The essay begins with a detailed description of the image itself, a photograph that appeared briefly and then was censored, removed from the public consciousness and deemed taboo, almost pornographic. This act of writing alone is fraught with peril as there are still a great many people who believe that anyone who cares to meditate on this image or on the story of the hundreds of other jumpers that day, is sick and twisted, or worse, actively trying to exploit the deaths of this man and of others who chose to jump. Junod’s initial salvo is a shot of at those who choose to look away. Whether you’ve seen the picture or not, Junod gives it to you in the first paragraph, one that ends with this statement of his dilemma when trying to “solve” the mystery of the Falling Man: “In the picture, he is frozen; in his life outside the frame, he drops and keeps dropping until he disappears.”
In the essay we meet the photographer Richard Drew and hear the story of how Drew captured the infamous image of a man leaping to his death from the North Tower, an image that is—though it may be hard for some people to admit—sublimely beautiful and arresting and, as such, also profoundly disturbing. Junod seems to be simultaneously trying to redeem Drew in the eyes of a public that saw him, or others like him, as some kind of monster feeding off the suffering of others, while also shoring up his own tenuous role as a journalist.
He says of Drew, “He is a journalist. It is not up to him to reject the images that fill his frame, because one never knows when history is made until one makes it.” This one image, so striking in part because of its artistry and composition, and because as Junod says of the Falling Man, “Though oblivious to the geometric balance he has achieved, he is the essential element in the creation of a new flag . . .,” is also just one image in a series that Drew captured of the man’s final descent, and just one amongst hundreds of images of other jumpers that were captured on film and likewise censored or ignored. We learn that the balance and apparent harmony the Falling Man seems to achieve in this one moment isn’t necessarily present in the other photos in the series and is, at least in part, manufactured by the camera lens. The photo itself is then a kind of pretty lie, a selected slice of history, one sublime moment amidst a slew of horrific images. Junod says,
Photographs lie. Especially great photographs. The Falling Man in Richard Drew’s picture fell in the manner suggested by the photograph for only a fraction of a second, and then kept falling. The photograph functioned as a study of doomed verticality, a fantasia of straight lines, with a human being slivered at the center, like a spike.
In one section, Junod repeats, “They jumped,” or some variation of it (“they began jumping,” “they streamed”), about nine times and we are staggered by the weight of repetition, hit repeatedly with the sound of their falling. And we learn that other artistic interpretations of the Falling Man elicited such strong feelings that bomb threats were called in demanding censorship.
We learn about Norberto Hernandez, the man originally and erroneously identified as the Falling Man in an earlier article by a different author, and we meet his family, a family torn apart by this identification. His wife and children refused to believe the man in the photograph was their father. In a very real sense Junod saves this family from their grief by showing them the sequence of photographs that Drew took, allowing them to see the Falling Man really for the first time and confirm that he wasn’t their father; but Junod doesn’t present himself as a savior, doesn’t put himself in the foreground and instead mostly just lets the people talk and interact with each other. And when Junod takes his own risk at identifying the Falling Man, it’s not without struggle, not easy for him. Junod performs like a journalist but struggles like an essayist. He talks to family members, interviews artists and administrators, numerous people who’d lost a loved one in the tragedy, and he ultimately “solves” the mystery and identifies the Falling Man; but interestingly this doesn’t come off as the authoritative definitive answer on the question, much less a closure to the open questions that run through the whole essay. Nor does this identification, his solving of the mystery, really seem to be ultimately what the essay is about in the end, but rather just the terminus of one minor thread that Junod weaves throughout.
My favorite sorts of essays are often those that advertise themselves as one thing while performing several different, often contradictory functions, essays where the stakes shift between the first paragraph and the last. “The Falling Man,” does this. It was a feature piece in Esquire, and I think at least part of why I like it is because it seems like the sort of piece that the Esquire editors would have normally sanitized and polished into something much smoother and less interesting, something less intimate and confrontational, less risky, digressive, and essayistic. Consider, for example, the odd section where Junod narrates a phone call with the mother of a possible jumper through an artificially distant third person point of view, referring to himself as “a man” talking to “a woman.” Perhaps this creation of an implied first person is a trained journalist’s way of removing the “I” from the page, or perhaps it is tangible evidence of Junod’s struggle on the page with his own definition of a journalist as little more than a lens. As often happens the implied first person really only amplifies the “I,” drawing more attention to Junod’s efforts to distance himself from the events, drawing attention to his deliberate use of craft. There’s an odd tension in this that I find compelling, if only because of its oddity and vulnerability. We might also take a look at the ending, where Junod risks all out sentimentality and essentially argues for keeping the Falling Man in the realm of myth, symbol, and metaphor. He compares him to the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery and suggests that the Falling Man must on some level remain an abstraction, an unknown, because in that role he has more power, more meaning. He can be named but he cannot be reduced or ignored or easily dismissed; and on some level, he lives forever only in the tomb of Richard Drew’s photograph.
Steven Church is the author of The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst, Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents, and The Guinness Book of Me: a Memoir of Record. His essays have been published widely; recent work can be found here. He's a founding editor of the literary magazine The Normal School and teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.