Thomas E. Franklin on Capturing the Iconic Image of 9/11

Updated: Oct 17

By Hope Chookazian




Franklin with his famous 9/11 photo after his lecture (photo by Hope Chookazian)

Purchase alum Thomas E. Franklin returned to his old stomping grounds on Monday, Sept. 13 to speak with students about photojournalism and his iconic flag-raising photo from 9/11.


Franklin felt it was his duty to record history that day. Little did he know, his quick thinking would produce one of the most famous accounts of history.


Franklin, who has been a photojournalist for the Bergan Record since 1993 and now teaches at Montclair State University, spoke on what led him to join the field in the first place.


It was the moment he saw French photographer Frank Fournier’s “The Agony of Omayra Sánchez,” a 1985 photograph of a Columbian girl drowning in a mudslide. The photo sparked controversy and global attention to natural disaster preparedness in Columbia.


“I remembered seeing this picture and a lightbulb going off in my head thinking that’s what I wanted to do,” Franklin said. “I can remember it like it was yesterday. It was a turning point for me.”


Franklin began to work for a local newspaper that is now known as the Journal News in White Plains, New York while attending classes, being a resident assistant and playing college basketball. While it was a heavy load, it helped shape who he is and the path that led him to where he is today.


On Sept. 11, 2001, Franklin was at work when the report of a plane hitting the north tower came in.


“Our office in Jersey City was across the [Hudson] river from New York City,” Franklin recalled. “I ran over to the window and saw a gaping hole in the north tower.”


Then, he grabbed his equipment and headed to Exchange Place in Jersey City.


“They had a triage center set up taking care of injured people brought after the second tower collapsed,” he said. “It was this surreal scene of people being brought off boats and treated by medical personnel.”


Franklin recounted trying to find a way across the river and by early afternoon he was able to talk his way onto a boat. “I remember thinking, what was I about to see? What am I getting myself into?”

Ambulance trapped in debris (photo by Thomas E. Franklin)

As Franklin showed the audience his photos from that day, he stopped on one of an ambulance with the dust and debris wiped off of the emergency logo.


“You try and find the storytelling aspects when taking pictures,” he said. “What really drew my attention was they were looking for survivors.”


To capture his most iconic photo, he relied on his knowledge and split-second decision-making to capture a series of photographs of three New York City firefighters standing on the rubble of what was once the twin towers raising the American flag.


“I saw [the firefighters] and I quickly got into position,” he said. “I made those decisions in five seconds or less, and only two frames came out good.”




At the time he snapped the photo, he had no idea it would be one of the most widely recognized photographs in history. In 2002, he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for the picture.


Later, the picture would go on to be featured on USPS postage stamps that raised over $10 million for families affected by 9/11.


“As a media person, as a journalist, there was nothing better than something I created used to help others,” he said.


Despite the success of his work, Franklin has since had to adapt to the everchanging advance of technology and the prominence of video. He discussed Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, which theorizes that the most successful people put in a lot of time to get good at their craft. Just as he did to become a prominent photojournalist, Franklin put in his 10,000 hours all over again as he taught himself to film and edit.


In closing, Franklin offered advice he received from Lester Holt, a news anchor on the weekday edition of NBC Nightly News and Dateline NBC, that has shown through his work.

“Everyone should be like a Swiss army knife,” he said. "You need to have multiple skills and the tools to do a variety of things.”

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