Photographic Review: Context within The Falling Man Series
Author: Liam Timmings
“Content is a glimpse of something, an encounter like a flash. It’s very tiny – very tiny, content.”
– Willem De Kooning, in an interview
Photographer Richard Drew’s ‘The Falling man’ is an iconic image which has come to represent the tragedies that occurred on September 11th 2001 for a particular group of people – ‘the jumpers.’ The image serves to make Americans not seem so much as victims but as choosers of their own fate, a theme furthered by the images of heroic firemen which are often used to represent the American spirit of the tragic event. This is understandable but in a time of such tragedy, how can they be anything but victims. From this perspective the falling man image has been misrepresented, misconstrued and placed not only the man in the image, but the event of September 11th out of context.
How we read a photograph has a lot to do with what context we place it into. For example in the image of the falling man, it is just as possible that the observer is able to acknowledge that the man was in mid-tumble as it was that he was falling arms by his side, legs together. According to Graham Clarke, when we look at a photograph “we engage in a series of complex readings which relate as much to the expectations and assumptions that we bring to the image as to the photographic subject itself.” In other words, we undergo a passive act of recognition in assuming that this one photo is relevant to the one before, or the one after – establishing a relationship through the process of ‘photographic discourse’ which fails to exist.
The photograph captures one moment in time, one reality. It cannot lie or distort the truth; it simply shows what was there at a single moment. However, just because the photograph captures reality does not mean that it is accurate, for the photograph cannot capture context, background, and story, which often leads to a misinterpretation of the accurate version of reality. ‘The falling man’ reflects this perfectly, portraying a victim of September 11th from the world trade centre, appearing to be calm in his descent to death. He has embraced death, arms by his sides, leg slightly bent, almost as if his body has been photo montaged onto the steel structured background. His straight frame slices through both towers, the north tower to the left and the south tower to the right. It is easy to understand why Drew chose this image out of the series of 12 that he had taken of the man, geometrically it is eye catching and shocking, however it is the story that has been created from the image which falsifies the incident. The falling man cannot be truly appreciated by just the image itself, it relies on the story that viewers have given it, out of context, to cause greater impact. In this sense, a lack of context creates something false – it undermines reality.
Perhaps the notion of placing an image out of context, or misrepresenting an image is only a fairly contemporary problem. The earliest forms of photography such as the Daguerreotype would have been unable to capture an image such as the falling man as they required hours of exposure to the subject. Although the image may be false in the sense that any image can, such as a happy family portrait when that may not be the case, it would have been impossible for earlier stages of photography to place an image and its subject out of context in the manner that Richard Drew’s’ photograph has. Ironically, the photograph was not a result of human action. Drew in an interview states how “I didn’t push the button. That was a frame that the camera took,” emphasizing the modernity of the problem.
According to Susan Sontag, the photograph acts as a quotation, a visual form of memory. Of course this is true in the sense that photographs are like freeze-frames of memories, allowing a longer, in depth look back upon events as we saw them. However, it is also untrue in the sense that memory has the advantage of foresight and hindsight – context – something the camera can never capture. Foresight and hindsight is crucial in relation to the falling man as the series of photographs present the full event to the viewer. Much like a quote can be taken out of context; Sontag implies that a picture can be taken out of context in the same way.
There is no denying that at that time, in that place; the subject was in that position which portrays such a calm acceptance of death, however it is wrong to imply that outside of the specific moment, that calmness remained as photography can only capture an interpretation of reality, not reality itself. Drew himself claimed that he never chose the photograph because of the possibilities of what it could represent. He chose it for its artistic purpose – the symmetry, the alignment of man and building. However, in the complete sequence of photographs of the falling man, the truth becomes subordinate in the sense that this man’s story has no other purpose outside of this one picture. This is most evident when viewing the animation below in which the iconic image (Number 7) has been placed in the correct order within Richard Drew’s series below.
The photograph does not discriminate, it shows only what was there at that split second in time, however, when a photograph such as the falling man becomes a representative of an event, context suddenly becomes relevant. The photograph is representing the ‘jumpers’ of 9/11. Jumpers in the sense that their deaths were not suicidal they were, in a way, justified suicides, in respect to how easy it is to understand why they did it. The image was chosen to represent this group of people as it dehumanizes the suicidal process. It turns it into a conscious rational choice, allowing those who jumped a sense of dignity, at least more dignity than if an image of a person tumbling uncontrollably in a panicked frenzy was used in its place.
On the one hand, if photography is ‘art’ (and it has been highly debated since its creation) then it should be open to interpretation. However, then what use does context have upon interpretation? If viewers were aware at the time of their first sight of the falling man that it was only one fraction of a second in an otherwise tumbling descent, it is possible that the photograph would not be as iconic as it is today. So whether the falling man is a photograph which has been taken out of context, or whether it is something which has chosen to be interpreted in a way which it can represent a group of people who made the choice to jump is something which can be debated. Whilst understanding that ‘jumpers’ are a sensitive issue for the American public with none of them being classed as ‘suicides’ rather they are classed as victims of a terrorist attack – the same as those who had chosen to remain inside the towers. Either way, it represents a much larger issue with photography in that whilst reality is being captured, the photograph in circumstances like the falling man are not enough to represent or epitomize an entire group of people. Furthermore when a spontaneous un-staged event takes place, it is inaccurate to assume that one photograph can embody the entire series, as in the case of Richard Drew’s image it can place an entire group out of context.
Clarke, Graham, The Photograph (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) p. 27-29
Susan Sontag, Against interpretation, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966
Susan Sontag, Regarding the pain of others, Picador, 2004, p 25-28
Wells, Liz (ed.) The Photography Reader (London & New York: Routledge, 2009) p 5
http://www.esquire.com/features/ESQ0903-SEP_FALLINGMAN : Accessed 15/01/2012
http://culture.wnyc.org/articles/features/2011/sep/08/falling-man/ : Accessed 17/01/2012
Henry Singer’s documentary 9/11: The Falling Man, 2006