By now, you may have seen the horrific New York Post front cover page photo of Ki Suk Han moments before being struck by a New York subway train. The photo was taken by R. Umar Abbasi, a freelance photographer who was in the subway working on another assignment for NY Post.
What is also a big controversy about this cover is the headline that accompanied the photo.
Responses on NY Posts’s website and across the Internet have been very heated. Many people are enraged with Abassi, accusing him of shooting the images instead of doing more to save Han, while others felt Abbasi did all he could to try to save Han and ended up using the flash of his camera in a failed attempt to alert the conductor on board the train.
Here is the video released by NY Post in response to the outcry. In the video, Abassi stated that he tried to lift Han unto the platform, but was unable to do so..
Additionally, several prominent professional and academic names in photojournalism have weighed in their opinions on the incident, including Vincent Laforet, director and Pulitzer Prize winner for feature photograph, and John Kaplan, professor of photojournalism at the University of Florida and Pulitzer Prize winner for feature photography.
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.
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.
This ethical issue is one that I’ve talked about in an article earlier this year, Shoot or Intervene: Photographers Who Didn’t Step in to Help. It is difficult to say how one would react in a split-second decision. The first 1-2 photos may have been the result of a seasoned photographer’s trigger finger, but after that, it is hard to accurately judge Abbasi’s actions since we were not there. Did he do all that he can? Did he prioritize his images over Han’s life? It is hard to say for sure.
The one thing I will agree with the comments is that NY Post’s headline is done in very bad taste, and I criticize the paper for their tabloid-like sensationalism on this tragedy. Utterly distasteful.
In the end, Stan Alost, associate professor of photojournalism at Ohio University, said it best:
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.
Readers, what are your thoughts?
Be sure to read more thoughts from other well-known photojournalists and journalism professors at Gawker.com., as well as my article on the ethical decision to shoot or intervene.