Journalism has opened my eyes to the diversity of people’s stories, passions, struggles and heartaches. In 2012 I interviewed journalists, a social worker, youth, immigrants, professors, a city council member and a television director. Each of them offered me something; some, words of wisdom and others a part of themselves. It has been immensely rewarding to tell the stories of others through words or photographs and my world view has expanded in ways I never thought possible; I have absorbed so many different stories and perspectives.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of 2012 came from the recognition of the simple similarity between my subjects: humanity. What may seem to separate us from one another often has the potential to bring us together, and I believe that is what good journalism does. Journalism that focuses on the human aspect of a story can leave us feeling something. Even better journalism turns this feeling into action, and this is where I see journalism as a tool to create social change. My belief was only affirmed after writing a final paper for Journalism Law and Ethics class last month.
The Falling Man, Richard Drew, 2001
My paper focused on photojournalism and the ethics that surround publishing photos that capture people moments before death. I chose to focus on The Falling Man captured by Richard Drew on September 11 2001. Drew’s photograph has become one of the most iconic images of 9/11 and also one of the most controversial.
There is something eerily graceful about Drew’s photograph that captures a man jumping from the top floors of the North Tower. He falls upside down in a straight line, one leg tucked beneath his knee. Like all photographs, it captures a precise moment in time. But what separates it from all the others is it refuses the option to ignore what is beyond that moment. The Falling Man takes viewers outside the photo’s rectangular frame to a place they may not want to go. It is, after all, a portrait of a man who has unwillingly chosen to die.
A week after this photograph was published, The Globe and Mail assigned journalist Peter Cheney to identify the falling man. His article The life and death of Norberto Hernandez was published on September 22 2001. It tells the story of Hernandez’s life, after Cheney met a woman in New York who believed the falling man was her brother.
I had the privilege of speaking to Peter Cheney last month. Cheney, who spent 25 years as a feature writer, has won many awards including three National Newspaper awards for investigative and foreign reporting. He is now a national driving columnist for The Globe and Mail. I was embarrassingly excited (and nervous) to talk with Cheney, but he ended up giving me advice that I know I will carry with me throughout my career.
After The life and death of Norberto Hernandez was published, Cheney fell under criticism for “identifying” the falling man but it is important to note that he does not once says it is Hernandez in the photo. Instead, he reported, as any good journalist would, the views and beliefs of his subjects. A number of outlets followed with stories. In 2008, CBC produced the documentary 9/11: The Falling Man and in 2009, Tom Junod published The Falling Man in Esquire Magazine. Both focused on identifying the falling man.
Nick Ut, 1972
After my conversation with Cheney, I realized that many were missing the point of his story. It was never about identifying the falling man. This picture, like so many others (Eddie Adams’ photo of the execution of a Viet Cong Prisoner and Kevin Carter’s photo of the vulture and starving child, for example) are meant to provoke response and make such a horrific event seem real. Whether the falling man is Hernandez or not, Cheney’s story celebrated his life and shed light on the struggles his family experienced after 9/11.
Cheney agreed that photographs such as The Falling Man may be exploitative. But he also believes some journalism can be justified. He uses the example of the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo by Nick Ut, who captured a girl running from an attack during the Vietnam War. Her clothes have been burned off by acid, and she runs screaming and naked towards the camera. Cheney found the girl in the photo, Kim-Phuc, living in Toronto and wrote a story about her (Vietnam photo girl Kim now ‘smiles all the time’ But she still remembers pain) for the Toronto Star
“Is that picture an invasion of her privacy? Yes it is,” Cheney said. “But that picture changed the course of history. All of a sudden people understood why the war in Vietnam should end…that picture of her changed the world, so it was worth running.”
The editors that ran the photo of The Falling Man recognized its ethical purpose of encapsulating the horror of 9/11 for the rest of the world, and for the generations to come who were not there to witness it. Those hearing of September 11 for the first time will stumble across The Falling Man and be forced to face something much more impactful than words in a textbook. They will be faced with a moment in history of utmost grief and devastation, one that impacted too many lives to be forgotten.
And they won’t only see this grief, but they will also feel it.