Make a photo or a rescue attempt?
A freelance photographer in New York City took a horrifying shot of a man watching death rumble toward him.
After Ki-Suck Han, 58, was pushed onto subway tracks by another man, he was struck and killed by an oncoming train. The New York Post published the photo taken of the victim on page one, with the headline, "Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die." Beneath the picture of Han — his back to the camera, his hands on the platform — is the word "DOOMED."
The image triggered outrage and disgust that the photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, didn't try to save Han. But neither did other bystanders. Why should he be singled out for special scorn?
Journalism requires detachment and photo journalism requires instant reflexes. I am more inclined to damn tabloid news editors than a photographer who stumbles upon a soon-to-be death scene. With more time than Abbasi had to think about it, those tabloid editors unsurprisingly chose shock and web views over restraint and respect for the victim's family.
However, Stanley Forman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who now works as a cameraman for WCVB-Channel 5, and also blogs about news and photography, said, "I don't think I would have or could have taken the picture. I also like to think I would have done something to help." Added Forman: "It would be a great photo if the train was stopped."
Still, he won the first of three Pulitzer Prizes for a photo taken at the scene of a Back Bay fire that also ended in death. A 19-year-old woman and her 2-year-old goddaughter were trapped in a burning building on July 22, 1975. They made it onto a fire escape, but as a fire ladder inched closer to rescue them, the grating collapsed. Forman's photo, published in the Boston Herald American, captured the two in freefall. The woman died of her injuries, but the little girl survived.
Trying to save them was not an option. Even so, Forman said he was criticized for freezing their plunge on film. "I have no guilt as it was a routine rescue which went bad," said Forman.
But capturing a near-death moment can be both a prize and guilt-worthy.
South African photographer Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for a picture he took of a starving toddler in Sudan trying to reach a feeding center in March 1993, as a vulture waited nearby. He said taking it was his "job title." But he was harshly criticized for not trying to save her.
"The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering must just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene," blasted the St. Petersburg Times.
Carter killed himself in July 1994, leaving behind a suicide note that read in part, "I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain . . . of starving or wounded children . . ." His Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, now considered iconic, is on display at the Newseum in Washington D.C.
Abbasi may be haunted, too. "Every time I close my eyes, I see the image of death. I don't care about a photograph," he told The New York Times. Returning to the subway platform where the tragedy played out, Abbasi told the Times he was carrying heavy camera gear and standing near the 47th Street entrance when he saw the man fall on the tracks.
According to Abbasi, he started firing flashes on the camera as a way to warn the driver; if he had reached the victim in time, he said, he would have tried to rescue him.
Why should he be more accountable than others who also did nothing?
Photo-snaring smartphones turn many of us into detached observers, if not full-fledged voyeurs. Participating in the world is less thrilling than watching it go by and grabbing random pictures, from street brawls to school bus bullying and Black Friday customers gone wild.
Make a photo or a rescue effort? It's a fair question for anyone who records the dark side, and doesn't try to stop it, knowing how seductive it will be for Googlers everywhere.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at Joan_Vennochi.