Crossing the Photographic Rubicon

The old phrase if it bleeds it leads is an adage from old news editors. We as people are interested in the macabre and will read stories about disasters murders and accidents. The modern media feeds our hunger.

On Tuesday the front page of the New York Post lived up to this adage in a very graphic way.

The Image

The front page of the New York Post was covered with the image of 58-year-old Ki Suk Han who had been pushed on to the subway track after being accosted by a crazed pan handler.


Portrait of Ki Suk Han who was killed after being pushed onto the New York subway track

The image they published[i] shows Ki Suk Han struggling to climb back onto the platform with a subway train arriving at the station. The title splashed across the picture was “Doomed; Pushed on a subway track, this man is about to die.”

The picture was shot by freelance photojournalist R. Umar Abbasi. He has had many of his work published in the past in the New York post.  Abbasi has said that he took the pictures to alert the driver of the train that something was wrong. He has stated that he was running down the track towards Mr Han firing his flash as others were shouting to the driver and running to the train to try and make him stop[ii]. His efforts were in vain as the train did not stop. Mr Han was pronounced dead after he was taken to St.Lukes hospital. Mr Abbasi has also noted his shock that after the incident people with their smart phones were making videos of the paramedics help to him.

For me there are two questions that need to ask about the event. Did Abbasi do the right thing in taking the picture and secondly did the New Your Post do the right thing in publishing the pictures.

“From the picture you can see…….”


Umar Abbasi being interviewd on MSNBC

Umar Abbasi in this situation is an easy target to launch armchair attacks at. He was the one who took the pictures and so if he had not done this they would not have been published. The problem is with me seating comfortably with the snow falling outside, I was not there. I do not know what has happened I can only take Abbasi’s word about what happened. I would ask the question, was no one else there on the platform.

What would you have done in the situation? A lot of people sit comfortably in the tower of the philosopher king, saying I would have gone and helped, but would you? It is easy to say something and more difficult to act it out. You cannot answer this until you have been in this situation.

In this situation Abbasi actions seem plausible, with idea that firing the flash may have been the only thing he could have done to grab the attention of the train driver. We also don’t know how far way the train is from the Mr Han and Mr Han from Abbasi. If he was using a telephoto lens these distances would be distorted.

One of the reasons that people have been on the attack is because they can’t believe that a person took the photo. In the average person’s head when they read “took a picture” they see an imagine in their mind of the scene as if they took the picture. They would need to stop take out their camera compose the shot take the exposure and then take the picture.

Abbasi had been on an assignment for the Post when he was at the subway station after being at Times Square and his camera was setup for this. He was holding his camera in his hand when waiting for the train. Also in the image the flash is directed at Mr Han and the oncoming train.[iii] You don’t shot a flash straight at your subject because it blows out the details. If these pictures were being taken for the purpose of publication they would not be taken like this. Also the pictures published have been lightened and were originally a lot darker because the exposure was wrong and the images were underexposed.

With question of the “photo vs. life”, the life should always win but in a situation where nothing can be done should you still take the picture. If you have the possibility to save life then you should go there and save the life the picture comes second.

I would believe that if he could have helped he would have but as Roy S. Gutterman, associate professor of communications law and director of the Tully Centre for Free Speech at Syracuse University said;

“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.”

In this particular instance, it is reported that Mr Han was on the track for 22 seconds before he was hit by the train. Ham has also stated that he was not the closest person to Mr Han and that people standing by the 50th street exit were closer and could have helped.

Abbasi gave an interview to the post on Wednesday where he spoke about the incident;

“It was one of the most horrible things I have ever seen, to watch that man dying there.

“When it was over, I didn’t look at the pictures. I didn’t even know at all that I had even captured the images in such detail. I didn’t look at them. I didn’t want to. It was just too emotional a day.

“I brought the camera memory card back to the office and turned it in. Two detectives came and looked at the photos and I just sat in a chair.

“When I finally looked at them late that night, my heart started racing. It was terrible, seeing it happen all over again. I didn’t sleep at all. All I can hear is that man’s head against that train: boom! Boom! Boom!

“I have to say I was surprised at the anger over the pictures, of the people who are saying: why didn’t he put the camera down and pull him out?

“But I can’t let the armchair critics bother me. They were not there. They have no idea how very quickly it happened.” [iv]

Most of the anger comes from the fact that the picture was taken and exists but as Vincent Laforet, director and Pulitzer Prize winner for feature photography has said;

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.

I would tend to agree with Vincent that just because you are there does not mean you can help everyone and if you help one person then you feel the obligation to help all. Think of an apocalypse would you let all your neighbours come and stay at your house because it is well supplied or would you be selective. Where is the line?

Scene outside the Subway station after the incident.

Scene outside the Subway station after the incident.

The Right to Publish

Photojournalism does serve a civic duty, visually describing a situation and informing people of what has happened. It is up to the media to publish this.

In the case of the publication of the image should it have happened?  A picture has the supporting role to an article. It gives the article credence and truth; it helps give perspective or context. It can draw a picture better than the words printed next to it.

When Abbasi hands over the pictures as wells as others form his assignments he does not decide which are published. The question then is should the Post have published the pictures?

Still from video fotage filmed of the confrontation before Mr Han was pushed onto the tracks.

Still from video footage filmed of the confrontation before Mr Han was pushed onto the tracks.

The story of a mentally ill street seller pushing a passer-by onto the tracks could be written as a story of three tragedies; the death of an innocent man, the lack of support for the mentally ill in a first world country and the lives of the witnesses who saw the death in front of their eyes. Does a story with this angle need to have a picture of the dying man? Does the photo help support the story? Did the photo have to be published full frame or could it have been cropped?

To answer the first question, no the story does not need the picture. Pictures of the aftermath or of the pan handler who pushed Mr Ham could have done to give the story weight. Yes the picture does support the story as it shows the event just before the death but as I said before it is not needed. Finally the picture could have been cropped. Pictures in newspapers are cropped all the time so why not this time? Because in cropping the picture you would lose what could be considered the power of the picture.

Using the picture was a perverse form of voyeurism and shock to make people want to see more while being disgusted. The fact is that in people tweeting about their complaints linking the article means that more people go to the New York Posts website. In turn all of this means that bloggers just like me are writing about it and linking back. The more articles written mean other media outlets write articles. In publishing the picture the Post has had more exposure than an advertising drive. Yes they take a hit in their moral and ethical values but they have increased possible readership with new readers possibly reading other articles as well as creating advertising revenue.

The Rubicon Line

I cannot judge the photographer. He does have a job and we were not there to say what he could have done. Would I have taken the picture?  I would answer; I don’t believe I would have. It is easy for people to say, “From the picture you can see how close he is” but we don’t know. I think it is too easy to pass judgement but I do think that he could have not handed these images in. But how do these images differ from photographers shooting AIDs patients and not giving them latex gloves or money to help the people. In this case we are in the middle of New York not Africa and what?

My problem is with the fact that the picture was chosen to be published. For me this picture has crossed a line that I don’t believe can be gone back to. The publication of the picture has raised the level of shock, to shock people next time  would they have to publish more graphic images in the future.

I also find it hypocritical of some publications shaming the New York Post but then publishing the picture in shaming the Post.[v]

What do you feel about the image? Do you think the image should have been taken? Do you think the image should have been published? Or any other comment, please use the comment box below.

3 thoughts on “Crossing the Photographic Rubicon

  1. (v) Well, we can all choose not to look at the picture… Your post certainly covers alot of ground and opens a whole Pandora’s box of ethical questions regarding photography and the media – it boils down to 22 seconds: could the photographer have “helped” in that time? I doubt it and considering there were other people closer, probably not – the saving quote on his part was that he “could not look at the pictures” right away, he does have some sort of moral standing; should the newspapers publish stuff like this – no – there’s enough ugliness and death around us as it is: do you really want your 4 year old seeing this? Should mentally ill and homeless people be on the street and have to deal with their version of reality that pushes them into actions that can have horrible repercussions for innocent bystanders? No, but that’s one of the things the US government isn’t thinking about in this election year is it? These bigger questions must have some guidance and rectification from the top down – all we at the bottom can do is complain and vote, lobby, blog and bring to the world’s attention the issues we are really concerned with…

  2. A very exhaustive analysis and I don’t really have anything to add. I listened to the journo being interviewed on the World Service. He was on contract so made nothing extra for the photo. It was not his choice to publish. Should he have taken it? Do you believe his version of using the flash as a warning? I don’t know that I do but taking the photo is one thing, publishing it is wrong.

    • Hi Andrew, i have no reason not to believe him. It is possible that the camera flash would catch the attention of the driver but it is just as useful to shout and wave your arms. I do think that too much has been made of the picture being taken and less noise about the publication.

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