One of Glasgow’s local success stories visited the Rotary Club on Thursday afternoon to share his experience photographing the events in New York City following the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center.
Patrick Witty, a native of Glasgow and 1990 graduate of Glasgow High School, is the international picture editor at TIME magazine and was able to capture now-famous images of what happened on the streets of New York City on Sept. 11.
Witty was asleep when the first plane hit the World Trade Center that morning, he told the Rotary Club, but he was awakened by the sound of screams on the roof. As he started to make his way upstairs, his cell phone rang with a friend giving him the news. Once on his rooftop, Witty had a clear view of the Twin Towers, with smoke streaming from the north tower.
“We instantly assumed it was an accident, it was a Cessna or something. Terrorism didn’t cross our minds at that point,” Witty said. “It wasn’t until the second plane hit that we realized the gravity of the situation.”
After the second tower was hit, Witty took his camera and headed downtown. The city was in shock, he said, and Witty himself could only think about taking photographs.
“I kept looking up at the towers on fire ... It was terrifying in many ways,” Witty said. “I think the only reason I managed to be there was because I had my camera and I was making pictures.”
Witty captured his most well-known photograph just as the first tower fell. He had turned around to take a picture of the crowd’s faces as they looked up at the towers, and as he was taking the photograph he heard a loud crack behind him as the tower collapsed. The image he captured has been published all over the world. After that moment, Witty said, the crowd scattered.
Witty was wearing a Witty’s Muffler Realign-ment T-shirt, a souvenir from his family’s Glasgow business, and he tore off the bottom half of the shirt to make a mask for his face. He continued to wander the city, taking photos of survivors and debris.
The days and weeks that followed the attack were the most strange, Witty said. The city was in a state of shock, and memorial walls of missing persons posters cropped up all over New York City. The posters were most poignant to Witty, because he said he knew when he saw those pictures that those people were not coming back. The survivors could only pick up the pieces of their city, and they rallied.
“It was a renewed sense of identity, a renewed sense of being a New Yorker,” Witty said. Flags flew from buildings and hung in taxi cab windows all over New York.
While the patriotism and sorrow were real, Witty said that today, 10 years later, New Yorkers don’t sit around and talk about 9/11. Ground Zero has become a tourist attraction and a construction site, and Witty hasn’t been back. But talking about the experience to his friends and family at the Rotary Club was a good thing, he said.
“I was a bit hesitant to talk about this because I don’t really look at these pictures and I don’t really revisit this ... but I think it’s important to remember it,” Witty said.
Witty became interested in photography at a young age, when his father brought home a camera he had found in the road. From there, Witty said his interest in photography continued to grow and deepen.
“I’ve always loved the still image. I’ve had a relationship with still photography forever,” Witty said.
Witty attended Western Kentucky University, and he had his first internship at the Glasgow Daily Times. By the time Witty graduated WKU in 1996, he had interned at newspapers across the country, from phoenix to Detroit, and he had interned with National Geographic Magazine.
After working at the Chicago Tribune for a year after graduation, Witty became a freelance photographer and lived in Washington, D.C., before moving to New York City.
“It turned out to be the right move for sure,” said Witty, who still lives in New York City and has a 3-year-old son, Emerson.
In 2004, Witty was hired as the international picture editor for the New York Times. Witty said he made the decision to transition to editor because he liked others’ photographs more than his own, and he still loves editing.
As the international picture editor at the New York Times and for the last year as the international picture editor at TIME, Witty has been in charge of coordinating all photographers and photography assignments overseas.
“It’s stressful because I have to send people into war zones. I have to send people into disaster zones. I have to send people into famine zones,” Witty said.
Witty likes being behind the scenes, he said, and he called himself “an advocate for photography and an advocate for photography people don’t want to look at.”
“My ultimate goal is to bring issues to light,” he said.
People are sometimes surprised when he tells them he is from a small town in Kentucky, Witty said, and he often has to describe exactly where Glasgow is located. He comes back about once a year to visit his mother, Wanda, who still lives in Glasgow, and his siblings.
“I always like coming back,” Witty said.
Being from Glasgow has given Witty a different perspective on the United States than some of his fellow New Yorkers who have always lived in the big city. Witty considers his small town upbringing an advantage.
“I’ve always felt that people I meet, people that lived somewhere small and then moved somewhere big, have a bigger perspective on the United States,” Witty said.