Jessica Lynn Logan
September 9, 2008
The Controversy of The Falling Man
On September 11, 2001, a photograph, which has been labeled The Falling Man, was taken during the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. In the middle of the chaos, a journalist named Richard Drew aimed his camera and randomly snapped pictures of the victims who were leaping to their deaths from the top floors of the Twin Towers. As Drew focused in on one particular victim, his camera captured a series of 12 frames of this person falling to his death. The Falling Man is a single frame from this series that was captured at 9:41:15 a.m. and has become one of the most controversial photographs ever taken. When the image was unveiled through hundreds of newspapers across the nation on September 12, 2001, a public outcry of disgust forced the media into self censorship, and the photograph was never run again. The immediate problems with the image seemed to be the lack of respect for the victim, the false portrayal of the victim being in control of his fate, and the fact that the public was not prepared to face such a graphic and personal image as that displayed in The Falling Man.
After the attacks on the World Trade Center, the American public was in a state of shock and turned to the media in search of answers to the events that had taken place. When the photograph of The Falling Man appeared in the newspapers, both the public and the media quickly realized that too much information can be as harmful as too little information. Even though it was obvious that thousands of people had perished that day, it was too graphic to view a single person during the last few seconds of his life. The public viewed the image as disrespectful and as an invasion of privacy by singling out this individual from the many who had made the same decision to jump that day. It was later determined that the gentleman in the picture was a 43-year old sound engineer named Jonathan Briley who worked in the North Tower restaurant. Imagining the decision that Briley was forced to make in the last moments of his life based on possible religious beliefs and devotion to family was simply too much for the public to absorb. The photograph of Jonathan Briley made the events of September eleventh even more personal to the American public, and it fueled feelings of anger, shock, grief, and hopelessness. When viewing war footage, it is often easy for one to overlook the hundreds that may have been killed as a bomb destroys a building, but more often than not the same individual will turn away in the event that a single person is shot at point blank range. As the media realized its mistake in running the photograph, a decision was made to focus on the positive aspect of heroic acts, and The Falling Man was never run again.
Almost everyone has heard the phrase that a photograph is worth a thousand words, but is it a fact that those words are always the complete truth? In photography, truth is not always depicted in a single frame, and this fact seems to be the case with The Falling Man. In the picture of Jonathan Briley, there appears to be a sense of calmness and control in his posture. He appears to be at peace with his decision and the fact that his death is only seconds away. Outside of the frame of the picture, complete chaos has taken over the immediate area in the form of explosions, falling debris, sirens, and cries for help. Briley appears almost heroic in his decision to take back control of his life and his destiny from those who were trying to take it away. If the public would have had access to the other 11 frames of this series of photos, it would have been clear that this definitely was not the case. In the other frames, Briley has no more control over his fall than any of the other victims that made the same choice that dreadful day. In fact, only the single frame that appeared to the public shows Briley in a postured fall. The other frames reveal him flipping and grasping in an uncontrollable attempt to hold on to what was left of his life. Other amazing information hidden in the photograph is the fact that the fall only lasted approximately 10 seconds, and that Briley was travelling at about 150 miles per hour when the picture was taken. Shortly after the famous image was captured, Briley’s shirt was ripped from his body from the speed of the fall. As opposed to the media’s hope that the public would view this photo as a symbol of stoicism and willpower, the public became enraged with the misrepresentation of Jonathon Briley’s portrait of death.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the media bombarded viewers with a constant flow of information concerning the attacks, and the public was eager to receive this information. People could not seem to get enough information to understand how this tragic event could have ever occurred on American soil. Images of the hijacked planes crashing into the towers, flames and explosions engulfing the upper levels of the buildings, and the collapse of each tower were run constantly in the newspapers and on television for weeks after the attacks. All of the horrible details of the day’s events were generally accepted by the public, so it seems almost unnatural that the public could not accept the single photograph of The Falling Man. Throughout recent history, photography has served as a tool to record events that have shaped our country and others around the world. Pictures from the Holocaust, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War are viewed as historic documentation of these events. Some of the most unnerving photos of these events serve as reminders of the horrors of war and of the evil of mankind itself. Obviously, The Falling Man was an image that the American public was not ready to accept so early and so unexpectedly. The difference in acceptance of photographs lies in the fact that a person seeking historical data is often prepared for graphic information as opposed to graphic information being displayed publicly without any advanced warning.
Journalists, photographers, and the media have assumed the responsibility of capturing information and spreading this information to the masses in hopes of uncovering certain truths concerning historical events. The lingering questions are at what point does the media’s responsibility cross the unethical line, and what stipulates valuable historical information. In his article named The Falling Man, Tom Junod states, “The photographer is no stranger to history; he knows it is something that happens later. In the actual moment history is made, it is usually made in terror and confusion, and so it is up to people like him – paid witnesses – to have the presence of mind to attend to its manufacture”(1). Clearly, this statement holds true in the case of journalist Richard Drew and his actions on September 11, 2001. He performed his duties as a professional in a surrounding of pure terror and confusion. His photograph of The Falling Man was not staged, predicted, or conceived. The image captured was taken in a matter of seconds, and will be viewed by future generations as a statement of the horrors that occurred on that historical day. In public opinion though, The Falling Man crossed the unethical line for its lack of respect for the victim, the false portrayal of the victim’s composure in response to his impending death, and the fact that the public was unprepared to receive such a graphic and personal image so soon after the World Trade Center attacks.
Drew, Richard. The Falling Man. 11 September 2001. World Famous Photos. October 2007. 10 September 2008. .
Junod, Tom. “The Falling Man.” Esquire. 11 September 2008. . 10 September 2008