Thursday, September 11

The Falling Man

September 11, 2001. Was that seven years ago, or a million?

Who were we on that perfect September morning? As I write this, where I write this, it's another perfect, cloudless, crisp September morning. Who are we today?

So it really was a million years ago, and a million indelible images ago.

Here's one. Maybe the most famous picture taken that day, certainly the most controversial, taken by AP photographer Richard Drew. It came to be known as "The Falling Man."

The picture produced a firestorm of protest when it was printed. It was just too real, too human, too intrusive for many. The picture and the controversy produced a remarkable piece of journalism in Esquire magazine, written by Tom Junod. One "trick" of journalism is to find one story, one moment, one person and use it to represent many. Junod went in search of the identity of "The Falling Man." He came to the conclusion that the man in the picture was most likely Jonathan Briley.

Here's a link to that article.

And the article, in turn, produced this remarkable documentary:

I'm rarely at a loss for words. On this September 11th, I have none that compare with the final words of Tom Junod's article.

Is Jonathan Briley the Falling Man? He might be. But maybe he didn't jump from the window as a betrayal of love or because he lost hope. Maybe he jumped to fulfill the terms of a miracle. Maybe he jumped to come home to his family. Maybe he didn't jump at all, because no one can jump into the arms of God.

Oh, no. You have to fall.

Yes, Jonathan Briley might be the Falling Man. But the only certainty we have is the certainty we had at the start: At fifteen seconds after 9:41 a.m., on September 11, 2001, a photographer named Richard Drew took a picture of a man falling through the sky -- falling through time as well as through space. The picture went all around the world, and then disappeared, as if we willed it away. One of the most famous photographs in human history became an unmarked grave, and the man buried inside its frame -- the Falling Man -- became the Unknown Soldier in a war whose end we have not yet seen. Richard Drew's photograph is all we know of him, and yet all we know of him becomes a measure of what we know of ourselves. The picture is his cenotaph, and like the monuments dedicated to the memory of unknown soldiers everywhere, it asks that we look at it, and make one simple acknowledgment.

That we have known who the Falling Man is all along.