Behind the Scenes: Why This Photographer Went to Great Lengths to Rent a Helicopter to Shoot the 9/11 Tribute in Light

Noam Galai is one among many thousands that commemorate the tragic events of 9/11. Galai has observed this date for the past several years by photographing the two vertical columns of light known as the Tribute in Light. These twin beams are positioned right next to the World Trade Center in remembrance of the Twin Towers. To create the two light pillars, The Municipal Art Society of New York points 88 powerful searchlights up to the night sky. Photographing this commemorative event has been an annual ritual for Galai. It has been this way since the time he moved to New York in 2006.

noam galai

Every year, he photographs the Tribute in Light from a different angle. Not until the year 2011 did he decide to take things a step further.

Galai relates the decision to put a twist on his yearly practice.

“Two years ago, for the 10th anniversary, I decided to do something that was never done before: photograph the columns of lights from above. It was never done before because the sky over the city are ‘closed’ on that day. I managed to get all the approvals for my mission, and the results were beyond my expectations and one of the photos was chosen for LIFE Magazine Photos Of The Year 2011.”

noam galai helicopter 9/11

This year, Galai reprised that same concept. He started working with Getty Images, knowing he could do it again, but this time he wanted to make the images available for licensing. This way, his inspiring viewpoint of the Tribute in Light could be more than just a personal project. It could also be seen by the entire world.

noam galai tribute in light

Just like in 2011, this feat proved to have its own set of challenges. First there were all the permits that had to be accomplished. Once those were complied with came the realities of shooting from a helicopter. “There is no way to stable the camera and the best tool you can use is your steady hands. Most of the shots were taken at 1/25 or 1/30. This is a hard thing to do while on the ground – so from the helicopter it’s even harder. Way harder.”

tribute in light

Being more media savvy this time around, Galai had his images ready within minutes of landing for anyone wanting to publish them. Sure enough, they were picked-up immediately by some of the principal publications in the world.

See Galai’s touching shots of the Tribute in Light here.

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Patricia Ramos

Patricia Ramos

I am a freelance photographer who is no stranger to smudged lenses, long hours in front of the computer, heavy camera bags (and the back aches that ensued) and missing lens caps. If you know what I'm talking about, you probably have as much love and passion for photography as I do.