Anthony Whitaker’s famed photo of the World Trade Center’s ruins from the 9/11 attacks titled “Steel Standing” is a symbol of the day that changed the course of American history. Twenty years later its message of perseverance has a meaning that goes beyond the tragedy.
Whitaker was a ConEdison first responder and is also a photographer. He brought his camera with him the night he was working at Ground Zero and shot a 24-story, 207-foot-tall facade of tower No. 2. The destruction nearby of twisted metal, piled debris and smokey haze captured a poignant moment just after the World Trade Center towers fell.
“When I saw it, it was so majestic that night,” Whitaker told the AmNews. “It was like the ruin spoke to me. I am ‘steel standing.’ That rang in my head. It was like a mantra, a sense of healing. As an artist, when I got the transmission, that moved me to capture that image.”
A week later Whitaker was in the same spot during the early morning hours and was able to capture the shot again in the way he wanted. Whitaker said he had a sense the photo would be iconic for years to come.
“It’s very difficult to know for sure. I know the message that I got was very powerful,” he said. “In the context of 9/11 it’s explosive because of the towers falling, the meaning of steel standing. I felt that if I could get the message out, I felt that the potential was tremendous.”
The “Steel Standing” photo has cemented itself in the story of 9/11. It has been used widely over the last 20 years and has received numerous accolades. Whitaker received a congressional award from Congressman Charlie Rangel, New York State Legislative resolution award, a City Council proclamation, a Manhattan Borough President proclamation from Gale Brewer and a Citation for Merit from Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz.
The photo sits in the lobby of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building and was seen in the 2020 film “King of Staten Island.”
“You think about the amount of people that lost their life abruptly and how that could have been anyone,” Whitaker said. “Sometimes I think about that moment, and it impacts you. I think the message resonates with us as a people. It can resonate for the city itself, the country, for the world. ‘Steel Standing’ is unique and of its own. It’s unprecedented.”
In the last 20 years, the nation has gone through several changes from different presidents, mayors, a racial reckoning and now COVID-19. Whitaker says “Steel Standing” can take on several different meanings and moves with the times.
“It definitely resonates with this global pandemic without a doubt,” he said. “Same thing with George Floyd. He was only one man but because the world saw what happened it impacted the entire world. We as Black people are still standing and we live through adversity. We have to exercise those qualities of courage, strength and resilience to a greater degree than most people.”
Whitaker is in the process of launching a collection of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) for “Steel Standing.” NFTs are units of data stored on a digital ledger certifying a digital asset is unique.
As far as the original photo, Whitaker wants to eventually auction it along with the negatives when the time is right. However, he said auction houses have not been receptive to the photo’s value and believes institutional racism is involved.
“A lot of white people aren’t happy that I have a message so profound connected to an event that impacted the entire world,” he said. “We’re not supposed to own that or control that. I know I’ve received some salt from them because of that.”
Over the last four years, Whitaker has dedicated his life to developing a monument for “Steel Standing.” The sculpture will be a life-like replica of the World Trade Center frame on a marble base.
The first rendition of the “Steel Standing’ Monument will be 30 inches in height and is slated to be on permanent display within the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Whitaker wants to place a 50-foot monument in the center of the Oculus Transportation Hub near the World Trade Center memorial in Lower Manhattan.
“The monument is everything I wanted it to be,” he said. “It reflects what was in my soul and in my mind. The monument deserves to be at the Oculus.”