Some things seem too monumental to bear. There has been much debate over the appropriateness of publishing photographs of the World Trade Center "jumpers" (as they've come to be known), and none more so than that surrounding Richard Drew's iconic photograph of "The Falling Man." As difficult as it is to view the photographs and videos, I think it is important to bear witness to the enormity of what happened on September 11, 2001. Part of our collective mourning is to look squarely at the terrible lack of choice the victims faced, and the acts of will they carved out from that finality.
We have all seen Drew's photo, however briefly. It is etched in our memories: the seemingly relaxed bend of the tall, thin man's knee against the verticality of the twin steel facades, his plummet towards certain death, pavement, pulverization. We've wondered what went through his mind during the last ten seconds of his life - did he pray? Did he cry? Did he think of his family? To those who did not know him - and I'm certain I did not - his final thoughts are an empty screen for the projection of our own fears and bewildered questions - "What would WE have done?"
I just read a fantastic article, originally published in Esquire in 2003, about the identity of "The Falling Man" and what the acts of viewing or not viewing the photograph have become for the survivors. Tom Junod interviews possible families, as well as takes a measure of the public's reaction to the photo. Some thought the jumpers didn't actually jump - that they were propelled out by the force of heat. (While this is certainly true for some of those who fell, there is plenty of footage to suggest otherwise.) Some thought they were cowardly. Some thought they had lost all hope. I see it as a simple, yet mortifying thing: a choice. I do not judge. Who knows what they felt, and how they reconciled their emotions? All I know is that they made a choice, and we are left to carry the memory of their acts with us.
Yesterday, I took my son to the World Trade Center site and just soaked in the flurry of preparations for the 10th anniversary occurring tomorrow. My chest was hard, and tears welled thinking of my friend who ran for his life that day, and the many others who never had that chance. What happens when a building becomes a grave? How do we celebrate architecture and use it as an act of defiance? Of protest? Of remembrance? Of hope? Gravity operates literally and figuratively in these sites.
Some things seem too monumental to bear. And yet we do. And we must. And we continue on.