The following account from Associated Press photographer Richard Drew is excerpted from the book “September 11: The 9/11 Story, Aftermath and Legacy,” an in-depth look at AP’s coverage of 9/11 and the events that followed. On that day, Drew made one of the most indelible — and harrowing — images of the 21st century. It accompanies this story, but not as the main image.
My family calls it “the picture that won’t go away.” Most newspaper editors refused to print it. Those who did, on the day after the World Trade Center attacks, received hundreds of letters of complaint.
The photograph was denounced as coldblooded, ghoulish and sadistic. Then it vanished.
Yet 20 years later, I still get asked about it. I’ve been invited on national talk shows, interviewed by foreign TV crews and asked to speak about it at universities across the country. Esquire magazine published a 7,000-word essay that hailed it as an icon, a masterpiece and a touching work of art. Entertainer and photo collector Sir Elton John called it “probably one of the most perfect photographs ever taken.”
All this for a single frame out of hundreds shot in haste before I was pulled to safety as the second tower of the World Trade Center tumbled toward me.
My fellow photographers called it “the most famous picture nobody’s ever seen.” But, in fact, it was seen. Whenever it’s mentioned, people say, “Oh, that’s the one where the guy looks like he’s swan-diving.” Or, “That’s the one where the guy’s body is lined up perfectly with the lines of the World Trade Center.” And then there is: “I know — it’s the one where, if you turn it upside down, it looks like the guy is sitting on a chair.”
I find that ironic. Here’s a photograph that was considered too upsetting for readers to look at. Yet people were turning it upside down to take a second look from a different angle.