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Ten years after 9/11, can you look at ‘The Falling Man’ photo?

FILE - In this Tuesday Sept. 11 2001 file picture persfalls headfirst from north tower New York's World Trade Center.

FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001 file picture, a person falls headfirst from the north tower of New York's World Trade Center. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:30AM

Of all the indelible images of 9/11 — hijacked planes ripping through World Trade Center, the towers collapsing upon themselves, fleeing survivors caked in dust — none capture the humanity of that day the way a single picture by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew did.

In the photo a man is falling. He is falling headfirst from the upper floors of the World Trade Center. He is centered in the frame against a backdrop of the tower’s symmetrical lines. In that instant, the man appears relaxed as his body hurled toward the ground in a near perfect straight line.

The iconic photo — now known as “The Falling Man” — was published in a handful of newspapers across the country the day after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But it was rarely published again. The very sight of it outraged readers. Some wrote letters complaining that the man in the photo might be identified and publishing that picture invaded his privacy and sensationally exploited his certain death.

But 10 years later, can we look at the photo again? Should we? Is it still too soon?

At lunchtime on a recent sunny day outside the downtown AON building, which from a distance strikes an eerie resemblance to the World Trade Center towers, retired banker Hill Hammock answered with resolve.

“It can’t be too soon,” Hammock, 65, said. “I think we need to remind ourselves of how fragile all of our lives are and how suddenly horrific events can change them, and be mindful of the preciousness and be reminded of the loss that we all suffered on 9/11. While this picture is very difficult to look at it captures all of those feeling in one scene.”

We should take a long, hard look at The Falling Man, management consultant Rick Stone said. And if it is painful, so be it.

“It shows the tragedy of that day. If it evokes emotion in people that’s probably good. It’s good to remember,” the 58-year management consultant said. “I think it’s terrible. It’s very, very sad. But I know it happened. A lot of them jumped. And I hope it never happens again. I remember seeing people waving towels out the windows looking for help. They are all gone. It’s tragedy.”

Of course, not everyone agrees. For Deborah Browder, the picture is too intense — even 10 years later.

“I don’t think there’s any benefit showing it. It disturbs. Too many bad memories. It’s too much. It’s just so real,” the 47-year-old executive assistant from Calumet City said. “We know what happened, but I don’t think it’s necessary to look at that.”

In 2003, Esquire writer Tom Junod wrote the definitive story about photograph and the journalistic quest to determine the identity of The Falling Man.

“When I wrote that story the picture was not iconic, it was suppressed. It was very much a taboo subject,” Junod said. “I wrote that story for the purpose of enabling it to be shown again. No matter how many times you look at the shot it’s shocking. And I look at it a lot.... Ten years time makes it easier to look at.”

Junod reported that some people believe Jonathan Briley, a 43-year-old who worked at the Window on the World Restaurant, is The Falling Man. No one, however, has officially confirmed the identity of the man in the picture.

Even if the photo of the last moments of The Falling Man’s life is impossible to stomach, we should look at that picture for one undeniable reason — the moment captured in Drew’s photo happened, Chicagoan Steve Musico said.

“I want to see the world as it really is. And that’s part of what the world is really like,” the 55-year accountant said. “It was an important part of our history. This is real life and that should be reported.”

Richard Drew agrees. The AP photographer has been capturing real life as it unfolds without hesitation or apologies his entire 45-year news career.

When he was just 21 years old, Drew was standing next to Bobby Kennedy when the presidential hopeful was assassinated. He snapped pictures of Kennedy’s last moments alive. The jacket Drew was wearing that day was splattered in Kennedy’s blood. He still has the coat somewhere. Kennedy’s wife pleaded for him to stop taking photographs.

And like that moment, the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was another “horrible day” Drew captured with his camera. He doesn’t apologize for showing his work.

His “Falling Man” picture was part of a sequence.

“It was the luck of the camera. If it was a fraction of a second later that picture wouldn’t be the same,” he said. “I just held my finger on the button.”

What surprised Junod most while reporting The Falling Man story was that that “people wanted to hear the truth” about what happened that day.

“At the time, they were being lied to about how their loved ones died,” Junod said. “The family of the person we tentatively identified [as The Falling Man], the Briley family was incredibly brave. They did not reject the idea that it might be Jonathan, nor did they reject our inquiries ... that was what I was really surprised about.”

As iconic as the photograph has become, Drew doesn’t think the identity of The Falling Man in his picture should ever be confirmed.

“I think he can be representative of everyone who had to face that fate on that day. It’s a very quiet photograph. There’s no violence in it,” he said. “And people shunned it in the beginning. ... He is one of almost 3,000 people who died in the World Trade Center tragedy. In other images we see the buildings fall down like it was a movie. We see the firefighters doing their bit and police doing their bit. We don’t see the humanity. We don’t see anything of people who perished that day. Maybe he represents the people who died.”

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