Wick Communications

Death on the tracks

In Ethics on 7 Dec 2012 at 10:06 am


Have you seen this unforgettable front page? It is the front page of the New York Post from Monday, Dec. 3.

The man struggling to get off the tracks is Ki-Suck Han. Police say he had been pushed before the oncoming train by a peddler who claimed some beef with Han. It did not end well. Han was killed by the train that rumbled into Manhattan’s 49th Street subway stop.

The questions are these:

  • Should anyone have taken that photo?
  • Should the newspaper have run it?
  • Why didn’t the photographer help the man get off the tracks?
  • And why, for that matter, am I republishing it here?

As usual, these tragedies play out in a matter of seconds and the second-guessers have the benefit of hours of reflection. I think that is important, particularly when understanding the actions of freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi.

Abbasi told the New York Times that he was waiting to board the train when he saw what happened. He says he held his camera outstretched and triggered the flash dozens of times in an effort to alert the train’s conductor. Of course, he also saw fit to sell the resulting photo. Abbasi has been roundly lambasted in the press. From the New York Times: …

The pictures, which were published in The New York Post, brought wide criticism and were derided as ghoulish and insensitive. But the pictures’ mere existence started another conversation across the city on Tuesday, summarized by the television weatherman Al Roker, who, on NBC’s “Today Show,” said: “Somebody’s taking that picture. Why aren’t they helping this guy up?”

My take? The photographer did what he was trained to do. He documented a news event that happened in an instant. News photographers across the globe take photos of terrible atrocity. They see children dying of starvation, yet they don’t get those children something to eat. That is justified, in my view, because the resulting images have the potential to move mountains. Public opinion can do more than one man’s best intentions. And I think that is true here. The image caused New Yorkers particularly to re-evaluate their duty to their fellow man and safety near the tracks. Those are good things.

Whether editors at the newspaper should have run it is another matter entirely. I wouldn’t have run it, certainly not in my community. I would be thinking of children seeing the paper at subway newsstands and the family of the man who died. I don’t think I would consider the news value of the photograph to outweigh the potential harm here. We will not all agree on that. Others will take the opposite view. News judgment is not an absolute and, as long as you can justify your decision and are willing to accept the consequences, I think you are on the right track.

Why didn’t the photographer help the man get off the tracks? I guess that is a question between Abbasi and his god. We are not all heroes. It would have been dangerous to attempt to pull the man from the tracks. It would have required split-second decisions. Perhaps he wasn’t up to it. I would note that no one else on the platform came forward either.

Lastly, why on earth did I have to publish the photo here? That is a good question and I debated not doing so. In the end I decided that the photo had already been widely disseminated and that most of you have probably already seen it. In addition, the point of this blog is to share professional advice. This blog is available to all on the Web, but it’s readers are limited almost entirely to journalists, most working for Wick newspapers. I considered the audience and the good that could be gained from this discussion and decided to reprint it.

Look, this may seem like one of those big-city issues. But any one of us could face similar decisions tomorrow. Car accidents, accidents at the local swimming pool, airplane crashes – any number of things can happen. Best to think it through now.

— Clay

  1. It is a shame that the Post put this anywhere in their paper, let alone – the cover. That poor mans family will have to forever live with the fact that no one assisted him in those 90 seconds he was on the track and worst of all… this picture. The last moments of his life.

  2. You asked several questions that have been answered. First, why didn’t he (Abbasi) help?

    In an extensive interview with him on NPR he stated that he was to far away and was running towards the event and flashing his camera to get the attention of the conductor. He also said that there were several people near the incident that could have helped.
    On the question of why he sold the photo’s? He was actually on assignment for the Post at the time and he stated that because he was on assignment, the photo’s already belonged to the Post and he delivered them as expected. He was shooting some subway photo’s that day. So your statement why did he sell the photo’s is a little off track.
    I followed this story very closely and there are two points of view on whether or not to run the photos. I think they should have. Why? Because millions of commuters daily ride the subway and this “moment” is a fear that does cross the minds of riders. When I road the Tube in London I could not get the thought out of my head. What if?
    When you look back at some the great historic photo’s, those photo’s that are forever etched in our collective memory (the young naked girl fleeing napalm), you could ask the same thing.
    I take 1,000’s of photo’s every month and I just pull the trigger and then make a choice later on whether to submit or run. I have had one photo in the last four months that I took that was very news worthy, but the embarrassment it would have caused would have done great damage to relationships with the paper and the subject (school).
    What I did, was went to the official, and spoke to them about it and they corrected their oversight. I told them I had the photo but had decided this was the best course of action rather than publishing.
    Photo’s are powerful so great care does need to be taken. The course of action I took strengthened our relationship and took care of the issue at hand as well.
    Considering the train photo’s impact I do think the Post was justified in running it. I also believe that the press, in general, sensationalized the Photo. But that is another story all together.

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