfortunately, many. The funerals were conducted with the utmost respect for the fallen. The one I covered for New York Fire Department chaplain the Rev. Mychal Judge in front of the St. Francis of Assisi Church was no exception. If I remember correctly, the media had a spot to be standing in to document the event that gave us a vantage point to cover the funeral, but out of the way to give people space to grieve. It was from this media pen that I saw firefighter Tony James shed tears as he stood at attention when the casket went into the church. His tears showed the emotional toll that the attack took on the heroes who ran into the building and lost their friends as it collapsed. —Joe Raedle, photographer at Getty Images