Michel Leroy: A Photojournalist’s Perspective of 9/11 While Not on Assignment

All images shot during 9/11 by Michel Leroy. Used with permission. Contact Sheets created by the Phoblographer with permission.

When you look at the modern portfolio of Photographer Michel Leroy, you wouldn’t at all believe that 9/11 was a time that touched him personally. But not only was photography bred into Michel since high school, but so was journalism. On September 11th 2001, the World Trade Center fell here in NYC as the world and many New Yorkers looked on in horror. For this year’s remembrance, we wanted to interview a number of photographers who were around and on the scene during that time. Many of them have never looked back at their archives, and with Michel the experience was one that he felt really changed him. But as many photojournalists will tell you, the camera can be a shield of some sort from your own emotions.

Before you go on, I want to warn everyone that this post contains images that may shock or cause a stir amongst some readers. I personally saw the second plane hit the towers, and both putting this story together and looking through Michel’s images certainly was difficult to do.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Michel: It may sound cliché but I have been into photography since high school. I took the photography elective from the wood shop teacher (he was also the men’s wrestling coach) and fell in love with visual storytelling. The natural progression, because all I wanted was to shoot more pictures, was the high school newspaper and yearbook. I shot everything, I couldn’t get enough. I followed that up with a BFA degree in Photography from the University of Dayton, because it allowed for the maximum number of photography classes. To make money in college I worked for the UD Public Relations department and the Dayton Daily News as a photographer.

Phoblographer: You’re a very interesting photographer. If you look at your work today you’ll see a lot of lifestyle, studio and people work. There is hardly a sign of documentary work and yet that’s what you did during 9/11. So what attracted you to documentary work on that specific day and how do you feel that part of your brain differs from the more creative side of it?

Michel: The difference between my current work as an entertainment and advertising photographer and what I shot on 9/11 may seem disconnected but the roots are in journalism. I wouldn’t be the photographer and person I am today without the life experience of being a journalist for many years. Photographers who have been on deadline, under pressure, know the assignment and the creative are interchangeable. What makes any image compelling, portrait or otherwise, goes back to the classic 5 W’s from journalism: who, what, when, where, why and how. Sometimes, perhaps often, one of the those elements dominates the images that tell the story as it did that morning: A plane, then two, hit the World Trade Centers… What is going on? On that crisp morning in September it was second nature for me to grab a camera and tell the story of the event through images.

“We were all in shock, you could read it on the faces of all those around me living through this singular moment, but as many photographers have come to learn through experience, when you are behind a lens you are detached in a way that allows you to keep shooting when you might otherwise be overwhelmed with emotion.”

Phoblographer: Before we even get into this, let’s get a bit more background on you. Where were you personally in life when 9/11 happened? I know that I for example was a Freshman in Catholic school that was really into new Punk Rock and surrounded by really friendly women I wanted to date immediately. And then when 9/11 happened, it was sort of like a prolonged amount of time off from school after I had just seen something crazy happened and almost lost my father. So who were you as a person back then?

Michel: In the fall of 2001 I was a total greenhorn in NYC, growing up in Montana then college in Ohio placed me solidly between naive and credulous. My girlfriend (now wife) and I had moved into a junky little apartment in the East Village, it’s all we could afford, and were trying to make it in a city that rewards talent and initiative. We worked, hung out with friends and learned to live together as a couple. It was a fun and exhilarating time.

Phoblographer: The incident on 9/11 happened really early in the morning. So what made you want to stop what you were doing, grab your camera, go out and shoot?

Michel: 9/11 was a Tuesday morning and I didn’t have any assignments scheduled for the day. I was getting out of the shower when my girlfriend said a plane hit one of the World Trade towers. Just two nights before we had been on a sunset cruise in the NY harbor watching the warm dusk light flicker off the glass towers. We both knew it was inconceivable a plane would hit one of the buildings unless they meant to – then the second plane hit. I grabbed my camera and every roll of film I had as we ran out the door.

Phoblographer: You’ve got a variety of photos from that day. A lot of it is wide, scenic stuff while some of it is centering in and focusing on certain key subjects. So photographically speaking, why did you feel it was so imperative to the storytelling part of this to shoot wide? Focusing in on an entire scene and not singling out certain individuals seems very different from your current work, no?

Michel: My photojournalism instinct drove me toward the towers. I started with a long lens to focus attention on the towers but as I kept walking closer the scale of the event felt so massive that a wide angle was the only way to capture what was happening. At the time none of us knew the buildings were going to fall. When they did it was clear, this is history. I photographed each tower falling frame-by-frame and wept as I did. To be honest, I don’t want it to sound like I made of lot of photographic decisions that day, I was reacting not thinking. For example my shots of the North tower falling have an American flag framing the left side by chance more than design. I had just rounded a corner when there was an explosion that shook the street, I stumbled back and started shooting the tower with my back against the building for support without framing the shot or thinking about the relevance of the flag in the frame.

Phoblographer: If you had to describe the emotions you felt that day, what would they be? How do you feel like they translated into the images you shot? Or do you feel that being behind the camera sort of made you focus not on your own emotions?

Michel: We were all in shock. You could read it on the faces of all those around me living through this singular moment. But as many photographers have come to learn through experience, when you are behind a lens you are detached in a way that allows you to keep shooting when you might otherwise be overwhelmed with emotion. Life Magazine photographer, Bill Eppridge once said, “If you are doing your job seriously as a photojournalist, your sight must be the primary sense that you use at all times.” That means your emotions, personal safety and creative decisions take a back seat to what you see right here, right now.

“I was afraid if I didn’t cover up when I changed rolls the film would be ruined from dust. I would duck into a building lobby or stairway to change rolls or lenses then head back out until I finally ran out of film.”

Phoblographer: In your images of people; did anyone really care or get in your face about photographing them? How did you maintain composure and careful thought when there’s so much of a chaotic energy going around?

Michel: I have to give absolute credit to the firefighters, police, medical teams and all the first responders that day. They were an inspiration of single-minded focus and duty. The entire morning was so chaotic that nobody tried to stop me from advancing toward the site or hassle me for taking pictures. In fact, at one point south of Canal a few of the first responders borrowed my cell phone to call their families to let them know they were alive then they gave me a face mask and told me to be careful and get the hell out as soon as I could.

Phoblographer: Besides the obvious chaos, cops trying to move people along, and everyone running away from it all, what made 9/11 difficult to shoot?

Michel: The difficulty of shooting 9/11 was technical. Nowadays, you would just shoot a frame and change the ISO to match exposure or delete bad frames if you ran out of space on a card. This was pre-digital and you had to be judicious about the number of frames left on a roll and make sure your exposures were exact. The other problem was dust. The day was clear and bright but as I advanced the debris cloud that enveloped downtown was like a thick fog. I only had one camera at the time so changing lenses or film was really tough. I was afraid if I didn’t cover up when I changed rolls the film would be ruined from dust. I would duck into a building lobby or stairway to change rolls or lenses then head back out until I finally ran out of film.

Phoblographer: With that said, most people chose to run away from what was going on. It looks like you shot for a fairly long time, so what made you want to stay and shoot vs just getting a few frames and then leaving?

Michel: I can’t explain what drew me to the scene when I should have pulled back. I wasn’t on assignment for a client, I was just shooting because it was history unfolding in front of my eyes and I felt compelled to for posterity.

Phoblographer: You haven’t looked at these images in a while and now that you’ve gone back and done so, what do feel? Do you think you could ever do it again (and I sincerely hope we don’t have to!)?

Michel: 9/11 was a galvanizing moment in many ways. I had only been in NYC for about a year at the time and felt connected to these people and this city more than anything I had ever experienced in my life. That’s when I became a New Yorker, not in years but in sentiment. Being a New Yorker is an attitude more than a region. What I learned that day was the first responders, colleagues, friends and helpful strangers are the ones who matter, not the buildings or debris. It was also such a profound experience it shaped the rest of my photography career. After that experience I found new purpose in my images and transitioned to portraits and lifestyle because, for me, it’s people who articulate the relevance of our time and define our shared experience. My contemporary images may look very different than their roots in journalism but visual storytelling and creating compelling images has been my goal since I started in photography.

For more of Michel’s work, be sure to check out his website, his image journal, his Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn