An Unforgettable Portrait of 9/11

An original version of this article ran on Sept. 13, 2017. 

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Associated Press photographer Richard Drew was on his way to cover a maternity fashion show by Liz Lange at Bryant Park, known as Manhattan’s very own Town Square.

Drew was staking out prime “real estate” at the end of the runway when a CNN cameraman told him that there had been an explosion at the World Trade Center. “Bag the fashion show,” his editor notified him immediately, “you have to go.” Drew took three trains down to Chambers Street. It was just after 9 a.m. EST., and he saw two gaping holes marring the World Trade Center. “When I came up the steps of the subway station, I looked up and saw that both of the towers were on fire,” he recalled in an interview.

The second plane had crashed into the south tower just three minutes after 9 a.m., a mere fifteen minutes after the first plane smashed into the north tower. As any photojournalist would, Drew took photos of that day. They were full of anguish. They captured history. Yet the pictures the AP photographer captured were not what Americans wanted — and perhaps not what they needed — to see after the grisliest attack on U.S. soil.

One photo in particular was controversial. On Sept. 11, 2001, Drew took what has become the most iconic photo of his career, that of “The Falling Man.” The photo was published across national news outlets the day after the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked. It elicited immediate scorn, contempt, and anger. At the time, perhaps understandably, it was not the photo Americans were ready to see. The sounds and sights on evening news for weeks to come were marked by patriotism. The picture of “The Falling Man” for many, including family members of those who lost loved ones on 9/11, was distinctly unpatriotic. It was perceived as suicidal, calling faith into question and tarnishing the image of the victims that some family members needed to hold close.

They simply weren’t ready to face the image in the immediate aftermath. Some will never be. It’s taboo. It’s disrespectful. It’s also crucial, because it’s a cenotaph. 

Today, we can discuss the photo in journalism classes around the country. Indeed, some of the students in our classes were babies or grade school students during 9/11, their recollection of the events foggy at best. Photographs document history, allowing us to remember and learn from history.

In the photo, a man is seen falling to his death. The composition of the image is eerie, with the man perfectly perpendicular to the building, almost as if he was a diver. What was going through his mind? Did he have a wife? Children?

Richard Drew captured images of other people that day who tried to do everything to save others and themselves. The image of the man, however, sparked a harrowing documentary about the events of Sept. 11, “The Falling Man.” In it, Drew compared his profession as one that requires immediacy. A photojournalist, he has captured photos that have been crucial, but often ghastly, points of history. As a young photojournalist, he even snapped photos of the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy on June 5, 1958, one of just four press photographers to witness the event.

The Kennedy image was provocative. The image from 9/11? So much more so. It says a lot about Americans, and the capacity for forgiveness and understanding. Those trapped above the gaping holes in the tower were condemned to death. Did they have a choice at all?

An estimated 200 fellow Americans proceeded to jump out of the buildings. They were trapped. Some had tried to tie drapes together, making makeshift parachutes. Some tried to scale the buildings. Others wanted to make a final choice in their life, perhaps thinking that at the very least, their bodies would be found. What is clear is this: the buildings were unbearably hot, people couldn’t breathe, and family members who spoke to their loved ones for that final time heard sheer agony in the voices of their family members.

Slowly, reporters have been able to piece together details about the man. The identity of the man is a little clearer today. Reporters were able to figure out his probable identity by looking at this skin color, shoes, and orange t-shirt. They asked a series of questions. Did he work at Windows of the World, the charming restaurant at the top of the North Tower? Could employees there were anything but a white shirt? What about his shoes? His goatee? The man in the photo is now thought to be Jonathan Briley, an audio technician at the restaurant. We can’t be sure, but Briley was 43. He had a wife. He was the son of a preacher. His body was found in the rubble. He was just going about his daily life the day that he died, trying to provide for his family, like 2,977 other victims.

Drew’s image from 9/11, like other painful photos, honor the suffering of the victims. Indeed, photos of Holocaust victims, once deemed voyeuristic, are now important historical accounts. “The Falling Man” is now forever part of a historical account, an undeniable element of proof. As journalists, we must seek the truth and report it, no matter how uncomfortable. Eventually, people will welcome the account.