The events of 9/11 remain the most photographed in history. It’s from out of that mass witness and record that one image, the 9/11 photograph that still hardly anyone has ever seen, seemed to challenge our deepest notions of not only what it meant to die – and eventually be partially reconstructed – in the new data age, but what confronting death, as witnesses or consumers of information, said about ourselves as witnesses or consumers of information. Making it all the more arresting, perhaps, was its stark, almost calm anonymity. Nobody had a clue as to who the photo’s subject, seen plummeting from the very top of the North Tower, could be. Countless newspapers and wires ran the image the following morning, but almost immediately got so much shit from readers that for most outlets there became no other option but to pull the photo. Eleven years on, the Falling Man is still suspended. A version of this piece originally ran on Motherboard on September 11, 2011.
The Falling Man’s descent into eternity lasted about 10 seconds.
Richard Drew, a photojournalist on assignment with the Associated Press who had been preparing to photograph a fashion show that morning but who was quickly dispatched to the towers by his editor, managed to snap a 12-frame sequence of the figure in free fall. Like hundreds others that morning who were forced out from the upper floors of the Twin Towers by unbearable heat and smoke and the lack of any escape by stairs or roof, he appears in Drew’s sort of flip-book chronicle to be tumbling wildly out of control, the wind and sheer velocity of the dive ripping off a white tunic just moments before certain death.
But of the dozen frames in Drew’s otherwise chaotic, painfully mortal sequence, one stands apart. It’s a quiet, intimate image. And compositionally sound: the “jumper” is upside down, perfectly vertical, straddling the upper third of the frame and splitting the North and South Towers. The Falling Man seems relaxed. In control. Content. In an Esquire piece from 2003, Tom Junod writes that if the man weren’t falling, he “might very well be flying.”
Drew’s image ran the morning of Sept. 12 on page seven of The New York Times, as well as in countless papers across the country and the world. Sublime and confusing, it profiled an incomprehensible decision, the gravity of which stung no matter how many times we looked. The Falling Man was unidentified, yet he encapsulated the day’s horror. And even without a name, he personalized it too.