Last night Channel 4 showed a documentary (based on the Esquire article by Tom Junod) about Richard Drew’s horrific photograph from 9/11, which became known as ‘the falling man.’ Released and used by some in the press in the immediate reports, it then ‘sank without trace’ soon after in an act of seeming self-censorship.
The documentary was a moving and challenging exploration of the history and impact of the photograph. While coroners and others appeared to be trying to revise history and deny that anyone had jumped from the towers, the programme proposed that the image ought to stand as a defining image of the absolute horror of the attacks.
Among the interviews of relatives of those who had died was one with a man who knew his wife had jumped. “After the suffocating smoke, the intense heat and lack of air, to jump must have felt like blessed relief. She would have felt like she was flying.” Others didn’t agree. The jumpers had ‘committed suicide’, and thus condemned themselves to hell. They had somehow been cowardly, not thinking of their loved ones.
Personally, I was deeply moved by the horror of the decision these people were forced to take. In one sense, this became for me a meditation on violence and technology (which I have posted on before here). In the face of an act of horrific violence, with a huge jumbo-jet slamming into a structure that had lifted people 107 stories into the air, with the smoke and heat of aviation fuel, pinned in place by broken lift-shafts and burning stairwells, these people had to chose to whether to stay and face certain death after some unknowable wait among hot steel and choking flames, or let go and chose their own exit.
Perhaps they jumped out of sheer terror. We cannot know. But the ‘falling man’ image, with its almost serene and calm descent, offers us the possibility that it was as a brave act of self-determination that these people stepped out into the peace of clear air, away from the terror and technology that had rounded on them. That rather than be killed by those who brought suggest terrible weapons against them, they denied the terrorists’ desire to kill, and chose to take their own lives.
And thus we are turned to reflect on the other falling man, pinned in place by a terrible and crude technology, who chose to let go, defied our violence against him, opened his hands and exerted this great act of sacrificial self-determination. “It is finished,” he announced, choosing his own moment to descend into hell, “And breathed his last.”