Of the many troubling images recorded and watched on September 11th, 2001, those of people falling from the top floors of the Twin Towers have been the most controversial. Despite their initial suppression in the United States, these images have remained a cultural referent to 9/11, and have returned to the public view in different media forms over the past decade. The photographs' persistence, and the fact that they were censored at home and not abroad, highlights American culture's conflicted ethics about graphic images, historical narratives, and death and dying in 21st century America.
The men and women who jumped or fell from the Twin Towers on 9/11 were caught on film or videotape during their last moments of life. Despite the fact that there were many unsettling images documented that day—the planes hitting the Towers, people bloodied and terrified, the Towers' collapse—footage of the "jumpers," as they were called, was quickly deemed by television producers to be too disturbing for American viewers. While the networks ran other images over and over again in the weeks after the attacks, by the evening of September 11th the jumpers had disappeared from national coverage. The next day, the New York Times published a photograph by Richard Drew that captured one of the jumpers falling head first to his death from an upper floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. A few regional papers also published photos of victims falling from the towers. Readers reacted, writing letters to the papers expressing outrage at what they saw as disrespectful and invasive content. Publication of the images, including Drew's "Falling Man," abruptly stopped. From that point on, news outlets in general did not discuss "jumpers" in any detail, despite the fact that the number of people who died in this manner is estimated at about 200 or approximately seven percent of the total number who died on September 11th. 1
The ethical debate about whether to show "Falling Man" and similar images from 9/11 focuses on two related questions. First, is it ethical to print images of people falling to their deaths since doing so can be considered an invasion of privacy? Second, is it ethical to withhold such images from the public since doing so eliminates a grim but real aspect of September 11th from the public narrative of the event? In looking more closely at "Falling Man" and its iterations over the last decade, we can understand more clearly what is at stake in these questions in the particular context of 9/11.
Initial responses to the images of falling men and women focused on conflicting perspectives about whether or not publishing them was an invasion of privacy. From one perspective, watching "Falling Man" is to stand witness to his choice to die in the face of terrible circumstances. As photographer Drew claims, "I didn't capture this person's death. I captured part of his life. This is what he decided to do and I think I preserved that' (Howe, 2001, 3). The other perspective holds that looking at the images is an intrusion on one of the most private moments of life. Through this perceptual lens, Tom Junod (2003) writes, viewers "exploited a man's death, stripped him of his dignity, invaded his privacy, turned tragedy into leering pornography." A decade after the attacks, September 11th retrospectives posed questions such as "Ten years after 9/11 can you look at the 'Falling Man' photo?" suggesting that the photo remains provocative.
In response to questions about privacy, the media followed its long history of debate about whether to show graphic images, including dead bodies, in media coverage. The Poynter Institute, one of the leading journalism institutions in the country, suggests that the decision to show such material should be driven by a goal to inform, rather than to horrify, viewers. In addition, it has been generally accepted by the media that such graphic images should not be shown repeatedly (Tompkins, 2002). Though the images of people falling from the World Trade Center Towers were not—technically—images of dead bodies, they were arguably disturbing and subject to sincere consideration about whether or not it was appropriate to disseminate them. In the end, industry standards prevailed and the images were removed.
Although the media made clear choices to eliminate images of the jumpers from national publication, the cultural fascination with the men and women who fell from the Twin Towers on September 11th was not as easily suppressed. In 2002, a bronze sculpture called "Tumbling Woman" was placed outside Rockefeller Center in New York to honor 9/11 victims. The statue caused immediate controversy and, like the images before it, was quickly removed from public view. In 2005, a documentary video, 9/11: Falling Man, tried to identify the man in the photograph, as though giving him a name would make circulation of the picture more acceptable. The same year, Jonathan Safran Foer's novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was published and included a "Falling Man" flip book in which the man falls up—presumably to safety—instead of down to his death. AMC's Emmy-award winning series Mad Men raised eyebrows when it premiered in 2007, because of its animated opening-credit sequence of a man falling from the top of a skyscraper. Five years later, in anticipation of its 5th season premiere, the debate was re-ignited when posters of Mad Men's falling man were hung from buildings around Manhattan.
Clearly, American culture continues to respond to and wrestle with a reality that was not fully discussed in the news media, a reality that is represented in various manifestations of the now iconic photo "Falling Man." To understand more about the persistence of these images since 9/11 requires looking not just at whether it is okay to print graphic images, but at what it means not to print them. In eliminating images of falling people from circulation, the fact that many people died in that fashion was erased from national discussions of 9/11. Tom Leonard of the UK's Daily Mail calls the estimated 200 jumpers the "forgotten victims of September 11" because the photos and footage that recorded their existence were removed from the public narrative. Leonard argues that the American media's decision to withhold coverage of these victims was not made solely to adhere to ethical guidelines around invasion of privacy, but was further complicated by religious beliefs about dying. He writes, "In the aftermath of this attack on America's sovereign territory—a period of intense patriotism—some considered that to choose to die rather than be killed showed a lack of courage. And in this country of intense religious fervor, many believe that to be a 'jumper' was to choose suicide rather than accept the fate ordained by God—and suicide in whatever circumstances is considered shameful or, indeed, 'a sin that will send you to Hell.'"
Indeed, when the man in Drew's photograph was misidentified as Norborto Hernandez, his family denied it was him and insisted that, due to his religious belief that suicide was not an acceptable way to die, he would not have made the choice to jump. Later, when it was confirmed that the man was not Hernandez, his daughter stated "my father's name was cleared" (Junod, 2001, para. 4), reiterating the impact the image had on a particular family, with a particular set of religious beliefs about what it means to die.
The concerns evoked by the jumpers were not just religious—but to ask Americans to consider the relationship between death and personal choice is very difficult. Joanne Faulkner (2008) argues that some are offended by the subject of the images of jumpers themselves rather than the "mere objectification of their death" (p.71). Faulkner points out that the choice to jump is troublesome, a point that echoes Junod's (2003) sentiment in his Esquire piece: "People who look at the pictures have to decide whether they would have done the same thing and I think that is what makes people so uncomfortable." Because American news outlets dedicated so little coverage to these victims, there was no public opportunity to discuss what the jumpers, their choices, and viewers' responses to them, might have told us about our cultural concerns about death and dying: How should life end? Who gets to decide? Who participates, and under what circumstances? Is death personal or religious?
Each iteration of people falling from the Twin Towers—video or film footage, still photo, statue, flip book, opening credits—and the reactions to it, exemplifies an effort by American culture to clarify its beliefs on these polarizing topics. Perhaps "Falling Man"—and the controversy about whether or not it is okay to view him—continues to haunt media textsnot because of our ethics about the photo's graphic nature. Perhaps, instead, it is our strong ethical response to the photo's content that tells us something important about American life, specifically that ourideas around death and dying are, in and of themselves, so conflicted.
1. Faulkner, Joanne. (2008). "The innocence of victimhood versus the innocence of becoming." Journal of Nietzsche Studies, 35, 67-83.
2. Konkol, Mark. (2011, September 16). "10 years after 9/11 can you look at the Falling Man photo?" The Chicago Sun Times. Retrieved from http://www.suntimes.com
3. Howe, Peter. (2001). "Richard Drew." The Digital Journalist. www.digitaljournalist.org
4. Junod, Tom. (2003, September). "The falling man." Esquire, pp. 177-183.
5. Junod, Tom. (2011, September 9). "Surviving the fall." Esquire. Retrieved from http://www.esquire.com
6. Leonard, Tom. (2011, September 11). "The 9/11 victims America wants to forget: The 200 jumpers who flung themselves from the Twin Towers who have been airbrushed from history." The Daily Mail. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2035720/9-11-jumpers-America-wants-forget-victims-fell-Twin-Towers.html#ixzz22zwGCpcD
7. Tompkins, Al. (2002, September 1). "Tough images ahead on coverage." The Poynter Institute. Retrieved from http://www.poynter.org