The world’s media have been full of coverage of the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York. Much of it has been predictable, but the American magazine Esquire has run a remarkable piece of journalism dealing with “The falling man”, the famous image of a man falling to his death from one of the Twin Towers.
Soon after the first airliner crashed into the North Tower, people began jumping from the burning 107-floor towers to certain death below. Junod writes: “For more than an hour and a half, they streamed from the building, one after another, consecutively rather than en masse, as if each individual jumping required the sight of another individual jumping before mustering the courage to jump himself or herself.”
It took roughly ten seconds to fall, and they not only died, but their bodies were virtually obliterated.
Many photographs of “the jumpers” were taken, but one taken by AP staffer Richard Drew stood out. The man in it is upside down, perfectly vertical, mirroring the lines of the building. He is not flailing desperately, but seems relaxed, almost poised.
In most US newspapers, the photo ran once and never again. Junod writes: “All over the world, people saw the human stream debouch from the top of the North Tower, but here in the United States, we saw these images only until the networks decided not to allow such a harrowing view, out of respect for the families of those so publicly dying.” The “falling man” image became “at once iconic and impermissible”.
The Esquire piece is a fine, thoughtful essay about photographs and tragedy. It offers a basis for reflection on some peculiarly South African concerns.
Some of the most famous images of history have dealt with death: Robert Capa’s picture of a dying Spanish Republican soldier; the shooting of a Vietcong suspect by the South Vietnamese chief of police; or in South Africa, the picture of Hector Pietersen that has come to represent the Soweto uprising.
Through images like these, we become witnesses to what is perhaps the most private of all human experiences. Our reactions vary greatly. Sometimes, there is morbid fascination, a kind of voyeurism that draws us to spectacle much as people have sometimes enjoyed executions as a spectator sport.
Sometimes, there is horror at having to witness a terrible event, at having unpleasantness thrust on us. “We don’t want to see this kind of thing when we eat our breakfast,” readers may complain.
There is a third reaction, the feeling that it is improper to invade the privacy of the person in the image and those close to him or her. Outrage is felt on their behalf, so to speak.
In the case of “the falling man”, the last reaction was most prominent in the outpouring of anger that drove the image out of the public domain. Junod reports that papers all over the country “were forced to defend themselves against charges that they exploited a man’s death, stripped him of his dignity, invaded his privacy, turned tragedy into leering pornography.”
By contrast, resistance to other images of death have often focused on their unpleasantness. In one of the wars in the Persian Gulf, Ken Jarecke captured the horrifying image of the charred remains of an Iraqi soldier burnt to death in US bombing. AP chose not to run the picture, on the grounds that it was “too gruesome for the average newspaper reader”.
Jarecke defended his picture by saying: “If we are big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.” Similar debates have flared around images of the more recent Iraq war.
Why do we sometimes resist pictures because of concern for privacy, and sometimes because we would rather avoid unpleasantness? The simple answer is distance. It is easier to empathise with people we can identify with. When a videotape of the execution of US journalist Daniel Pearl surfaced, it was almost immediately suppressed out of respect for his memory and the feelings of his family. This was one of the media’s own, a fellow journalist.
Yet the media routinely run graphic images from far away. The sight of victims from the other side of the globe may be unpleasant, they rarely evoke the kind of empathy that sees them as real people with rights to privacy. In her book, "regardin the pain of others, American academic Susan Sontag has written: "The more remote or exotic the place is, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and dying."
This kind of discrimination is often seen as racist. In interviews with South African editors, the lack of images of dead bodies from the 9/11 attacks was often cited as evidence of racist attitudes in the media. White bodies get more respect than black ones, many said.
Significantly, The Star used the famous image of “the falling man” very prominently to illustrate its reprint of Esquire’s piece. It was used to preview the piece, ran in a front page tease, and filled almost half of the first broadsheet page of the essay itself. On subsequent pages, other frames from the sequence were used prominently. On Esquire’s website, in contrast, a single, small version of the picture accompanies the piece. (I was unable to ascertain how the image was used in the printed magazine.)
The Star was able to splash an image that has been driven underground in the US because Americans can’t look at it. Our distant vantage point at the southern tip of Africa dulls our empathy and allows us to look with equanimity at Norberto Hernandez as he hurtles towards his death.
Does this mean that race plays no role in how we treat images of death?
Race does enter the picture. The victims so freely splashed across Western news pages are more often black than white, they live and die in remote, third world countries of little consequence to readers there. And the agenda and sensibilities of the Western media do influence ours. When the British press froth at the mouth because the manager of a local football club is accused of sexual harassment in Cape Town, we froth, too. When Mark Thatcher is arrested here, he gets far more attention than he would if his mother had been Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, say.
And it is hard to imagine pictures of the mangled body of Princess Di running in South African papers.
Death may be the great leveller, but in the media, it levels some people more than others.
* Franz Kruger teaches journalism at Wits University, and has written the ethics handbook Black, white and grey. He is contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column was first published on this site on 13 September 2004