My family calls it “the picture that won’t go away.” Most newspaper editors refused to print it. Those who did, on the day after the World Trade Center attacks, received hundreds of letters of complaint.
The photograph was denounced as coldblooded, ghoulish and sadistic. Then it vanished.
Yet, two years later, I still get asked about it. I’ve been invited on national talk shows, interviewed by foreign TV crews and asked to speak about it at universities across the country. Esquire magazine just published a 7,000-word essay that hails it as an icon, a masterpiece and a touching work of art.
All this for a single frame out of hundreds shot in haste before I was pulled to safety as the second tower of the World Trade Center tumbled toward me.
My fellow photographers call it “the most famous picture nobody’s ever seen.”
But, in fact, you have seen it. Whenever it’s mentioned, people say, “Oh, that’s the one where the guy looks like he’s swan-diving.” Or, “That’s the one where the guy’s body is lined up perfectly with the lines of the World Trade Center.” And then there is: “I know -- it’s the one where, if you turn it upside down, it looks like the guy is sitting on a chair.”
I find that ironic. Here’s a photograph that was considered too upsetting for readers to look at. Yet people were turning it upside down to take a second look from a different angle.
I look at it from my own angle. I was below the north tower that morning, on the corner of West and Vesey streets. The smoke was so thick, it was tough to see, and tougher to breathe. Rubble was falling, and when I heard the first of a series of loud cracks, I thought it was the sound of concrete debris striking the ground. But I was wrong. It was the sound of human beings hitting the pavement.
I focused on one person falling through the air, and shot eight frames. Then there was a huge noise, like an explosion. I just kept shooting; I thought maybe the roof had collapsed. I had no idea the whole building was falling, because I was too close.
An emergency technician saved my life; he yanked me away. The tower leaned toward us as we ran, and I stopped and shot nine more frames.
Stupid, probably, but when you’re in shock, it’s like you’re on automatic pilot.
Watching the tragedy unfold messed me up for a long time. I still take note of every plane I hear flying overhead, wondering if it’s friend or foe. But neither the photograph nor the initial reaction to it disturbs me. People ask how I could coldbloodedly photograph someone dying. I never saw it that way. I made a photographic record of someone living the last moments of his life. And every time I look at it, I see him alive.
I have photographed dying. As a 21-year-old rookie photographer on a supposedly routine assignment, I was standing behind Robert F. Kennedy when he was assassinated. That time, there was no telephoto lens to distance me. I was so close that his blood spattered onto my jacket. I saw the life bleed out of him, and I heard Ethel’s screams. Pictures that, shot through my tears, still distress me after 35 years. But nobody refused to print them, as they did the 9/11 photo. Nobody looked away.
It’s hard to say why not. The RFK assassination changed the fabric of American history. But then, so did the destruction of the World Trade Center. The Kennedy pictures were more graphic and, in one sense, more personal. We knew him, as a public figure, a brother, a father and a husband.
It took me the better part of a year after Sept. 11 to even address the question. I was fending off post-traumatic stress syndrome, and I didn’t want to think about it. Then the Associated Press sent me to a camp run by former British special forces for training in how to survive in a hostile situation. You’d think simulating being attacked or kidnapped would have increased my anxieties. But I found it comforting. Knowing how to take even a few preventive measures gave me back a sense of control over my destiny.
As my anxieties abated, I continued to wonder why people reacted so differently to the photos of RFK and the World Trade Center.
One editor who objected to my photo said, “Americans don’t want to look at pictures of death and dying over their morning cornflakes.” I disagree. I think they’re fine with it, as long as the victims aren’t American.
During the Vietnam War, my friend and colleague Nick Ut took a photograph of a girl who’d been napalmed, running down the road in flames. The picture became an instant icon and won the Pulitzer Prize. But no one in the States worried about getting napalmed. The photo evoked sympathy, not empathy.
In the World Trade Center photo, it’s about personal identification. We felt we knew Bobby Kennedy, but we didn’t identify with him. We weren’t wealthy scions of a political dynasty or presidential candidates. We were just ordinary people who had to show up for work day after day, more often than not in tall office buildings.
Just like the guy at the World Trade Center.
That’s what unsettles people about the picture. We look at it and we put ourselves in the jumper’s place. And we ask, “Which option would I choose? Would I wait and pray for help as the flames licked at me, or jump through fresh air and sunlight, to certain death?”
You see, the girl in Nick Ut’s picture was on fire. You can see the agony on her face. It’s horrifying, but it is not the face of America. The man in my picture is uninjured. He does not look like he’s in pain. But you know he is moments from death. And you can’t help but think, “That could have been me.”
Tom Junod, who wrote the Esquire article, interviewed the families of several victims trying to identify the man he calls “9/11’s Unknown Soldier.” He found that their reactions varied according to their feelings about mortality.
Some were insulted at the suggestion that their relative might have chosen death when he had a family at home (ignoring the fact that death was certain in any case). Others praised his decision to jump as an act of courage (ignoring the possibility that the man might have been forced to leap from the smoke-filled tower in order to breathe).
Though his quest proved fruitless, Junod eventually concluded, as I did, that the point is moot, for we already know the identity of the man in the picture.
He is you and me.