On Sept. 11, 2001, photographer Lyle Owerko's camera bag sat beside his door, still packed with multiple cameras and lenses from a trip to Africa. Jet-lagged, he was sitting in his apartment in New York's Tribeca neighbourhood when the attack on the World Trade Center began.

"I heard the first plane crash.... It sounded so close," Owerko said. The 43-year-old photographer, born in Calgary, raced onto the street and began shooting. The pictures he took were from a street-level viewpoint, bringing an immediacy and intimacy to the horror of the scene.

A 400-millimetre telephoto lens he didn't normally carry but had taken to Africa allowed him to capture the image that would become the unforgettable cover of Time magazine's 9/11 special issue.


Canadian photographer Lyle Owerko's photo graced the cover of Time magazine's Sept. 11, 2001, special edition. (Lyle Owerko/Vernon Jolly Inc.)

"When that second plane hit, I knew that the world changed. You could just feel it. I just knew that the camera I was holding in my hand contained lightning in a bottle."

Owerko's cover shot and subsequent shots from 9/11 and the days that followed won critical acclaim throughout the news and photography worlds. The Time cover was listed as one of the top 40 magazine covers of the last 40 years by the American Society of Magazine Editors. Despite the praise — including recognition from U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — Owerko remains uneasy with the image.  

"That 9/11 cover is just hard to wrap your hands around. And it's even something hard to be proud of. It's merely a spectacular witness image... it's not an image that's the best use of my imagination," he said.  

Owerko's photos from 9/11 and the days following have been compiled into a book titled And No Birds Sang.  

Owerko has gone on to produce critically acclaimed documentary and fine art photography, returning numerous times to Africa to document the Samburu people of Northern Kenya and the tribe's struggle to retain its traditional way of life.  

"I don't want to put myself into tragic and disruptive atmospheres every day in my line of work. I want to celebrate the human condition," Owerko said.  

"That image," referring to the Time magazine cover, "won't benefit my career. Not until I've put another decade under my belt in this industry. It's a footnote, but not a summary."