Where were you when you found out two planes had hit the World Trade Centre nearly four and a half years ago? What were you doing?
It’s a common question that comes up in discussions about the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11th, 2001, a date that has been seared on the memories of those in Western society for at least a generation to come.
It’s an easy question, a comfortable one about an uncomfortable subject, one that skirts around the deeper issues and debates that surround the terrible events that occurred that day. But it can be one that gently brings people in to a discussion of those issues, an easy path to a difficult subject.
And then there are the questions about that day that we only ask ourselves. Those that prompt a difficult discussion we can only really have with ourselves. What if I was there? How would I react? What if it was me?
When the finer, nastier, details of such a horrific event are kept from us, or at least kept vague so our thoughts can skip over them gently before leaving them behind, that discussion with ourselves is an easy one to have. We can’t think too deeply about what we would do in such a situation if we don’t have all those details.
But with September 11th there was, at least initially, an overwhelming amount of detail in the coverage of the atrocities. And there was one picture in particular that brought in to sharp focus what it was like for the people working in the World Trade Centre that day.
A new documentary being shown on Channel 4 this month tells the story of The Falling Man, a photo taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew, who took many of the shocking pictures of that morning. But this one in particular struck a chord with all those who saw it, causing reactions of shock, horror and distaste in equal measure.
It was the picture of a man, a worker in the World Trade Centre, mid-fall after having jumped, or fallen, from the burning building in which he had previously been trapped. It was one of many pictures taken that day of people falling from the Twin Towers, but it was this one in particular that editors chose to publish the day after. What marks it out is the seeming poise of the falling man. He is head first, in direct parallel with the lines of the building behind him. His shirt, or jacket, billows around him, but his arms are by his side as if he’s flying down, purposeful in his trajectory. His right leg is slightly bent at the knee, in a seemingly relaxed posture. He looks distinctly untroubled by what’s happening.
Of course it’s not real, or at least not a realistic representation of what happened in the sense that it looks like he is ‘flying’ down in such a purposeful manner. If you see the photos that come before and after in the sequence of shots that Drew took of the falling man, you’ll see that he was as uncontrolled as any of the other falling people.
(We can’t call them ‘jumpers’. According to the New York Medical Examiner’s Office a ‘jumper’ is “someone who goes into the office that morning knowing they are going to commit suicide. These people weren’t jumpers, they were forced out by the smoke or flames or blown out.”)
But the impact the photo has on the viewer, because it seemingly captures a moment of pure calm in amongst all the chaos, makes it the most real photo of all of the images taken or recorded on that day. It makes us think what it was really like for those people in the floors above where the planes hit. It leads us to those questions – what would I have done? Would I have jumped?
According to Franz Kruger, a lecturer in journalism at Wits University in South Africa, photos relating to human death prompt one or more of three reactions in people. “Sometimes,” he says, “there is a morbid fascination, a kind of voyeurism that draws us to spectacle much as people have sometimes enjoyed executions as a spectator sport. Sometimes there is a horror at having to witness a terrible event, at having unpleasantness thrust on us. And there is a third reaction, the feeling that it is improper to invade the privacy of the person in the image and those close to him or her. Outrage is felt on their behalf, so to speak.”
It was the last reaction that was common when Drew’s falling man picture was published. Newspapers around America found themselves having to justify their use of the shot as complaints poured in that they were exploiting a man’s death and that it was a huge invasion of privacy – both his and his loved ones. It was quickly buried and became something only found on websites that dealt in the more gruesome side of photography. In a way people’s reaction to the photo actually made it the pornography they claimed it was.
“The picture was a very important part of the story,” said Drew, defending his photograph in an interview with The Digital Journalist. “It wasn’t just a building falling down, there were people involved in this. This is how it affected people’s lives at that time, and I think that is why it’s an important picture. I didn’t capture this person’s death. I captured part of his life. This is what he decided to do, and I think I preserved that. That has been very important to me.”
Drew is something of an old hand at capturing moments of history. He was stood near Robert Kennedy when he was shot and killed and continued to record the event as Kennedy lay dying and his wife Ethel was begging him and the other photographers to stop taking photos. Drew is, and always has been, a consummate professional, with all the stoicism required to remain in that mindset.
“[The Falling Man photo] is part of the history that I have been able to photograph in my lifetime for the AP,” he said - he’s worked at the Associated Press for over 30 years, “whether it be a car wreck, a fashion show or this thing. I just have to place it in that file drawer where you say, ‘I have covered major stuff’, and this will go in that major file drawer. I just go on and do my thing. I have covered the stock market since this has happened and whatever else has to be done. That’s what I will do.”
Drew was at something of less historical import that morning – a maternity fashion show. He was shooting the pregnant models backstage when a CNN cameraman heard there had been an explosion at the World Trade Centre. Drew paid little heed – there had been rumours about such things happening since the car bombing in 1993. But then the news came through that a plane had hit one of the towers and the pregnant models were quickly forgotten.
He took a lot of photos that morning - the debris that littered the ground; the stunned people wandering around; the injured as they were brought to the ambulances. Then people started jumping.
“I looked up and there were people coming out of the building,” he said. “Falling or jumping from the building. We must have seen six or eight or maybe more people and I was photographing them as they were coming down. It was quite something to see.”
When the first building started to fall down Drew carried on taking photos. But he only managed to take eight shots before he was dragged away by a rescue worker. Before the first building came down, however, USA Today estimates that at least 200 people jumped out.
They started just after the first plane hit the north tower, and nearly all of them came from that tower, which was hit first and collapsed last. USA Today claims that less than a dozen came from the south tower. Their fall would have lasted just 10 seconds and they would have struck the ground at around 150 miles an hour. This would not have been fast enough for those that fell to have lost consciousness on the way down, but would have brought about instant death upon impact.
But why did they jump? For a start the heat and smoke would have been unbearable. When the first plane hit the north tower, heat and smoke would have been forced through the elevator shafts and stairways both above and below the floors where the plane made impact.
In writer Tom Junod’s feature on The Falling Man photo for Esquire magazine, a startling piece of journalism that sees Junod searching for the identity of the man in the picture, he comes across some very different reactions from the relatives of those victims who came up as possible Falling Men.
The relatives of Norberto Hernandez, a pastry chef who worked in the Windows On The World restaurant on the 107th floor of the north tower, refused to believe he would jump, saying that it would have been a betrayal to his family. They believe he would have tried to survive.
A mother from Connecticut, whose two sons died in the attacks, saw their jumping as a loss of hope on their part, and something she would have to come to terms with.
The sister of the most likely candidate, Jonathan Briley, another worker at Windows On The World, says she can understand why he might have jumped. He had asthma, and in the heat and the smoke, she can see he would have done anything just to breathe, even if it was for one last time.
Unlike these people, most of us are lucky enough not to have to look at the Falling Man photo and think that it might be a relative. But it remains a little too close to home. Many of the arguments in favour of publishing the photo say it’s as much a representation of history as say, the iconic photo of the shooting of a Vietcong suspect by the South Vietnamese chief of police; or Drew’s very own photo of Robert Kennedy’s death. These are shown with some regularity and in fact censorship only usually occurs with regards to photos of death when they are thought to be too gruesome, rather than because they’re thought of as an invasion of privacy.
So why the violent reaction to The Falling Man? Because it is so very close to home. We are used to watching footage on the news of the effects of suicide bomb attacks in the Middle East, footage of people dying in Africa, and we are used to distancing ourselves from what that actually means because they are happening to a people from a culture different to our own.
As American academic Susan Sontag says, “The more remote or exotic the place is, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead or dying.” But the terrorist attacks of September 11th took place on our doorstep, in the Big Apple of the eye of Western society. The Falling Man could have been any one of us and that’s why the photo is such uncomfortable viewing.
There has been a positive effect brought about by the image (and the many others that were recorded that morning), however. There has been a sense that watching the events of that day unfold brought Westerners together as a united whole. We began to look out for each other rather than ignore each other as we went about our day to day business.
This was shown in the increased consumption of news in the months and years after the event. We all wanted to know what was going on in the world, in a way, checking that everyone was all right. Images like The Falling Man kept the human side of the tragedy alive, kept us from the instinctive distancing that happens when we’re normally presented with death on the news.
The author of The Falling Man agrees. “I think it has rallied people,” said Drew. “I can see that in America. Everyone is carrying flags and there is a sense of patriotism that probably wasn’t as strong as it was when this thing started. There’s now a feeling of, we’re not going to sit back and take it.”