Richard Drew, the photographer behind the infamous photo of a man falling from the towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11, is one of five journalists to receive the highest professional honor awarded by SPJ this year, which recognizes extraordinary contributions and commitments to journalism.
Drew has worked as a staff photographer at The Associated Press for 53 years.
His interest in photojournalism was piqued when he was a college student living in Los Angeles. After beating a newspaper photographer to the site of an accident, his photo was published the following day in exchange for a byline and a new roll of film. “That’s pretty smart, because if I get the new roll of film, I’ll be ready for the next time something happens in front of me,” Drew told SPJ News.
Drew has carried this same sense of determination with him throughout his career. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was photographing the first day of New York Fashion Week when he received a call from his editor telling him a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
He immediately got on the subway in Times Square, unaware of what he would be walking into when he came back above ground. “I didn’t even know the second building had been hit until I got there and saw both buildings on fire.”
But acting quickly in the moment is a skill Drew has learned, as he constantly has to survey situations and find out where he should be to make my photograph, he said.
“I slowly made my way, avoiding police, to where I could get to a position [on the west side]. That’s where they were assembling all the ambulances,” Drew said. “By surveying that situation I could see that they were not going to throw me out of there because I was not blocking any of the firemen or police or anything.”
Drew was sure to capture as much of the event as he possibly could, even going as far as to hide in a bush. “I have a picture of the collapse of the north tower strictly because I was where I shouldn’t have been. You need to figure out where you can go to be safe and still do your job.”
As Drew stood photographing the towers, a nearby EMT pointed out something near the towers. “We saw people start to [jump], and I just instinctively took my camera and started taking pictures of the people coming down.”
The photo Drew took in that moment later became known as “The Falling Man.”
The photo was controversial and received varying reactions. “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,” he wrote for the AP’s ‘September 11: The 9/11 Story, Aftermath and Legacy.’
Drew stands behind his decision to shoot and publish ‘The Falling Man.” “It’s actually a part of this man’s life, it isn’t his death yet,” he explained. “Everyone has their own look at things of course, but I think mine is a very quiet photograph in a very violent situation.
Drew’s love for his work still runs deep, and the photographer does not have any intention of retiring from his job at the AP anytime soon. “I’m still at it at age 76,” he said.