The Most Famous Photo Seen by No One: Remembering 9/11

Almost 3,000 people died in the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks. According to USA Today, almost 200 people either jumped, fell or were blown out of the burning towers. A fall from the upper floors the World Trade Centres at a speed approaching 150 miles per hour would have lasted approximately 10 seconds. The jumpers were conscious as they fell but died instantly on impact. Photographer Richard Drew captured a man falling from the Windows of the World restaurant on the 106th and 107th  floors of the North Tower. The photograph, titled The Falling Man, has become one of the most controversial photographs of September 11 but also one of the most iconic.


The iconic Richard Drew image

The Photograph

Initially rejected by many American newspapers, The Falling Man was still published to moral protests. In Allentown, PA – a quintessentially small American town, it caused protests within the community who claimed it was distasteful. And since its appearance in the New York Times on September 12, 2001, the image has rarely been republished. Richard Drew describes the image as, “the most famous photo seen by no one.” Drew, shooting nine or twelve shot sequences through his 200mm lens captured a sequence of eleven outtakes of The Falling Man. This photograph is part of that sequence which can be seen below.

The Falling Man was described as too voyeuristic and confrontational to print. Yet the impact footage of the plane hitting the towers, filled with hundreds of people, was repeatedly broadcast across the world. This image showed the instant death and cremation of hundreds of people but it was not deemed voyeuristic or distasteful because we could not see the victims. We could not see the face of the youngest victim who hit one of the towers, two-year old Christine Lee Hanson. She was suppose to be going to Disneyland with her parents. While we unanimously agree the impact images are confrontational, it is rarely described as voyeuristic in the way The Falling Man is.  Yet in both images we are witnessing the same thing – death. The only difference is Richard Drew’s image is personalised and intimate. We can see the identity of The Falling Man as he loses his life. We witness his descent, struggle and mortality in his final moments. The Falling Man puts a human face to the sacrifices made on 9/11. He makes us wonder what we would do in the same predicament.

Who is the Falling Man?

The Falling Man photograph inspired a documentary which begins with a Toronto Globe reporter Peter Cheney trying to establish the identity of the man in the photograph. (Watch here for free). After interviews with co workers and family, The Falling Man is thought to be an audio engineer at the Windows of the World restaurant. His name is  Jonathan Briley.


The man in Richard Drew’s iconic image is dressed in a white business shirt, a bright orange T-shirt, black pants and black high top shoes. His lack of checkered pants meant he was not likely a chef, his orange T-shirt was too informal to be a waiter or banquet worker. A photograph of Jonathan was shown to the surviving staff members of Windows of the World.  Jonathan’s coworkers agreed that he could be The Falling Man. His sister, Gwendolyn Briley-Strand, told reporters of The Sunday Mirror, “When I first looked at the picture…and I saw it was a man – tall, slim – I said, ‘If I didn’t know any better, that could be Jonathan.'” Both Gwendolyn and Jonathan’s brother Timothy, admitted he wore a white shirt and black pants with high top black shoes to work. Timothy added that on most days Jonathan wore his favourite orange shirt underneath. Jonathan’s wife, Hilary, did not see what Jonathan was wearing on 9/11. He had kissed her goodbye while she was still sleeping.

Jonathan Briley was 43 years old on September 11, 2001.  He was five foot six, married to a woman named Hilary and lived in Mount Vernon, New York. He was a light-skinned black man, with a mustache, a goatee and close-cropped hair. Gwendolyn told Esquire, that her brother suffered from asthma and would have found it impossible to breathe with the smoke in the tower.

Timothy, Jonathan’s younger brother, is a police officer in Mount Vernon NY. He saw The Falling Man photograph in the New York Times after a co worker left it in the locker room at his station. Gwendolyn saw the same Falling Man photograph the day it was published in the New York Times (Sept 12, 2001).

Jonathan’s father, Rev. Alexander Briley of the Shiloh Baptist Church in New Rochelle, devoted his life to God. After September 11, in a three-hour prayer, he demanded of God to know where his son was. The next day the FBI called to let him know that his sons (in tact) body was found. Timothy identified his brother and instantly recognised his black high top shoes. He took one home.

These are only a privileged few things we know about Jonathan. All we, as onlookers, can truly know is that at fifteen seconds past 9:41 a.m. EST, Jonathan was somewhere between life and death, and twelve years later, his image is a symbol of sacrifice on that tragic day and is a reminder of all of those who perished – whether they jumped or not.

The Falling Man was part of an eleven shot sequence. While one of these has become an iconic image, here are eight of the other shots.


RIP to all those who perished in 9/11.

I first wrote about The Falling Man, here


One comment

  1. Pingback: ‘The Falling Man’ – The Iconic Image of September 11, 2001 | Travelling Assassin

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