Is this the iconic Sept 11 image to you? (Source: Corbis Sygma)
If three million people had not beaten me to it, I would’ve dedicated an entire blog to 9-11 conspiracies. They range from the ludicrous (aliens) to the fascinatingly curious. As a foreigner who was not present in the US at the time of 9-11, I heard about it on international news channels, which most foreigners would agree, is far more informative. 95% of the Americans I know, do not know a third steel framed government building collapsed on 9-11 without a plane hitting it and it fell identically to the twin towers. (Building 7). How do you not know about this? Ten years later?
Since today is September, 11 – the 10th anniversary of the attacks, I wanted to look back and offer an opinion of what I consider the defining image of the tragedy. When someone thinks of 9-11 they instantly refer to the now infamous images of the tower burning and a plane entering into the second tower (see above) or a scene of firefighters entering the building bravely. Perhaps even civilians on the street watching in horror covered in ash. For me, the image of 9-11 is of the people who jumped. An image, most American news syndication refused to publish (or did to an enraged american public such as in Allentown, PA)
For me the image is more iconic of the event for one reason. It made the political/violent event personal. The image almost takes mortality and slaps you across the face. Either you cannot look at the photo or you cannot forget it. And that to me, is the most powerful of all images. An image that makes it personal. I was more than 15,000 miles away at the time and this one image haunted me. I felt like I minutes away not miles.
The image, as gracefully as possible considering the event, depicts the time that we will never face in our lifetime. (Hopefully) A person falls from the sky, moments after deciding to end his life on his own terms instead of burning in an inferno. Is it the simplicity of the photo in a time of chaos, the stillness, the slight gracefulness, or is it the choice to die so publicly that haunts people about this photo? The photo makes everybody I know uncomfortable because it forces you to think of life as temporary. In one shot it also captures the consequence of a violent, sudden and unexpected event and the inevitable choices these people had to make. I sometimes wonder if you’re going to die, is it ever a sin to choose which way? The end has been written. Is it a sin to sign your name at the bottom with your own hand instead of letting someone else do it for you? Or is it brave to attempt it?
Researchers say nearly 200 people jumped that day (some say the number is much less and some were blown from the building) at 150 miles per hour. That’s not fast enough for them to be unconscious during the fall but instant death is assured upon hitting the ground. Some people have said that every tragedy has an “unknown” tomb or hero that stands as a reminder or symbol of self-sacrifice. The fact that it is unknown makes it a poignant reminder that it could be any one of us or someone we love. This is what this photo is for September 11. It is the unknown soldier.
A photo has the power to question the mortality, to crush a family structure, to invoke love, to relive memories, to inspire dreams, to re inspire hope. In this instance, a photo has the power to evoke a passionate response to not only an international tragedy but also our humanity and mortality.
This photo has all but disappeared from the american consciousness. In truthfulness, it never really surfaced. But in this “free” country, in order for a photo exposing death to be accepted, it needs to be “understood” or at least have an identity to make sense of it. Initially, this “falling man” was identified incorrectly as a chef at Windows of the World, Norberto Hernandez. It is more than likely Jonathan Briley who managed the conferences at the Windows of the World.
R.I.P to everyone who perished 10 years ago in the attacks.
To watch a documentary on the Falling Man click here.