Pulitzer Prize Photographers & Others Respond to NY Post Subway Photo

Current Events December 5th 2012 5:31 AM 17 Comments

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.

Vincent Laforet

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.

 

John Kaplan

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.

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About

Joe is a rising fashion and commercial photographer based in Los Angeles, CA. He blends creativity and edge with a strong style of lighting and emotion in his photographs. Be sure to check out his work at www.fotosiamo.com and connect with him on Google Plus and on Facebook

17 Comments

  1. Shirlene M

    proves not everyone is a hero

  2. Michael Kokott

    Wasn’t there so i can’t say what possibly could have been done and if the photographer had any chance at all to rescue the victim.
    But i would be interested to know if there were more pictures on the card – like when the man was killed and aftermath. If so i would say the ‘flashing to alert the driver’ was an excuse in favour to get a ‘good’ shot.
    If this would have been the only picture on the card i had no doubt trusting the photogs saying.

  3. Life in DSLR

    I believe that Abbasi did what he could to alert the oncoming train of the man on the tracks. It’s interesting how so much blame is placed on the photographer when in fact there were plenty of other people at the station that could’ve have also attempted to rescue the man. It’s sad how the publics default response to situations like this is to use the photographer as a scapegoat and somehow bring justice to what happened. 

    Now on the same token I also think that it was incredibly unethical on the NY Post’s part to publish this image. There’s no way the NY Post couldn’t see that this would be the outcome of publishing that photo. One could even argue that they did it to get a reaction and go viral.

    We live in a society where we need to be constantly amazed and wow’d to gain our attention. But is it truly getting to the point where people believe it is okay to utilize a photo like this simply as an anecdote to gain ones attention?

    The job of a photojournalist is to take pictures that communicate the reality of a situation to hopefully inspire action or in the very least draw awareness to something that is happening. This photo does no such thing. It only creates outrage and essentially hangs the photographer out to dry.

    • Patrick Terrence Robinson

      IT’S UNETHICAL ON ABASSI’S PART THAT HE EVEN GAVE THE PICTURE TO THE POST! IF HE FELT SO BAD HE SHOULD HAVE PRESSED DELETE!!!

    • Martin Esquives

      If he didn’t post it, the story wouldn’t have such an impact. At least this way he’s showing the desperation of a man PUSHED on to the tracks. Maybe this story can lead to an increase in security. 

      Oh and we don’t know how far away he was. All this is speculating. Only a few people know what really happened. I assume that if he could save the man, he would. It’s basic human nature.

  4. Tony Anastasi

    hanging out the photographer to dry would be like Iconic Tiananmen Square Tank Man photograph, no?

  5. Merle Peters

    It’s hard to say what any of us would have done unless you’re put in the exact situation.
    The easy response is to be angry with the photographer. I’m not absolving him. Personally I’d like to think I’d do more to try and pull the man to safety. I question how blinding the train driver with your flash would help him see the man on the tracks. But that’s hindsight on my part. I also question why more people on the platform didn’t step up. If a few had each grabbed an arm, perhaps a tragedy could have been avoided. Surely the photographer wasn’t the only one on the platform.

    Posting the picture on the front page in such a callous manner is, in my opinion, a sad statement of our society. I’m sure it sold a lot of papers.

  6. Mike Philippens™

    If only other photographers think the man’s not to blame for not trying everything to rescue the man, it makes it pretty unbelievable doesn’t it..
    Go to any other public forum and you’ll read about people who think he could have tried more. I think so too. I have to assume it’s a train not stopping at that particular station, otherwise it would have gone slower. Also, I don’t see other people waiting to get in. But still, the photographer had plenty of time to try to rescue the man, and when that failed (?) he went back and took the photo. Pretty quick guy!
    He could have walked/run towards the train, attracting attention of the driver. And if you get on the track, it would have been easier to push the guy up and then get off the track himself.

    There were plenty of options and the only thing the photographer could think of (he had plenty of time for that) was to take a photo? Warning the driver with flashes? What a dumb idea. The driver would only look in his direction, missing the person on the track. This is NY, for crying out loud, people take pictures of trains all the time. If he were on the track, flashing away, I would have believed him. But, no…he took a freakin’ picture. And all his gullable photographer friends are defending him. If you ever wanted to know what a Pavlov reaction was, you can just read the reactions over here…

    Sad.

    • LiberationNYC

      There is an interview with the photographer on the NBC web site. He was at the opposite end of the platform when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the man get shoved onto the tracks. There were people much closer by who did nothing. He went running towards the man and the train as it was pulling in flashing his camera to get the trains attention. He wasn’t trying to take photographs. He says all of this happened in about 20 seconds. 

      In the interview he says he and the police went back to the Post’s office to see if the photos captured anything that could be used as evidence. The photos were all black as the cameras settings were set for the daylight outside where he was just working. The Post lightened them and made the decision to run the photo on their cover.

      I’m not defending him. Until the NBC interview where he told the entire story, including the fact about the images all being black because he wasn’t trying to take photos, I was furious with him as well. He also speaks about how the crowd – the same people who were closest to the man and did nothing – took out their phones to shoot photos and videos of the aftermath as a doctor was trying to help the man. THEY were in a position to help and did nothing.

      All NYC trains come barreling into the stations like this train did. In NYC we have “express trains” which bypass stations but they are on the other side of the local trains, nowhere near the pedestrians or platforms. If there are ‘emergency power cut off’ switches as someone mentioned in another comment, we, the general public, are not aware of them, their locations or how to use them. It’s very easy for people in other cities around the world who have different types of protective measures in place to say what they would have done.
      In my opinion, the blame here lies solely on the man who pushed this person onto the tracks and the people who stood close by and did nothing.

  7. Patrick Terrence Robinson

    Wow! ARE YOU PEOPLE REALLY SERIOUS??? Listen to this man??? Look at the first pic! Listen to the interview when he said HE HEARD THE ANNOUNCER SAY THE TRAIN WAS APPROACHING! He saw the man on the tracks! He’s taking pictures!!!! Flashing the flash to alert the conductor! All of that takes time. In that space of time he could have been shouting to others to help! The second one person gets involved, other people will help! I ain’t buying his story! I’m a photographer as well and that crap what Larofet is talking about when he was shooting Katrina victims is like comparing apples to oranges! This is ONE MAN stuck in the path of A FRIGGIN MOVING TRAIN!!! Secondly…ABASSI talks about how he felt so bad! REALLY! If  he did…then why the hell did you sell the picture to the tabloid! These people are so ridiculous!!! 

    • Patrick Terrence Robinson

      AND TO ADD INSULT TO INJURY, The NYP knew exactly what they were doing! All they care about is how many people will view the paper and read the story, and they succeeded! SO WHAT if a man’s life was in danger! Hey it’s controversial, and will receive a lot of negative responses, BUT it will be seen! That’s all the media is about! Get a story that will be viewed around the world!

  8. AllanVS

    I don’t know about NYC, but I’m sure it’s similar to Toronto’s Subway – EVERY SINGLE STATION has an Emergency Power Cut Off, which would have stopped the trains, literally on the tracks.  They are CLEARLY marked on the TTC platforms.  It would have taken the photographer (or another person) all of 5 seconds to reach it, and turn off power to that track.  Why didn’t anyone do that?!

    • Mark

      5 seconds was all it would have taken the man to get out of the tracks. He didn’t have 5 seconds, That’s the point. And the train doesn’t come to an immediate hault, It has to slow down or it would injur/kill everyone on it!

    • AllanVS

        At 1:05 you see the train is still several HUNDRED feet outside of the
      station, that is more then enough time for SOMEONE, ANYONE to have
      killed power.
      When power is cut on the platform, emergency breaks are applied, resulting in a much faster stop.
      The only reason I know this, is I have hit the emergency power cut off.  I was lucky I was standing less then 5 feet from it, when a blind lady, and her dog fell onto the tracks.  I looked around, saw the power cut off, and my fist went through the plastic cover, pounded the button, and instantly I heard the train’s breaks apply. 
      911 was called, TTC supervisors, and track officials came down, her, her husband (both blind) and her dog were lifted off the tracks.  TTC supervisors called me a hero for shutting off the power, I denied I was one, and walked out, before they could ask my name/info. 
      I didn’t hit the power off for my own personal glory, I didn’t do it to get my name/face plastered in the papers, or to get an award, and I certainly didn’t sit there taking photographs and claim “I couldn’t think of what else to do.”
      I did it because it was the right thing to do, to save someone’s life, and save a service animal’s life. 

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