An Unforgettable Picture  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October 2001

An Unforgettable Picture   

When he took his much-showcased photo of people hanging out of the World Trade Center's burning tower, Jeff Christensen had no idea just how powerful an image it was.

By Valarie Basheda
Valarie Basheda, a former AJR managing editor, is an editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.     


IT WAS ONE OF THOSE photos that you couldn't take your eyes off of--people hanging out of the windows of the World Trade Center's burning tower with no way to escape.

Jeff Christensen took that photo. And he didn't know what he had at the time.

Christensen, 42, a contract employee with Reuters, had been scrambling like everyone else to get to the scene and start shooting. Aiming his camera at the towers, he took about 80 images, then raced back uptown to move them on the wire for Reuters' European clients by their 1 p.m. deadline.

One of the papers noticed some people in a far corner of the photo and called Reuters. The wire service then blew up and cropped the image, which now focused on the trapped workers. It represented about a 10th of the original shot. "I didn't really realize I had that, to be perfectly honest," he says. "It was one of those things."

While the photo is destined to become one of the tragedy's unforgettable images, Christensen says it "really bothered me." He says he took it about 20 minutes before the north tower collapsed, and the people were on the upper floors. "I'm pretty sure that those people didn't make it," he says.

He believes they might have been at the windows because a police helicopter had approached the flaming tower shortly before he took the shot. "I'm sure those people were hoping there was going to be some type of rooftop rescue, but it didn't happen," Christensen says.

The photo's popularity has only exacerbated his distress. "I've had to go back and relive it and move it again. That's kind of hard. It's part of the job, I guess, but it's difficult."

Christensen later figured out many of the people in the photo were probably from Cantor Fitzgerald, a firm that lost about 650 of its 1,000 employees. The day after the terrorist attack, Christensen met family members carrying photos of missing loved ones, some from Cantor Fitzgerald. "That's when it really hit home," Christensen says.

Although he had taken secondary feature photos on the tragedy since then, he hadn't asked to go back to the scene. "I didn't really want to go down there," he said three days after the attack. "I know eventually I will. I just didn't have a desire to do it."

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