Yesterday, a freelance photographer working for the New York Post, R. Umar Abbasi, inadvertently stumbled onto the killing of Ki Suk Han, a man who was run over by a New York subway train after being shoved onto the tracks by an unidentified assailant.
Abbasi says he took out his camera and snapped pictures of Han's final moments in an effort to alert the coming train's driver with his flash that something was wrong. Alas, the driver couldn't stop in time, and Han was crushed. He was later rushed to St. Luke's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Though Abbasi claims his photos were incidental, the Post still ran one of them on its cover today under the headline "DOOMED." We asked several professional journalists, including two Pulitzer winning photographers, what they think of the controversial images.
Given that I wasn't there I have to take Mr. Abbasi's account of events at face value. If he felt he could not physically make it to the man trapped on the tracks in time—firing his flash to get the operator's attention may have been his only recourse.
Photojournalists have to think ahead of what decision they would make, or often are thrown into such situations, as an inevitable part of their jobs. Most decide that they are human beings first and will do anything they can to save another at the expense of making a photograph. Things become very difficult when you know that you either a. don't have the proper training or equipment to help/rescue another person b. the necessary time c. That you will likely become a second victim that needs to be rescued or worse.
At times the wisest thing to do is to call 911 and wait for the properly trained and equipped professionals to effect the rescue. In a situation like this which develops in the blink of an eye—it would appear that Mr. Abbasi did the only thing he could—use his flash to get the operator's attention. Without seeing a full shooting sequence or a video I cannot come to any other determination.
It's very important for the public to remember that journalists play an important role and that they can often perform an important public service. When I covered hurricane Katrina for the New York Times, my instinct was to rescue as many people as I could and drive them out of New Orleans. I realized that I didn't have enough food, fuel or water to do this—and that I had no place to bring them nor any way to care for those with medical conditions.
Eventually I realized that the images that I was making of these people were ending up on the front page of The New York Times and that the public at large as well as people in Washington were being informed of just how bad the situation was in New Orleans. Our coverage of the terrible conditions at Louis Armstrong Airport led to a noticeable increase in medical and support personnel the very next day. It's important to remember that it was days before the world truly understood the scale of the devastation with Katrina—and that they learned about it through news reports, photographs, and video footage—most of which were very difficult to gather and took a serious emotional toll on those that gathered them. Therefore while photographing any disturbing event might be counter to ones human instinct—it can be a necessary act that could potentially prevent it from happening to others in the future.
In this particular case it appears that little could have been done to save this man in time. I know that if anyone did have a reasonable chance to save this man they will likely never recover from their failure to do so.
The question you asked, "Do I think what the photographer did was right?" is difficult to answer. I've thought about it a lot today, and I think the answer is one with nuance. I know many people are upset at the photographer for not helping out, and I can understand that point of view. However, without knowing the full extent of the situation, or without being there in person, it's hard to judge the photographer's actions with the respect this situation deserves. "Could the photographer have even been able to help?" is a question worth examining. I don't know we can honestly know this either way.
In addition, who knows how any of us would react in a moment like this? It's not as if these situations arise with preparation in mind. I'm not defending the photographer, but I'm also not against what he did. In the end, it's just hard to know without being there.
I do feel this though: I would not have run the image as the Post did on the front cover. If it was a major news event, one that warranted a need for such a display, that would be one thing. In my opinion, this was not a major news event, and I don't think that was the right call.
In truth, nobody can say whether the photographer could have safely rescued the victim. If so, we hope he would have done the right thing and rushed toward him first, rather than toward his camera. My belief is that we have to give the photographer the benefit of the doubt. It's almost important to ask whether other bystanders could have safely helped, too?
The blame in this controversy lies directly with the New York Post for publishing such a callous, crude and truly tasteless headline while at the same time wrongly splashing the tragedy on the front page.
Photographers, especially those in dramatic situations like developing stories, disasters or war zones, face the question of whether they are photographers and journalists first or human beings first. These are scenarios most often left for ethics textbooks, though. Once a reporter or photographer lends a hand to someone, that journalist ceases being a journalist and becomes part of the story. There's no way to maintain the independence as a journalist and participate in a news event at the same time. You cannot tell the story and be part of it. It's a tough line not to cross. Many people outside press circles do not always understand this.
I'm not sure the photographer in this case could have taken the dramatic picture and saved the guy at the same time, both practically and ethically.
In my classes, I always teach that photographers should help first and take pictures second. In the contest of "a photo vs. a life," the life should always win. But what if the Post photographer couldn't help the man on the tracks? What if the train was coming too fast, or the victim was too heavy? What if by helping, the photographer put himself in grave danger? I can't fault the photographer entirely. This could have started and ended in what, 10 seconds? Maybe by instinct the photographer reacted and shot flash photos? Where were the other bystanders? Why aren't they helping?
I am a human first, and a photographer second. The journalistic value of these images were not worth this man's life. But, there is more to the photographs than it would appear at first glance.
It is easy to question the situation outside the heat and adrenaline of the moment, but I think the photographer did what many of us would have done: draw attention and hope the train would stop and avoid the collision. According to the New York Post article, he wasn't composing images, but trying to use the tools to prevent a tragedy.
Unfortunately, this turned into a senseless tragedy. Stop blaming the photographer and direct the anger and energy into developing a system to better deal with mental illness. From the details in the New York Post article, it is the disturbed gentleman who pushed Ki Suk Han who is to blame in his death, not the photographer who couldn't stop the collision.
We talk about these types of situations from the beginning of the journalism training at University of Maryland's Merrill College of Journalism, often in the context of war reporting. As journalists it is important to think about these types of situations before they happen because there isn't time in the moment to do much besides just react.
I don't know the photographer and I wasn't there, so I'm willing to take his word that he was using the camera flash to try and warn the train's driver. That, to me, would make the creation of the image incidental in some ways.
The issue for me is not whether he made the photographs or not—it was reported the photographer was not physically strong enough to lift the man out of the way. He did, it would appear, shoot the man on the tracks prior to the train coming. (That image is in the NY Post video.)
The issue is really whether the images should have been run. I teach my students to, in most circumstances, shoot what they see, regardless of what is happening around them, unless they are the only ones who can help in an emergency situation. By shooting, that allows a measured, journalistic decision to be made about whether to run the image. In the moment, you don't know what the story is going to be. Only after fully reporting do you make a decision to publish or not.
In this situation, you have one manic, tragic act and a very graphic image of it. Is it newsworthy? The story is, but as an isolated incident does the public need to see something this graphic? I don't think so. If this were an ongoing issue that the public needed to be made aware of, then maybe you run it—the shock value of it could, perhaps, raise enough awareness to affect change.
The question of whether you shoot or not is a bit of a red herring here—in a fluid situation like this, making that call is incredibly difficult. Did the photographer do what he thought was best, help in the way he first thought he could? I think so. The video shows a lot of other people in that area, did any of them help? Could they have? Only those there would know, and only for themselves—everyone is going to react to that situation differently. Some will be passive, some will shout, some will jump down there to try and help.
But after the moment, in the din of a newsroom, when you can talk through the situation, when you understand the larger story as it has now been reported? I don't know how you make the decision to run that photo.
The decision to photograph or help is always controversial. Journalists are trained to observe and to not inject themselves into situations. The idea is that the power of the reporting/image can help society, if not the individual. As evidence, there are a number of historical images that helped change public opinion (laws) that would not exist had the photographer intervened (look at Lewis Hine, Eddie Adams, Charles Moore). Society is quick to condemn the photographer in the moment. Yet, sometimes, the image changes the world for others.
On the other hand, as a staff photojournalist I have been in situations where I felt compelled to act. I put down my cameras to assist because I felt at the moment that I was the only person in position to help and that was more important than the image I might make. It is a moral struggle that few have to make. As an editor, I have had staff who did they same, rushing to aid car wreck victims until help arrived and then shooting pictures.
There are times when as a photojournalist you know what is going to unfold—a mob beating an informant/looter; police confronting a gunman; someone intent on suicide; war—and the only action you can take is to make photographs to help your audience understand. As a witness to such horrors, it hurts. Other than that, there are repeated examples of photojournalist choosing to help rather than photograph.
I must assume that the photographer believed that taking the photo would alert the train driver enough to stop. I doubt any working photojournalist would knowingly choose to photograph a scene anticipating death or injury of a subject unless they felt that there was nothing they could do to help.
I understand the public outcry. I can only imagine the photographer's angst. There are no winners. There is a poor man who lost his life, a train diver that killed a person, and a photographer who witnessed it all.