By Cecilia Garza Posted Sep 17 2011
On Sept. 11, 2001, photojournalist Spencer Platt captured images that would be iconic photos as well as haunting reminders of a day marred by tragedy. Although Platt has been a Getty Images photographer for more than a decade, that morning when he heard the news on the radio at his Brooklyn residence, he was just beginning his career at Getty.
Global Journalist: Can you tell me how that morning played out for you?
Spencer Platt: I didnít panic. Itís morning. Itís early. Youíre not thinking of rushing out of bed and running. I heard something else on the radio, and something just took hold of me. I became suddenly panic stricken. I remember I got ready so fast that I forgot one camera at home and forgot my wallet, which I never do. When I opened the door to my house, I immediately knew that this was something extraordinary. You see all these helicopters in the air and sirens and the phones werenít really working. We were getting all these crossed calls.
GJ: How did you come to realize this wasnít something small?
SP: I literally started walking to the Brooklyn Bridge. Then I started jogging, and then I really started running. I got to the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, still on the Brooklyn side, and I met all this acrid smoke. I knew that this was not a small commuter plane. I started shooting just the tower burning, and within a matter of minutes, the plane came slamming into the south tower.
GJ: How did you manage to separate yourself enough from what was happening in order to take the photo?
SP: Itís moments like that that you become aware if youíre in the right profession. I think part of it is innate. Itís your personality, your upbringing. Itís a lot of things. But also, you have to be aware that this is your job. Itís a very serious job. Itís a very important job. And it often calls you up at unexpected times. It puts you to test in a way, and you have to be prepared for that.
GJ: What was happening at the time you took the photo in Lower Manhattan of the crowd looking up at the horrific scene?
SP: It was literally minutes, seconds before the first tower came down. I had run over the Brooklyn Bridge. I went up the street a little bit to a corner, where a lot of people had gathered and started taking pictures. And in a way, I was one of those people. I wasnít very, you know, cool and contained. I was very nervous, looking up, looking down, concerned I was missing something or about to miss something.
GJ: After you took that photo, did you feel like the expression on their faces didnít really match what was going on?
SP: No. Everyone was just so awestruck. New York is a city where the grind of day-to-day life and differences in race and differences in income, a lot of it is very grating. But when something like this happens, everyone is suddenly on equal footing, and everyone just kind of comes together. And thatís the picture: thereís black. White. Businessmen. Retail workers. And whoever else. Everyone is just gazing up in sheer confusion, fear and disbelief.
GJ: What did you see when you decided to take the photo of the single standing faÁade? How did you come across it?
SP: By the evening of Sept. 11, all the streets were blocked. You needed a pass or you needed to be with the military or the police, so it was effectively cut off from most of the media. I think that photo was taken maybe Sept. 12 or Sept. 13. A friend and I had spent the better part of an evening just working our way through the backstreets. We actually had to hide under cars in a parking garage for an hour or two until it got very late, and we came out. We were literally walking on a pile of rubble, and there was just here and there a person, maybe a firefighter, standing next to some burning embers. It was just very awkward and definitely quite. Then, I saw that image of the remains of the iconic faÁade of the World Trade Center, and instinctively knew that there was probably a picture somewhere in there.
GJ: Do you feel that you have changed as a photographer or your techniques have changed since the attack and that experience?
SP: I feel I am more experienced in my outlook, in my professionalism, and Iíve also simultaneously become very jaded. I donít think I was as jaded back then. You know, itís inevitable when you live in this post-9/11 world. It certainly leaves a residue on you. I commented to a friend of mine that day, my fellow photographer Mario Tama. Right before the towers came down, I looked at him and I said, ďWeíll be covering this story for the rest of our lives.Ē I probably didnít really think that at the time, but now I think so.