Visual Arts
1:54 pm
Wed September 11, 2013

Philip Heying, Taking Portraits On Sept. 11

There are probably certain images that come to mind when you remember the September 11th terrorist attacks: the approaching plane, the two towers of the World Trade Center in flames, clouds of smoke, and people walking en masse across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Photographer Philip Heying is now based in Lawrence, Kan., and works as an adjunct instructor in the photography department at Johnson Community College.

But, in 2001, Heying lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., working for another photographer whose studio was in the financial district, just blocks from the Twin Towers. On September 11, he'd overslept and, after the towers fell, with no means of making it to work, he "decided to photograph people."

Interview Highlights: Philip Heying

On being at home in Brooklyn on 9/11, rather than at work

I was living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn at the time and my west-facing window had a view of the Williamsburg Bridge and behind that I could see the Twin Towers.

For some reason on that morning, that Tuesday morning, I overslept, which I very seldom do. The times, in the last 20 years, I've slept past 8:30 in the morning I could probably count on one hand... I woke up at 9 that morning in a panic, because I was supposed to be at work at 9.

And I ran into the living room to get the coffee going. I turned around to look out the window and the North Tower was on fire. I thought it was probably an electric fire or something, and I'd hear about it on the news later. Then my coffee started boiling, and I turned around to turn off the stove, and saw the second plane hit and saw the fireball. And I knew that was wrong.

On going out to "do something affirmative"

On the one hand, I wanted to crawl back into bed and cower under the covers with my cat. And, on the other hand, I felt this urgent need to go out and do something affirmative, and felt like there was a really crucial moment right then to just do something.

I was looking out the window and saw all the people evacuating lower Manhattan on foot across Williamsburg Bridge...I just picked up my camera - all my supplies were down at the studio, downtown, so I only had two rows of film at home - and walked down there...[I] just intuitively decided to make as many pictures of as many people as I could with those two rolls of film.

On taking photographs in the moment

I was just taking one frame per person. It made it so I couldn’t really editorialize. I just had to get what was right there, right then at that particular moment...It worked out to be 23 women and 23 men and one of the women had carried her baby from two miles away downtown across the Williamsburg Bridge, and she was the last person I photographed.

I really wanted it to be affirmative acknowledgement of what an incredible diversity of individuals had experienced at that time. But I wasn’t sure of that. So I just went ahead and printed everything as best I could.

It's almost like one photograph, all 46 of them [in the series]. And that's how it happened.

Four of Heying's photographs in this series, Witnesses, September 11, 2001, are on display in the exhibition, About Face: Contemporary Portraiture, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak Street, Kansas City, Mo. 816-751-1278.

The Artists in Their Own Words series is supported by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.