I watched a documentary on TV last night called 9/11: The Falling Man, and later read the article on which it was based by Esquire journalist, Tom Junod, with regard to the collective repression surrounding the photographic image of a man jumping from one of the ill-fated Twin Towers, out of fear, desperation, even courage, we will never know.
What struck me in that story is the question that it may have been ‘improper’ for the man (and others like him) to have jumped. I don’t understand. What does it mean to die improperly? What makes one form of dying more acceptable than another? And most of all, what qualifies the living to judge? Maybe when death itself is the cause for pain and suffering to the living. It is not that you have died, but that in dying you have hurt me. Put brutally, and I don’t know how else to put it, we blame the dead for dying.
But even so, I still don’t know why one form of dying is more acceptable than another, why jumping is so terrible, as opposed to enduring the burning flames and the crush of the rubble. What drives a young woman already wracked with grief at the loss of her father to be so enraged by the suggestion that he might have jumped, to refer to the man that did jump as ‘that piece of shit’? How can grief for one and compassion for another be so perceptibly divided? Maybe it has too many associations with jumping ship, with cowardice, with sin. Do these mental associations tell us the truth of why these people jumped, leapt or fell, from the buildings? No, but our need to interpret their motivations says more about us than it does about them.
Maybe it has to do with the picture, not the event itself. The picture confronts us with the act of looking at death, with engaging with a raw and honest truth we’d rather not know about — as Junod puts it, we want the right to look away. We want the right to say we don’t care, and the Falling Man, like Kevin Carter’s photo of the vulture and the starving child, makes us look, not at the horror of the event, but at the horror at realising we didn’t really want to have to look at all.