In the moments after the September 11, 2001, attacks, Associated Press photojournalist Richard Drew shot a haunting photo of a man falling from the World Trade Center. In the new 4-minute video above by TIME, Drew shares the story behind that famous and controversial photo.
Note: The video contains graphic images that may be disturbing to some viewers.
“On a day of mass tragedy, Falling Man is one of the only widely seen pictures that shows someone dying,” TIMEwrites. “The photo was published in newspapers around the U.S. in the days after the attacks, but backlash from readers forced it into temporary obscurity.”
“The true power of Falling Man, however, is less about who its subject was and more about what he became: a makeshift Unknown Soldier in an often unknown and uncertain war, suspended forever in history.”
"The Falling Man' documentary examines passionate response to Sept. 11 photo
The photo of the falling man also had a rare dignity. "I saw grace. I saw a stillness, even though he was falling," Morning Call director of photography Naomi Halperin told Singer. "I saw a quietness, as opposed to a loud, horrible death."
Singer was particularly pleased by Halperin's analysis. "Naomi was wonderfully articulate," he says. "She enumerated many interesting issues about the photo. I was impressed by her personal view, the fact that she saw it and thought it was instantly iconic, her strong journalistic and ethical sense to run it, even though she was aware that this was going to lead to an outburst in the community."
Indeed, The Call, like many American papers, decided to keep the public peace by declining to run the photo of the falling man a second time, as coverage of 9/11 continued. "We can't scratch at the scab again," says Erdman in the film, "open that wound."
"The Falling Man" is all about the photo creating a wound that won't heal. Holets, for example, can't help thinking about the falling man's final thoughts. "Did he see his life flash before him?" wonders the elementary-school secretary and retired nurse. "Or did he concentrate on what was going to happen?"
Like Holets, Palmerton resident Bob Messinger appears in "The Falling Man" to read part of his letter protesting The Call's publication of the falling man photo. Singer says he picked Messinger because of his potent words ("atrociously bad taste and pandering to the most prurient level of human nature") and because he puts himself in the falling man's frame and frame of mind.
"I think I would have jumped from the tower as opposed to burning to death," said Messinger in a telephone interview. "To me, it's a no-brainer. The bottom line is the truth -- it is the only thing that's important, whether you like the photo or not."
As "The Falling Man" unfolds, the issue of World Trade Center "jumpers" becomes increasingly complex. One man told Singer he was comforted by knowing his wife fell to her death rather than allowing herself to be burned alive. He calls her a hero for a final act of complete control.
Even more stunning is the story of Norberto Hernandez, a pastry chef at the World Trade Center's Windows on the World restaurant. After a Canadian journalist identified him as the falling man, Hernandez's Catholic family agonized that he had committed suicide and was therefore damned to hell. They were relieved when they learned, during the course of Junod's reporting, that the man in the photo wasn't their husband or father.
According to Singer, the Hernandezes continue to walk a tight rope between sorrow and resignation, guilt and faith. "I thought this film was worth making partly because the taboo of jumping, or falling, is very painful for all the people who know or suspect they lost people in that way," he says. "And we as a culture need to recognize that their death deserves the same recognition and dignity as those firefighters who died."
There are two views that still give Singer chills. One is entirely objective. It comes from photographer Richard Drew, who in 1968 photographed a dying Robert Kennedy moments after Kennedy's blood splattered his jacket. Speaking of recording the falling man's last seconds, Drew says: "I see this not as a person's death but part of a person's life."
Singer admits he isn't as dispassionate as Drew, who compares his job to that of a carpenter. "The person in the photo is alive there and it is a moment in his life," he says. "But I zero in not on that moment but what happens below the frame. I can't help but look at that and see someone's death."
The other view that chills Singer is entirely subjective. It comes from a sister of Jonathan Briley, a Windows on the World sound engineer who Junod claimed in his Esquire article could have been the falling man. Gwendolyn Briley consoles herself with the thought her brother fell believing he would be caught by God.
"Gwendolyn's words really made me see the image in an entirely different way," says Singer. "She takes that image and she finds redemption. I am not a [religious] believer but she helped me come to terms not just with the mortality of the man in the image but all our mortality. That image really is a mirror of who we are. The way you react to that image says so much about you."