The events of 9/11 remain the most photographed in history. It’s from out of that mass witness and record that one image, the 9/11 photograph that still hardly anyone has ever seen, seemed to challenge our deepest notions of not only what it meant to die – and eventually be partially reconstructed – in the new data age, but what confronting death, as witnesses or consumers of information, said about ourselves as witnesses or consumers of information. Making it all the more arresting, perhaps, was its stark, almost calm anonymity. Nobody had a clue as to who the photo’s subject, seen plummeting from the very top of the North Tower, could be. Countless newspapers and wires ran the image the following morning, but almost immediately got so much shit from readers that for most outlets there became no other option but to pull the photo. Eleven years on, the Falling Man is still suspended. A version of this piece originally ran on September 11, 2011.
The Falling Man’s descent into eternity lasted about 10 seconds.
Richard Drew, a photojournalist on assignment with the Associated Press who had been preparing to photograph a fashion show that morning but who was quickly dispatched to the towers by his editor, managed to snap a 12-frame sequence of the figure in free fall. Like hundreds others that morning who were forced out from the upper floors of the Twin Towers by unbearable heat and smoke and the lack of any escape by stairs or roof, he appears in Drew’s sort of flip-book chronicle to be tumbling wildly out of control, the wind and sheer velocity of the dive ripping off a white tunic just moments before certain death.
But of the dozen frames in Drew’s otherwise chaotic, painfully mortal sequence, one stands apart. It’s a quiet, intimate image. And compositionally sound: the “jumper” is upside down, perfectly vertical, straddling the upper third of the frame and splitting the North and South Towers. The Falling Man seems relaxed. In control. Content. In an Esquire piece from 2003, Tom Junod writes that if the man weren’t falling, he “might very well be flying.”
Drew’s image ran the morning of Sept. 12 on page seven of The New York Times, as well as in countless papers across the country and the world. Sublime and confusing, it profiled an incomprehensible decision, the gravity of which stung no matter how many times we looked. The Falling Man was unidentified, yet he encapsulated the day’s horror. And even without a name, he personalized it too.
Readers were incensed. Had the press no decency? Tasteless, crass, voyeuristic. From the Times to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, dailies pulled the image and were forced to go on the immediate defensive as they wiped the image from their online records. Don Delillo didn’t use the image on the cover of his 2006 novel “Falling Man,” though in 2007, the Times would run it on the front of the Book Review. But mostly the image hasn’t been seen in print since 2001. Drew has called it “the most famous photograph no one has seen.”
But self-censorship couldn’t wipe the Falling Man from our collective memory. Peter Cheney, a reporter at the Toronto Globe and Mail, was soon assigned to figure out just who this Falling Man was. Junod, of course, picked up where Cheney left off, eventually coming to Jonathan Briley, an audio engineer at Windows on the World, the restaurant occupying the top floors – 106 and 107 – of the North Tower, as the man most likely occupying Drew’s polarizing frame.
Ultimately, the identity of the jumper remains unknown, and maybe it’s best we leave it that way. “The picture is his cenotaph,” Junod concludes in his Esquire piece (which was followed by a documentary and an epitaph). “And like the monuments dedicated to the memory of unknown soldiers everywhere, it asks that we look at it, and make one simple acknowledgment. That we have known who the Falling Man is all along.”
Falling Man, a documentary released in 2006. Said Jack Gentul of his wife Elaine, who fell from a top floor of the South Tower: “It must have felt like flying.”
Sept. 11 was the most photographed event in history, even if it happened just before the widespread proliferation of cell phone cameras. We were still years away from the true social media revolution, which enables sharing personal information and crowdsourcing efforts to unprecedented degrees. Hell, a lot of people were still tapping AOL through dial-up modems when the arc of history forever changed.
Given the attacks occurred in this gray area of America online, it makes sense that even after much scrupulous investigative reportage that procured a solid theory, the Falling Man remains an enigma. But now, a decade later, in a world where so much of ourselves – whether we like it or not – live in the great panopticon that is the internet, I can’t help but think whether or not we’d have a definitive name for this unknown soldier if he’d have taken fate into his own hands in another time and place. If 9/11 were to happen today, would there be any mystery behind the Falling Man?
Half of U.S. adults are on social networks, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The Pew’s phone survey reached 2,277 people, of which 65 percent of internet users claimed they’re on social networks. Half of respondents – and this is a first – claimed to do the same whether they use the internet or not. What’s more, over a quarter of U.S. adults check-in with geosocial services like Foursquare and Gowalla.
There’s no report in Junod’s piece of Briley ever calling or texting friends or family during his final minutes. And it makes me sour and wince and generally feel awful just thinking about it, but it stands to reason that if the attacks were to play out in today’s climate, the Falling Man could very well be registered on Facebook or Twitter or what have you, even updating his status amid the initial waves of confusion and panic. He wouldn’t be alone, of course, in sounding the alarm this way – and the sobering reality is we’d be foolish to think that by wading through a dire digital deluge in real time we could somehow come to the aid of all those trapped above and around the gashes of passenger planes.
Drew, 64, standing in what’s now a pedestrian plaza near the Goldman Sachs building, where he photographed the Falling Man (Image: Yahoo News)
But these would be vital clues. After the fact they could potentially match up with timestamps on his and others’ chaotic, painfully mortal downward sequences. We could even look to recent rioting in London and Vancouver, two instances that are still showcasing the incredible power of crowd-sourcing identities. In both cases, Samaritan coders and hackers and law enforcement alike built tools and message boards to put names to the faces of looters and malcontents who’d been caught on camera. This was in the name of justice, if not public shaming. Social media might have made it much easier to spread the photograph outside of the mainstream press. But would the Internet masses be harder pressed to also affirmatively identify the jumper?
Whether we’d want to is beyond me. Maybe doing so would help to further personalize the horror. Maybe it would be tasteless, crass or voyeuristic, a tearing away of dignity. Either way, Drew’s Falling Man – the unknown, silhouetted proxy of everyone forced to leap that day – was likely the last of its kind.