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Last Updated: Friday, 30 September 2005, 16:36 GMT 17:36 UK
Picture power: Fire-escape drama
The World Press Photo foundation celebrates the 50th anniversary of its annual photographic competition this year.

In the third of five pieces by photographers talking about their award-winning work, Stanley Forman describes how he captured the 1975 photo of 19-year-old Diana Bryant and her two-year-old goddaughter Tiare Jones falling from a broken fire escape during an apartment house fire in Boston, Massachusetts.

Stanley Forman's winning photo

The picture was first published in the Boston Herald and then in newspapers around the world to much hostile reader reaction. The media was charged with invading the privacy of Diana Bryant, who died as a result of the fall, and pandering to sensationalism. Two-year-old Tiare lived.

But, the picture also prompted officials in Boston to rewrite its laws regarding fire escape safety. Fire safety groups around the country used the photo to promote similar efforts in other cities.


It was 22 July 1975. I was about to leave the offices of the Boston Herald for the day.

A call came in about a fire in one of the city's older sections of Victorian row houses. I rushed to the house and followed one of the engines to the fire. I ran to the back of the building, because on the way there they kept yelling for a ladder truck because there were people trapped in the building on the fire escape.

The fireman was reaching out for the ladder when suddenly the fire escape gave way
I ran to the back of the building and when I looked up there was a woman and a child on the fire escape and they were basically leaning at the furthest point from the building because of the heat of the fire behind them.

In the meantime, a firefighter called Bob O'Neil had climbed on to the front of the building on the roof and saw the pair on the fire escape. He lowered himself on to the fire escape to rescue them.

I took a position where I could photograph what I thought was an impending routine rescue. The ladder went up to pick them up - they were about 50ft (15m) up. Mr O'Neill had just told Diana Bryant that he was going to step onto the ladder and asked her to hand the baby to him.

Debate

Mr O'Neil was reaching out for the ladder when suddenly the fire escape gave way.

I was shooting pictures as they were falling - then I turned away. It dawned on me what was happening and I didn't want to see them hit the ground. I can still remember turning around and shaking.

It transpired that I wouldn't have seen them hit the ground as they fell behind a fence where the bins were. When I did turn around I didn't see them but I saw the firefighter still clinging onto the ladder with one arm, like a monkey, with all his gear. He hoisted himself back up the fire escape to safety.

Any time there are stories about fire safety issues or issues such as those people went through with the hurricane in New Orleans, it wakes people up
They say the woman broke the child's fall. The woman died later that night.

At the time, I didn't know that the picture was going to be so big or have such an impact. When I started looking at the negatives I was looking at the rescue picture, where they were holding on to each other. I didn't even look at the next frame, I didn't know exactly what I'd got. I knew I had shot them coming down, I didn't realise how dramatic it was until I had developed the film.

The picture was first published in the Boston Herald and then picked up and published in newspapers all over the world. There was much debate about showing such a horrific picture.

I was never bothered by the controversy. When you think about it, I don't think it was that horrific. The woman at the time was not deceased; we didn't show a dead person on the front page. She did die, which is a horrible thing. I didn't think it was that bad, but then I am the photographer, so I'm biased.

Any time there are stories about fire safety issues or issues such as those people went through with the hurricane in New Orleans, it wakes people up.

My photograph prompted people to go out and check their fire escapes and ushered in a law that meant that the owner of the property is responsible for fire-escape safety. It was also used in many fire-safety pamphlets for many years.

Thirty years later it's nice to know that I did the right thing. I haven't seen anything like it since. I've seen pictures that I wish I'd made but I haven't seen anything as dramatic as that, and I've seen some pretty good pictures.

When you say a picture tells a thousand words, this one certainly told 10,000.

I think newspapers are getting killed by TV. I'm not in newspapers any more. I didn't leave because I thought this was going to happen. I left because I needed a change. I think newspapers are getting killed by TV, and TV is getting killed by itself. Because there are only so many pieces of the pie, all these cable and sports and things like that.

I'm glad I'm at the end of it. It'd be pretty tough to come into it now. It's not as much fun as it used to be, I can tell you that.




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