The power of a photograph

As told to Madjiguene Traore

Professor Thomas Franklin pictured in his office at Montclair State with an enlarged stamp version of his Raising the Flag at Ground Zero photo. Photo Credit: Madjiguene Traore

16 years after the tragic day of 9/11, Montclair State professor Thomas Franklin recounts his experience and how he shot the symbolic photograph “Raising The Flag at Ground Zero.”

The day of September 11th is a long story for me.

I was a staff photographer at the Bergen Record Newspaper and was in the office early that morning. I had just gotten back from the Dominican Republic where I was working on a story related to baseball. As fate would have it, I was in the office at a time I typically would not be.

A reporter came running into the photo department saying a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. Our office in Hackensack was only five miles from Manhattan. I ran to the newsroom window where I could see World Trade Center clearly and it looked pretty bad. I quickly talked to the photo editor and he said, “Go, get as close as you can.”

I got in my car, started driving towards the Lincoln tunnel when I heard on the radio word of a second plane hitting the towers. I looked up and I saw a much larger plume of smoke coming.

At that point, I heard they were closing all the river crossings so I continued onto Exchange Place, Jersey City. I made pictures there. Sometime in the early afternoon, I was able to talk my way onto a boat and made it to what we now call, Ground Zero.

When I got there, I made pictures all around the area –search and rescue, the damage, the debris, the scope of it, the details. While I was making those pictures, the afternoon had moved on. Around 4:45 p.m., we learned World Trade Center building number seven was going to collapse. The search and rescue stopped and many of the firemen and search personnel gathered at the South West corner.

While I was there, I saw the three firemen pictured doing something with a flag, on the edge of the rubble. In a short amount of time, they raised the flag up a black flag pole mast of a boat. They carried it to Ground Zero where there was an existing white flag pole at an odd angle. They transferred the flag from the black pole to the white pole and, they raised it.

The Flag Raising picture was made at 5:01 p.m.

The firefighters didn’t even know I was taking the picture. I had shot it from about 30 yards with a 70–200mm zoom lens. It all happened pretty quickly.

The photograph appeared in my newspaper the next day and was also shared with the Associated Press which the Bergen Record Newspaper’s a member of, and circulated all around the world.

I had a lot of experience prior but nothing compared to the scope, the horror, the tragedy and the senseless and intimate loss of life that 9/11 was. I like to think all the other news events I covered prepared me for working that day. But, it really didn’t prepare me for a lot of the attention I got as a result of the picture. Sixteen years later, I still get messages from people. I got a piece of mail just the other day. Someone asked me for an autograph and if I can send them a copy of the photo.

The picture has become, for many people the symbol of that day. It resonates because it shows an image of hope, perseverance and solidarity.

September 11th changed me as it changed a lot of people. But making the picture didn’t change me.

I believe in the power of photography. Pictures are a great tool, even a weapon to communicate, to inform, to inspire and make people feel emotions and care.