The photographer who captured one of the most famous images of the World Trade Towers explains how instinct carried him through the day.
By Rebekah Lesko
It was just after 8:47 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, when Canadian photographer Lyle Owerko witnessed the unbelievable. Camera in hand, running though his New York neighbourhood, Owerko would watch through his lens, as one of America’s most historic events unfold, all captured on his film Fujifilm 645zi. Next, one single photo of the Twin Towers exploding would captivate the world as the cover of a special edition of Time magazine. In 2005, the American Society of Magazine Editors listed Owerko’s cover photo as one of the top 40 most important magazine covers from the past 40 years. Owerko crafted a book titled And No Birds Sang from the 9/11 photographs.
Now, with over 20 years of photography experience under his belt, Owerko continues his craft through fine art photography, as well as filmmaking. When he’s not globe trotting, he resides in New York’s Tribeca neighbourhood. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
J-Source: You currently live in New York, but you’re originally from Calgary. How was it growing up in Canada?
Lyle Owerko: Oh gosh, that was a long time ago now. It was an incredibly vibrant atmosphere to grow up in. Mainly because unlike growing up in the United States where you have a lot more societal distractions, in Calgary, we were really left to a sense of purpose of youth, where you invented your own fun. It was a very vivid environment to cultivate imagination and adventure.
J-Source: Do you feel that played a role in shaping you today?
LO: Absolutely. It certainly was a bedrock for that.
J-Source: What was the moment you knew you wanted to take pictures?
LO: There’s no real one moment, although it was in 1999 when I was in China that I took a series of pictures that were distinctively personal to me. That really was a turn from being someone taking pictures to someone telling stories, as those images very much told stories. Once the images started telling stories, there was an ability to move forward from there. Because what you’re experiencing as a personal moment had no boundaries beyond it and no borders. It became the viewer who was capturing the image, because the story transcended what the photographer was doing.
J-Source: How have you seen the photo industry change?
LO: There was before digital and there was after digital. It went from being very esoteric and almost exclusive craft, because of the price line it took to get involved in the industry. After that, it was complete democratization of image gathering. There was a whole bunch of things that happened at the same time, which was the Internet, a change in the publishing industry, the explosion of television networks and the amount of news channels that opinions could be expressed by. Certainly, the barrier of entry from shooting on film to being able to capture an image digitally changed the ability to gather and tell stories that were no longer controlled, or monitored or even curated.
J-Source: Through this time of change, have you changed how you do your work?
LO: Massively, yes. Personal work has become more important than ever. If you’re not generating personal work, you’re not generating imagery. If you’re not generating imagery, you’re not telling stories. If you’re not doing that, you’re not adding fuel to your craft.
J-Source: Take me back to the morning of Sept. 11.
LO: That’s the morning the world changed. The world’s never been the same. It never will be the same. I’m fortunate that I was able to gather images that were expressions of what I saw, what I felt and what I experienced.
My eyes, hands and ears weren’t really my own. My eyes, hands and ears were the eyes, hands and ears of the world. They were able to stop time and put a distinct articulation on those series of events that will last for generations beyond my lifetime.
J-Source: That morning, how did you know something was wrong?
LO: I was up early, as I just got back from Africa. I heard the first plane crash. It sounded like a plane crashed in Tribeca. I thought an airplane engine had fallen off a small airplane and it crashed into a series of buildings. I had no idea it was under the architect of a grand terrorism plan. I responded to what I thought was an accident. The rest of it all unfolded in real time before me. I was very much a participant in the event, much more than an observer.
J-Source: Were you in shock at that point?
LO: I’m still in shock now. It’s literally like being caught in an earthquake. It transcended all boundaries previously known for whether it was shock, horror or even grief. There’s no way to capture and summarize the amount of grief that was embodied in that moment.
J-Source: At the moment, did you know what was going on, or did you just start taking pictures?
LO: When the second plane hit, you knew it was part of a grand architecture. You are literally just reacting. There’s no thinking. At that point it becomes purely an instinctual exercise.
That’s where hundreds of thousands of shutter clicks add up to knowing your equipment so well that you’re living and breathing in the moment, almost like a pro athlete, reacting to the events on a playing field. There’s something about becoming conscious of working with your gear, and working in small spectrums of time that you’re able to compress that into an instinctual reaction.
J-Source: Did you know you got “the shot?”
LO: Yeah. I knew I got it. I was shooting film, I wasn’t shooting digital, but I knew I got it.
J-Source: So, you know you have the shot, what happened next?
LO: I actually, in between the first and second building collapse, ran my film into the lab to process and there was a professional lab in Tribeca that ran my film.
J-Source: How did the photo end up as the cover of Time Magazine?
LO: After delivering it to my agent, it went directly to Time. I got it uptown to my agent’s office early. They picked the image and it was the Time cover just shortly after noon. They knew it was their cover image, so we all worked very fast. There was no dragging our heels on it.
J-Source: When you first saw the Time cover, what went through your mind?
LO: Just wow. You can’t even put words to it. There’s the reality. It’s just utter reality and at that point, then I definitely knew history had been made.
J-Source: Your book of pictures from 9/11 is called And No Birds Sang. Why did you name it that?
LO: On that day, no birds sang, literally. The birds didn’t even know where to land. They were flying around overhead without anywhere to land. It was just nothing; there was no reason to sing.
J-Source: If you could give advice to someone trying to get into photography, what would you tell them?
LO: Take pictures of subjects you believe in. Don’t try to take pictures to please people. Take pictures to please yourself and to inform yourself. Those are the only types of good pictures now.
Rebekah Lesko is graduating from the School of Journalism at the University of Regina in the spring of 2016.