Ten Years Later: The 9/11 Photo That Changed America

As we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11, no picture is harder or more important to look at again than photographer Richard Drew’s The Falling Man. More than any other photo from that day, The Falling Man captures the horror of 9/11 and explains the politics of fear that followed from it.

The picture, taken from the corner of Vesey and West Streets in Lower Manhattan with a 200-mm lens, was unlike the panoramic shots of burning buildings and frightened crowds that dominated 9/11 coverage. In Drew’s photo a single worker in a white jacket and black pants descends head first from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Rather than burn to death, he has chosen to jump. The worker’s hands are at his sides, his legs are bent, and he looks forward rather than downward as he falls. He appears at ease with the death that awaits him. He has the outward cool of an Olympic diver.

For those who saw and remembered it, Drew’s picture made sense of America’s decision to go to war with Iraq in a way that few political speeches did. Unlike the heroes and villains of 9/11, the falling man was someone Americans identified with immediately. It was easy to imagine being put in his shoes by a second terrorist attack.

Taking a history-making photographer was not new for Richard Drew, who in 1993 shared the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. As a twenty-one-year-old rookie photographer, Drew was in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Robert Kennedy was shot in 1968. Drew was so close to Kennedy when he took the pictures of the senator’s dying moments that he ended up with blood spatters on his coat.

Thirty-three years later on the morning of September 11, Drew, by then a veteran photographer for the Associated Press, was in New York covering a maternity fashion show in Bryant Park, when he learned that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. He immediately left his fashion shoot and took the express subway downtown to Chambers Street, the stop just before the Trade Center.

There Drew swung into action, initially photographing the debris piling up on the ground and the stunned office workers fleeing from the burning Twin Towers. Soon he was told by a policeman to move over to West Street, where there was greater safety. A triage unit had been set up at the corner of West and Vesey Streets, and Drew hoped to get close-ups of the injured. But again events changed his plans.

As he looked up, Drew saw people jumping from the burning North Tower. He was close enough to hear the thud of their bodies striking the pavement, and as at the Robert Kennedy assassination, he did not let his revulsion at what was going on around him paralyze him. He immediately began taking the photos of the jumpers. As he later explained in a CBS interview, “I instinctively picked up my camera and started taking pictures. It’s what I do. It’s like a carpenter. He has a hammer, and he builds a house. I have a camera, and I take pictures.”

An emergency technician, whom Drew credits with saving his life, finally yanked him away from where he was standing as the North Tower, from which people had been jumping, collapsed. Drew then made his way uptown, stopping briefly at the Lexington Armory on 26th Street, where families were gathering for news of their missing loved ones, before making his way to the Associated Press offices at Rockefeller Center.

There, among his rolls of film, Drew found the image of the falling man that would make history and run counter to the pictures of frightened office workers doing their best to get as far as they could from the burning World Trade Center. What made the falling man unique was that he defied expectations by refusing to yield to the hopelessness of his situation.

Those who jumped from the upper floors of the North Tower fell in all sorts of ways. Many descended with their clothes flying off them, their arms and legs flailing the air. Some even tried using drapes and table cloths as makeshift parachutes, only to find the speed of their fall ripped the fabric from their hands. But the falling man in the frame that Drew sent out from the Associated Press is the epitome of grace.

Drew’s falling man has not lost his composure. He is upside down, but he makes no effort to right himself. The bend of his legs is that of someone running, and because neither the sky nor the ground appears in Drew’s picture, it is possible—just briefly—to avoid thinking about the certain death that awaits the falling man. His poise suspends the narrative around him.

The outward dignity of the falling man did not, however, lessen the horror that this picture of him fostered among those who saw it in papers across the country. The number of people who jumped from the World Trade Center on 9/11 was put at over 200, but the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office refused to classify anyone who leaped from the Twin Towers that day as a jumper. “A ‘jumper’ is someone who goes to the office in the morning knowing they will commit suicide. These people were forced out by the smoke and flames or blown out,” a spokesman for the medical examiner declared.

The distinction was a technical one, but it made official the idea that jumping from the burning World Trade Center was neither a volitional act nor a failure of character. The falling man was frightening because he embodied this distinction. It was possible to imagine him asserting his dignity as he jumped, but it was not possible to imagine him deliberately putting himself in a position to be so heroic.

Even harder to imagine with any equanimity were the thoughts going through the falling man’s mind as he fell to earth. Estimated to have reached a speed of 150 miles per hour during his descent, the falling man had at least ten seconds to mull over his fate. Like the passengers on the hijacked planes that crashed in New York and Washington, his experience of the death awaiting him was a protracted one.

Drew, who has acknowledged that the events he photographed “messed” him up for a long time, was from the start aware of the implications of his picture. In an op-ed that he wrote in 2003, the same year that the Iraq War began, Drew compared his picture with the Pulitzer Prize winning photo that Nick Ut took in 1972 of a young Vietnamese girl who has been burned with napalm. Ut’s picture shows the girl running in fear. Her clothes have been burned off her, and she holds her arms out at her sides, as if hoping someone will rescue her. In America, especially among those opposed to the Vietnam War, Ut’s picture made a deep impression, but as Drew observed, “The photo evoked sympathy, not empathy.”

The Falling Man had the opposite effect. It evoked empathy rather than sympathy. Its subject was terrorism brought home. The sight of the falling man increased the willingness of Americans to trust a president who promised that a war with Iraq would make the country safer. As Drew wrote of his own photo, “We already know the identity of the man in the picture. He is you and me.”

Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College. This essay is from a book in progress, Season of Fear: American Intellectuals and 9/11.

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