Photojournalist Lyle Owerko walked out of his apartment and 10 minutes later shot the photo that ended up on the cover of Time Magazine. He hopes his photos left a mark of integrity.
On September 7th, 2001 I was on a plane flying back to New York. I had been photographing conflict everywhere — elephants fighting each other, documentaries of street clashes, photographs while driving my friends through a storm of tear gas and burning tires during a riot. The reason to go back to New York was to shoot an Ad campaign. Part of the trip home meant changing planes in Johannesburg. The layover continued my preoccupation with being torn about flying home. While sitting in the transit concourse, I watched a molten orange African sunset burn an unforgettable hole in sky outside the lounge windows. Every day in Africa delivers a unique visual; that’s what makes it so hard to leave. It is a constant razor’s edge of tragedy and beauty. Leaving was as if I was abandoning all that was poignant and tangible in my life. Yet, I felt I had to be in New York for a purpose.
Four days later, just after 8:47 am on September 11th, found me sprinting through the neighborhood of Tribeca chasing down the source of the worst sound I’ve ever heard in my life. The final destination was the World Trade Center complex, now marred with a gaping hole in the north tower. Within minutes of reaching the complex another plane began its suicide approach. It struck the Towers looming above me with a punch beyond description. In defiance of the fireball and ensuing shower of glass and steel I managed to click off a series of pictures. Within 10 minutes of leaving my apartment I shot the image that would make the cover of TIME magazine.
Over the next couple of hours I filled multiple rolls of film with assorted images of people leaping from the Towers and absolute carnage beyond words. Most of those images have remained in my archive silently frozen in memory of that day. What the images will never convey is the aural soundscape I have inside my head. It’s hard to reiterate the screams and shouts of horror that erupted from the crowds of onlookers as they viewed the ballet of death occurring above the street that morning. Even now, over ten years past the event, my ears scan any sound I hear out of the normal in New York. Is it a shout of pain? Is it danger? Did that sonic boom come from a jet in peril? Everything goes through an internal assessment filter making sure my perception is right. The day of 9/11/2001 completely stole my innocence, as it did with many others. Though I’ve seen many horrible things before then and many after, I’ve never been in a situation where I felt so helpless to contribute. There are many instances where I’ve passed up on taking pictures to simply to err on the side of helping, but that day was overwhelming. All I could manage to do was click the shutter to document something I had no cognition of and probably will never fully assess. I remember the policemen yelling at me that morning and encouraging me to keep shooting and keep documenting what was going on around us. They understood the importance. In the images of that morning I hoped to capture the dignity and grace of the people who jumped and to somehow define the decision they made with integrity and peace.
They are not easy pictures to look at, especially when our daily world is an oversaturated media landscape of manufactured realities and the new rising class of “celebritocray” — where disingenuous shock and awe on camera leads to fame and fortune. Stepping out of that bubble and looking at the tangible “real” of the actual moment between life and death is very hard, it forces us to come to terms with so many things including our own mortality. For me running into the storm was a decision to document history which even superseded my own sense of self — I guess as the question stands, what makes a man do this? Is it simply an answer of being aligned with a code of ethics, that life and truth amongst humanity is much bigger than one person and much bigger than one persons individual wishes. That to give back to others such as your family and even to a great extent the family of man, is to give back with one’s whole consciousness, even if that means risking peril for the blunt second of saving the goodness of others. Ultimately to leave behind a mark of integrity on this earth. I simply hope these pictures pass on through the generations as an informative tool for future members of this planet to see and understand that all life is precious and beautiful. And yet to grasp how easily innocence can be snatched away in the blink of a second.