The Falling Man from 9/11: who was the person in photo, who was Jonathan Briley - and who took the picture?

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It’s one of the most recognisable images to come from 9/11 - but what’s the story behind the famous ‘Falling Man’ image?

It is one of the most enduring images of the 9/11 tragedy that saw the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre collapse after being deliberately struck by hijacked aircraft.

A man - appearing to be travelling head first towards the ground in a moment of relative tranquillity - falls to his untimely death against the backdrop of the steel frame of the North Tower. The image remains poignant 22 years on from the event, a stark reminder of the choices made by 9/11’s “jumpers”, who either fell searching for safety, or jumped to escape the fire and smoke.

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But who is the man in the picture? Who took the original image, and why is it so well known? Here is everything you need to know about it.

Why is the picture so famous?

The image of the Falling Man is far from the only picture of unfortunate souls falling to their deaths during the September 11 attacks.

But the composition of the image is what makes it stand out. Unlike other pictures, which show the mangled mess of debris caused by the impact of the passenger jets into the World Trade Centre, the Falling Man image is relatively “clean”. Taken at 9.41am on the day of the attacks, it shows a lone figure contrasted starkly against the backdrop of the building’s famous steelwork.

It also gives the impression that its subject is falling straight down, head first (though the 11 other photos in the series show the man is actually tumbling through the air). As such, the Falling Man takes on an almost contemplative, serene feeling, the image of a being at peace with the fate to which they are about to succumb, even within an unimaginably horrifying context.

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It’s worth remembering that when the image was first published in newspapers around the world on 12 September 2001, it was met with criticism and anger against its use. But as attitudes towards such imagery have softened, the response to the image has changed over time.

Who took the pictures?

The iconic Falling Man picture is one of a series of 12 images taken by Richard Drew, an Associated Press photographer for more than 40 years, and one of only four press photographers present at the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Speaking to about the picture, Drew said the man in the images was “trapped in the fire, and decided to jump and take his own life, rather than being burned.”

He said that many newspaper readers have complained about the image of the years, saying that “they didn't want to see this over their morning corn flakes”, but Drew believes the image is important as it shows “a very important part of the story”.

“It wasn't just a building falling down, there were people involved in this. This is how it affected people's lives at that time, and I think that is why it’s an important picture. I didn't capture this person's death. I captured part of his life. This is what he decided to do, and I think I preserved that.”

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Who is the Falling Man?

The identity of the subject of the photograph has never been officially confirmed. This is due mainly to the large number of people trapped within the North Tower; the falling man could have been any one of them. Some estimates suggest that at least 200 people fell or jumped to their deaths, and officials could not recover or identify the bodies of those forced out of the buildings.

However, attempts to identify the person in the images have been made, and a number of theories have been put forward. One suggestion is that the man in the pictures is Norberto Hernandez, a pastry chef at the Windows on the World restaurant located on the 106th floor. Canadian national newspaper reporter Peter Cheney first suggested the man could have been Hernandez in The Globe and Mail, and family members initially agreed with him. But after examining the photo sequence and noting details of his clothing, they were no longer convinced.

Another theory suggests the man is Jonathan Briley, a 43-year-old sound engineer who also worked at Windows on the World, and the brother of Alex Briley, the original “G.I.” member of 1970s disco group, Village People. Briley was initially identified by the restaurant's executive chef, who suggested the man was Jonathan based on his body type and clothes - the Falling Man's shirt is blown open and up in one of the photos, revealing a t-shirt similar to one Briley wore.

Briley's older sister Gwendolyn also suggested that he could be the victim, telling The Sunday Mirror: "When I first looked at the picture... and I saw it was a man - tall, slim - I said, 'If I didn't know any better, that could be Jonathan.'"

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In the 2006 documentary film 9/11: The Falling Man, Gwendolyn suggested that whoever is pictured in the photograph, the quest to find their identity should not be rooted squarely in morbid curiosity. “I hope we're not trying to figure out who he is,” she said, “and more figure out who we are through watching that.”

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