The Falling Man Photograph Controversy

It could be one of the most famous photographs ever, The Falling Man by Richard Drew, a longtime Associated Press photog who was one of four press photographers present at the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Drews famous 9/11 photo depicts a man falling from the World Trade Center towers following the September 11, 2001 attacks. Yet, people in the United States have gone to great lengths to banish it from public consciousness. How come? A photo that depicts our most intimate connection to the horror of that day?

Richard Drew / Associated Press
Richard Drew / Associated Press

The Falling Man is one of these photographs considered to be too powerful for average consumption. Instead of letting us reflect on the events of that day some opinion makers try to banish from record what reminds us of that day’s sorrow and pain. It’s still not clear to this day who the man falling down World Trade Center and tumbling through the air actually was. But without photographic reminders such as this one even the greatest tragedy becomes something distant and theoretical.

It’s in no way a perfect photograph. Yet it is perfect. It’s blurred, colors are off and framing is arbitrary. Yet it captures so much more than what’s obvious and meets the eye. Once we turn a blind eye to the deeper emotions underlying events such as 9/11 we become robots and soldiers that march to any tune.

Death was inevitable, yet the falling man and other jumpers might be called suicidal by some. Esquire dedicates an in-depth feature on The Falling Man, concluding with:

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.

Great, important read. About a photograph. In the end it doesn’t matter who The Falling Man was. He could be anyone. The photograph, reminding us of what happened, matters.

(via Esquire)


  • Samantha Miller

    What a great, important photo.

    My guess is that the US is trying to redefine that day with such things like “heroism” etc. While in reality, the day was different.

    Since the photo does not fit the story that the US like to tell about themselves, they try to swipe it under the carpet. Sad.

    • Mirko Pazi-Metak

      I’m not exactly sure what “story” are you trying to tell, Samantha. Please help me out here a little, thanks.

  • David Holliday

    This article is interesting to me. I have suspected a kind of censorship of 9/11. When this episode happened. There were images all over the world of the planes going through the buildings. The panic on the street and pictures like above and more. Then a kind of black out. I have tried to explain to younger people what happened that day and it is hard to find images. Also the White House was also hit. That has been completely hushed up ever since .

  • Andy Umbo

    America’s newspapers always edit news for what they think is their target audience of a nation of ‘delicate constitutions’. I see stories about wars going on around the world, and grisly photographs that define what we should think about it, only from photography magazines and foreign newspapers. If anything, daily reporting is getting worse in America, because the big news organizations are dying, and a lot of smaller cities don’t report terrible local news as it is ‘unseemly’ to those delicate constitutions!

    I recently moved to a new city for work (Indianapolis), with a local newspaper (The Star, a Gannett paper), that is so vacuous in it’s reporting, it’s impossible to tell what’s going on in the city at all, it’s like it’s been written by the chamber of commerce as an advertising vehicle! Of course, once you let Gannett take over your paper, it’s all over, but still, major crime happens in this city and there’s never any follow-up reporting on the families, situations, etc. On-line does not command the ad revenue to pay for long-form in-depth stories on a local level, so digital is not the answer unless you expect people to work for nothing (oh, yeah, they do!). Unless someone invents a money-making venture to boost in depth news, it just isn’t going to happen….

  • Ray

    I candidly cannot understand any question posed by the article or some of the comments.

    “Yet, people in the United States have gone to great lengths to banish it from public consciousness. How come? A photo that depicts our most intimate connection to the horror of that day?”

    “How come?” Because we would rather look at the rebirth of the downtown area. We’d like to live in the present rather than what is past.

    “Censorship”? Hardly. Quite the opposite, its the expression of what we care to look at. Our freedom of speech works both ways, as it should.

    If this photo had been taken by an unknown amateur with a smartphone, I wonder if there would be anything to discuss? What we have here is the public not giving a hoot about a “famous” photographer on the photo enthusiasts altar of exalted beings. Its the image the public is responding to, as it should be.

  • Andy Umbo

    I don’t know what Ray is saying, is he “for” journalism and the truth, or he doesn’t want his day ruined with the “hard truths” of the world! I’ve traveled all over the world, and worked for years in Washington DC, and I have to say that educated people not of the United States, consider us to be the most “ill informed” industrialized nation on the planet. Ray doesn’t seem to know that there IS censorship in the United States, but it’s the defacto censorship of local news editors replacing hard news and real information, with happy-talk crap about the revitalized downtown of your sad little city. This is how people in the United States wake up one morning to find the wrong people in public office and corporations controlling their lives!

    • Ray

      Nah. I’ve lived in 6 different countries from the Far East to Europe, where I now split my life between the USA and Switzerland. I believe I know what censorship is. If it existed to any material extent in the USA, many fringe political groups in the USA would not have the podium they enjoy. The world is not perfect, nor is the grass always greener on the other side.

      “Happy-talk crap”? Like a constant front page assault of yesterday’s murders, assaults, rapes and crooked political dealings? No, sounds more like your view of what I should have to look at versus your editors. That is not censorship.

      Freedom, fortunately, gives us the ability to decide what we choose to absorb without being cajoled by others. Perhaps one should dwell on that for a moment.

      Americans being the “most ill-informed industrialized nation on the planet”? Perhaps your view when faced with others’ opinions. As I sit here in my living room of a highly urbane and well educated Swiss city, I enjoy the fact I am considered quite intelligent. Perhaps lacking in linguistic skills or geography, but Americans, in general, are respected for their intelligence.

      • Andy Umbo

        Maybe living in Europe has skewed your idea of what has happened with American media. All media is censored, mostly by the ability to sell advertising. Ad clients have the final say, and they vote with their dollars. The viewpoint of the industries placing the advertisements supports “news” vehicles they feel at one with, and “objective” isn’t in their mix. The news reading public in America cannot pay enough for the distribution vehicle to support the kind of information they want to read, whether printed or on-line (and what amazes me, and proves my point about Europe etc., is how they still have vital and respected printed newspapers that are doing well). Freedom gives us the ability to choose what we absorb, but not if all the objective information does not exist anywhere for us to read and make our own decisions. When all the news distribution channels are full of “happy-talk-crap” because that’s what the advertisers support, you have no objectivity, and believe me, it’s not the editors making those decisions in America, it’s the business office!

        As for Americans being one of the “most ill informed industrialized nations on the planet”, sorry, but you’re living in a fools paradise, or your friends are keeping the truth from you. It’s impossible to live in a place like Washington DC, or travel in Europe, and have political discussions with non-Americans, where someone in the discussion doesn’ eventually say how amazed they are at your grasp of the situation, compared to the ill-informed Americans they usually have to talk to!