Even if you don’t know Richard Drew’s name, you’ve no doubt seen his work. As an Associated Press photographer for 53 years, his lens has caught everything from foreign wars, international Olympics Games, U.S. political races and European royalty, to natural disasters, neighborhood fires, police chases and small-town heroes.
Arguably, his best-known picture is “The Falling Man,” which depicts an unidentified victim of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center dropping to his death from the burning North Tower. The photo caused an international sensation in the devastation’s aftermath and the years since (a documentary was even made about it). The image was both derided as a ghoulish exploitation of one man’s desperation — and hailed as a wrenching, haunting and profound representation of the day’s horror. So staggering was its impact on pop icon Elton John that the singer now has “The Falling Man” in his private photo collection.
Drew began his AP career in San Francisco in 1970 and moved cross-country two years later to work for the agency’s New York bureau, his home base ever since. At 76, he still uses the city’s public transit system to travel to assignments (“I haven’t owned a car in 30 years,” he says proudly), and has no plans to retire. Hauling equipment up and down subway stairs, setting up strobe lights in the studio, keeping pace with the city’s mad energy — it keeps him active and engaged, he says. “Besides,” he adds, quoting a friend, “retirement is great, but you never get a day off.”
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
So: your first-ever published photo — when and where?
I was about 18, in college, driving to school one day and came around a corner and there was a street sweeper whose vehicle had turned over. The driver was trapped inside and police were there. By the time a photographer from the local newspaper got there, everything was over. And the photographer said, “Did you shoot pictures? Would you like to sell them to the newspaper?” I said, what do you pay? He said, “We’ll give you $5 for the photograph” — this was the ‘60s — “or we can put your name on it and also give you a new roll of film.” I thought that was a pretty cool idea, to get my name in the paper and use the film to maybe shoot more photos for them. So that’s how it started.
How did you come to have a camera with you in the first place? After all, this was before everyone carried cell phones.
A few years before, I’d asked my parents for a camera — a Yashica Lynx 35mm Rangefinder; I think I still have it somewhere. I thought it would be fun to experiment with. But after I sold that first picture, I kept my eyes open for other things that might interest the newspaper. That led to a summer internship at the San Gabriel Valley Daily Tribune. I’d ride along with photographers on assignment, see their different techniques and how they set out to illustrate a story. That led to a job at the Pasadena Independent Star-News.
And that led to one of the most historic photos you’ve ever taken — the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
When Kennedy was campaigning in LA, I wanted to follow him around for the day. But LA wasn’t in our circulation area, so we weren’t going to cover him at The Ambassador. I thought, I’m not gonna sit at home and watch this on TV. So I assigned myself to just go down there. I staked out my spot, onstage behind him, then afterward went into the hotel kitchen to get a glass of water. And there he was. I was directly behind his right shoulder when I saw Sirhan Sirhan’s gun. I was in the Army Reserves at the time, so I knew that when you see a gun, you don’t say, “Oh, what’s that?” You drop down — so I did, just as the gun went off; blood spattered on me. They lowered Kennedy to the floor, everyone was crowded around him, and I couldn’t see him. I climbed on a metal work table, right next to him, aimed down and just started clicking. A TV cameraman was there, and his camera gave me enough light to take my pictures.
What fueled you, adrenaline?
No — instinct. You’re just trying your damnedest in the moment to do your job. The AP got the photo on the wire immediately, and it went all over the world. Then I did some research and found out that Sirhan lived in Pasadena, near the paper. I got to the address at the same time as a photographer from the LA Times did. He was a friend, and he had been in The Ambassador kitchen, too. No one was home and no one was outside, not even the Secret Service. The garage had two doors, like a barn, and one was slightly open. There was a target on the wall, and spent gun shells on the floor. We took photos of everything and left just as the police got there. That was one heck of a 24 hours.
Indeed — and you were just 21 at the time! A lot has happened to you since, including lots of great sports action and overseas travel.
I’ve covered the Olympics three times: in Montreal, Moscow and Athens. I was in Zaire for the Muhammad Ali/George Foreman fight, and I covered the U.S. invasion of Grenada. I spent six weeks in Argentina and Peru during the Falklands War, and I was in Colombia when the Nevado del Ruiz volcanic eruption buried the town of Armero. That was tough; I don’t speak much Spanish, just enough to get myself out of jail if I get arrested. I covered the Royal Family: Queen Elizabeth on her big tour of Canada; Princess Diana and her boys in St. Kitts and Nevis, right after her split from Prince Charles; and Charles himself when he was in Mexico to play polo and visit the pyramids. I was part of a bigger news entourage, but I’d gotten to know Charles’ press people pretty well, and they liked my work. So they asked me to privately take some formal portraits of him at the consulate in Mexico City. And now he’s king!
It sounds like you know how to build rapport with people.
That’s such a big part of this job. You have to create camaraderie; you’ve got to be friendly and professional; you can’t push yourself around. I was the first still photographer to be given a pass to work unescorted on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Until then , photographers had been allowed on the balcony only. But I’d developed a good relationship with the PR person there, and I knew the CEO. We got along well, and they trusted me.
Do you ever get starstruck?
Not really. I’m impressed by some people, sure. But if you’re starstruck, it means you haven’t taken time to build a rapport with them … to see them as human. For example, I’ve covered the Yankees throughout my career. One evening, I was at Studio 54 in New York (during its heyday as a celebrity-filled nightclub) because I heard Reggie Jackson would be there. But the place was really quiet. I didn’t see him anywhere. I took a break at the bar and was drinking a soda when I felt this tap on my shoulder. It was Reggie. He was used to seeing me at games and he saw I had my cameras with me, so he just came up to me. And I got my shot.
You had a special connection with Muhammad Ali.
He was one of my favorite subjects. In 1974, when I covered the “Rumble in the Jungle,” I didn’t stay with other media in a hotel; I stayed in the compound where Muhammad and his team were based. He’d go running in the morning, and I’d ride alongside in a van and photograph him. I hung out at his place, where he’d sort of hold court. One day he pulled out a 4-by-6 stack of cards held together with a rubber band. People started to drift away until it was just me and him sitting across from each other. And it turned out the cards were pre-printed with sermons — he was a devout Muslim — and he read one to me. It was pretty cool. I photographed a lot of his fights after that. I shot him praying at his training camp in a small mosque he’d built, and when he modeled that fur coat. I was also at his last fight, in the Bahamas, where he lost to Trevor Berbick in ten rounds. It was sad. His health was really failing and the fight was so low-budget that the spit-buckets in the ring were wastebaskets from the hotel. The glamour was gone.
On 9/11, you were at another very un-glamourous assignment — shooting a maternity fashion show in New York’s Bryant Park — when you were sent to the World Trade Center, which had just been attacked. Did you know that a photograph of yours would be talked about to this day?
No. I was clicking off shots of the man as he fell. I had no idea what the camera was catching. And then the building fell, and we were all running from the debris and dust. I didn’t know until I got back to the office what I had. I looked at the frames with my editor and we saw the one that came to be known as “The Falling Man.” We said, “That’s it. That’s the shot.”
Some critics argued that it was “ghoulish” to photograph a man’s death.
But it wasn’t his death. It was the last moments of his life. As a photojournalist, I chronicle people’s lives. This was part of the man’s life. I think people were upset because the photo looked so … quiet. It didn’t show actual violence, which we’d gotten numb to by then. You know, violent images like the photos of the Kent State murders. The one of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phúc running naked and screaming in Vietnam after being burned by napalm. The one of Nguyễn Văn Lém, a Viet Cong captain, being assassinated point-blank by a Vietnamese general. Compared to them, “The Falling Man” is so … ordinary. There’s no blood. He could be any of us. It’s horrifying.
When you cover an assignment where lots of photographers are also working, is it important for you to be the one who gets the first shot?
I’m not concerned with getting the first shot. I want the best shot.
How do you define a great photo?
A great photo is one you want to look at. It catches your attention. Even the big networks, which run on video, always use a still image to open their newscasts, because it captures a moment in time. Videos are fleeting. A still image stays with you longer.
Just about everyone has a cell phone in their pocket today, so they have 24/7 access to a camera. What makes your photos different from the ones they take?
I’m a photojournalist, they’re not. But there’s still a place for user-generated content. At the AP, we’re always looking for UGC, every day … because we can’t be everywhere at once. When the July floods hit hard in upstate New York, for example, we didn’t have enough photographers available but we still needed images to accompany our stories. When things like that happen, we try to find UGC on social media and contact the creators to ask if they’d contribute their work to the AP. They sign a form verifying that the image hasn’t been altered in any way, that it’s original, and so forth. It’s a good thing, a collaborative way to help more people see what’s going on in the world.
What is it like for you to be a witness to so much of the human condition?
I feel honored to be there, to share my talent or bravado to record history every day. Because it is a kind of history. And I like that I’m able to share it with people who can’t be there. I like that the person who opens up a newspaper in Keokuk, Iowa, might see something that happened in New York that they might have heard about, and they’ll see the pictures I took. We connect.
Ronnie Polaneczky is an award-winning journalist who lives and writes in Philadelphia.
Feature photo courtesy of Richard Drew.