The images from the September 11th tragedy are no doubt stuck in all of our minds. For most of us, the phrase "9/11" instantly reminds us of a plane hitting the World Trade Center, smoke billowing out of the two buildings, or the heroic images of rescue workers attempting to save lives after the buildings had collapsed. Among the 1000's of images taken on that day, Richard Drew's "The Falling Man" has been both the most controversial as well as the most forgotten. This powerful documentary explorers the stigma surrounding one of the most censored images in US history.
Warning, this image and documentary are extremely graphic and very difficult for many to view even 14 years after the event.
Like most everyone reading this article, I can specifically remember exactly where I was the moment I heard about the first plane crashing into the World Trade Center. The mixed bag of emotions I felt seeing the smoke rise up from the North Tower immediately after it had been hit are still easy to relive. The horror of watching the second plane strike the South Tower is almost as vivid now as it was when I first witnessed it on TV back in college. As difficult as it is to watch, I try to make an effort each September to reflect on the horrible events that happened that day in New York City. Many could argue that 9/11 is the single most impactful event in world history since WWII and the consequences of that attack on US soil can be felt around the world even today.
There is one photograph that many of us remember seeing in the immediate days after the attacks that has sort of disappeared from the collection of images used to summarize September 11th. The photograph of a man jumping to his death, known as "The Falling Man," has almost completely been erased from history. On one hand, the image shows the decision of a World Trade worker jumping from the top of the building just seconds before his immanent death. On the other hand, the photo shows no graphic portrayal of death and to those uninformed of the context of the photo, it might not even be clear what is happening to the jumper.
Regardless of how you feel about this image in general, as a photographer it is pretty interesting to hear the first person story on how Richard Drew captured the photograph, as well as the ethical debate news agencies were faced with in running the image for publication. Images from war have always straddled the delicate line of being exploitative and newsworthy. "The Falling Man" is no different. In the documentary above, an investigator even goes as far as trying to identify the individual person captured in the photo. Once the man in the photo is identified, it brings all sorts of ethical, religious, and privacy issues to the victim's family.
The team that produced this documentary did a really excellent job. The first 30 minutes of this video captures the emotions of the day very well. The interviews with some the spouses of suspected jumpers was extremely touching and often painful to watch. I don't think I have ever really thought about the perspective of these family members who have had to face the truth about how their family members ultimately died. The documentary also made me wonder if I, as a photographer, could have continued to capture these powerful images as I saw them before my eyes or if I would have shunned away from capturing anything. I can only imagine what it must have been like to witness these events up close as they unfolded. The documentary also really makes you consider what the final hour of life must have been like for those trapped above the impact zone. As sad and depressing as these thoughts can be, I think it is important for us to try to understand both sides of the experience, whether that be the observers who filmed and photographed the events or those who were unfortunately victims of the attacks.