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September 11, 2011

The Falling Man

Richard Drew, photographer for the Associated Press, took the single most important image of the 21st century. There were those at the moment who argued that taking such a photograph was sick, and onlookers demanded he turn his camera away. "Why can't you be a human being ?" When first published, it spawned thousands of angry letters to numerous newspapers decrying their decision to publish such a very obvious "seconds before death" image.

Photography has the power to capture a singular moment in time, with all its emotions, confusion, and harshness, like no other medium. Moments we may not want to remember are burned into our consciousness with a flash.

I was in a high school science class on 9/11. I remember hearing the announcement over the loudspeaker, then at a break to lunch, a classmate told me it was far worse than what I had overheard. He had been "lucky" enough to be at weight training, wherein a television tuned to CNN bore witness to the collapse of the towers. "People were jumping", he said. That stuck with me, but I simply couldn't comprehend that. In the muted chaos that ensued (I lived in Maryland at the time, and many of my classmates' parents worked in Washington DC), that conversation and that look just locked in.

As a painter, it is easy for me to visualize almost anything. But I had a hard time grasping what had happened. Even replays from earlier broadcasts didn't really kick it home. Then I saw Richard Drew's photograph. The magnitude of the sheer evil that had been brought upon my country was concentrated into a single unknown man, falling in frame in front of the twin towers that would soon join him.

I wonder how we can begin to really describe what we felt that day to the future generations too young to have seen it. You can try to put into words what it was like. You can show them video on YouTube of the towers falling, smoke billowing, people screaming. But there is nothing that has surfaced in the decade since that can summarize the initial feelings of all Americans like the image below.

A few years ago, Esquire magazine published an article by Tom Junod about the photographer who had snapped the picture and the quest to identify the falling man. I will close my post with Drew's photograph and Junod's words:


Is Jonathan Briley the Falling Man? He might be. But maybe he didn't jump from the window as a betrayal of love or because he lost hope. Maybe he jumped to fulfill the terms of a miracle. Maybe he jumped to come home to his family. Maybe he didn't jump at all, because no one can jump into the arms of God.

Oh, no. You have to fall.

Yes, Jonathan Briley might be the Falling Man. But the only certainty we have is the certainty we had at the start: At fifteen seconds after 9:41 a.m., on
September 11, 2001, a photographer named Richard Drew took a picture of a man falling through the sky -- falling through time as well as through space. The picture went all around the world, and then disappeared, as if we willed it away. One of the most famous photographs in human history became an unmarked grave, and the man buried inside its frame -- the Falling Man -- became the Unknown Soldier in a war whose end we have not yet seen. Richard Drew's photograph is all we know of him, and yet all we know of him becomes a measure of what we know of ourselves. The picture is his cenotaph, 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.


-In memorium.

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posted by CAC at 07:30 AM

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