Fallout over New York Post’s subway death photo will not die soon

Matt Coutts
Daily BrewDecember 5, 2012

The disturbing photograph of a man about to be killed by an oncoming subway first appeared on the cover of the New York Post on Tuesday but has since spread across the Internet, attacked as sensational on Twitter and defended in first-hand accounts by the photographer himself.

Fifty-eight-year-old Ki-Suk Han was pushed onto the subway tracks and, as others watched in horror, freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi snapped photographs as certain death approached.

In a full account of the incident, Abbasi told the Post he was too far away from the victim to offer a hand before the train arrived, adding he has not been able to sleep since witnessing the gruesome death:

I just started running. I had my camera up — it wasn't even set to the right settings — and I just kept shooting and flashing, hoping the train driver would see something and be able to stop.

I had no idea what I was shooting. I'm not even sure it was registering with me what was happening. I was just looking at that train coming.

It all went so quickly; from the time I heard the shouting until the time the train hit the man was about 22 seconds.

The train hit the man before I could get to him, and nobody closer tried to pull him out.

The Post first said Abbasi was not physically strong enough to help save the man as media ethicists and the stunned public continue to debate the man's motives.

[ Related: Tabloid photographer says he could not have saved subway victim ]

All the while, another debate rages over how the Post treated the death. An image of the subway bearing down on the man was splashed across its front page, with the headline, "Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die."

An all-caps subhead reads: DOOMED.

Roy S. Gutterman, a communications law professor at Syracuse University, told Gawker a journalist cannot participate in a story and report on it at the same time:

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.

John Long, of the National Press Photographers Association, told Forbes.com that it is a journalist's duty to assist if at all possible.

If you have placed yourself in a situation where you can help, you are morally obligated. The proper thing to do would've been to put down the camera and try to get the guy out. I can understand why people are upset. Your job as a human being, so to speak, outweighs your job as a photojournalist.

Kenny Irby, a visual journalism ethicist at the Poynter Institute, says the photographer's decision to snap instead of assist does not come down to a question of right and wrong — citing Abbasi's distance from the scene.

I get that the photographer, Mr. Abbasi, made a decision to document the imminent demise of Mr. Ki Suk Han, because he may have not been strong enough to lift the injured man from the track himself and thus he made a decision to document after attempting to warn the conductor by "rapidly flashing" his camera's flash unit.

There are times when authentically documented images are indeed too disturbing and cross the line of dignity and integrity. This moment was too private in my view.

This moment of privacy, most pundits agree, was further desecrated by the way the New York Post chose to present the story. The vivid image was splashed across its front page, with little apparent though of how it would affect the victim's family.

The New York Times weighed in on the Post's front page, saying that while the photographer's decision to capture the image may have been a spur of the moment decision, the decision to sensationalize the death was not.

But the decision to put the image on the The Post's cover and frame it with a lurid headline that said "this man is about to die"? That part didn't happen quickly. The treatment of the photo was driven by a moral and commercial calculus that was sickening to behold.

The marginal civic good served by the story — watch yourself on the subway platform — could have been performed in far more honorable ways. He ended up run over twice.

The Times went on to compare the photo to those of jumpers falling from the World Trade Centre on Sept. 1, 2001.

This incident has also been compared to a 1993 image of a starving Sudanese girl laying in the dirt as a vulture hovered nearby. Photographer Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph but, consumed by grief, committed suicide shortly after.

Holly Hughes, editor of the Photo District News, tells the Daily Beast that there is a difference between provocative images that capture significant moments and sensational photographs.

News photographers in situations where something horrible has happened are often viewed as vultures who exploit other people's suffering, and I think that's an unfair rap. I think there is newsworthiness in conveying to the world important major events which can sometimes be upsetting. However, I don't know what we learned from this photo.

As the National Post points out, the New York Post has showed little remorse, posting the controversial image on its front page again the next day.

The Associated Press reports that a suspect has implicated himself to police in Han's death.

[ Related: NYC police make arrest in fatal subway push ]

So while the investigation into Han's death may soon head to court, it will be the court of public opinion that rules on whether the New York Post's front page spread was justified, or a black mark on journalism.