THE HAUNTING photograph of Manhattan subway passenger Ki-Suck Han, taken moments before he was run over and killed by a train, is already burned into the memories of millions of people, and not just New Yorkers. It has also spawned a torrent of discussion, across TV, radio, and the Internet, about the New York Post’s decision to publish it on the newspaper’s cover, with a sensational headline (“Doomed”) that seemed to emphasize voyeurism over any conceivable news value.
The Post’s exploitative handling of the photo is the one truly objectionable aspect of the affair: Whether or not the photo served a useful function, it shouldn’t have been displayed in the way the Post did. But the other questions raised by the photo — such as whether the photographer should have dropped his camera and attempted to rescue the man, and why no one else on the platform did so — defy easy answers. They suggest that however painful and objectionable the whole affair may be, especially to the dead man’s family, the photo served to bring important issues to the forefront of debate.
Han ended up on the tracks near Times Square following a confrontation with Naeem Davis, a 30-year-old homeless man who, authorities say, pushed Han in the way of an oncoming train. A freelance photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, happened to be on the platform, and snapped photos of the train bearing down on Han. Since the Post published one of Abbasi’s pictures, many readers have understandably expressed concerns that the photographer didn’t run toward the tracks and attempt a rescue.
As more details emerge, those concerns seem less applicable. The incident unfolded quickly, as a train entered the station, and with Han’s assailant still a menacing presence on the platform; Abbasi says he was too far away to reach Han before the train, even if Davis were not there. None of the other passengers on the platform helped Han, either. Many had moved away from Han and Davis to avoid the initial altercation.
What should the passengers have done? What are the responsibilities of bystanders? Those are not simple questions. Hopefully, some of the thousands of people taking to the airwaves or keyboards to express outrage over Abbasi or, more reasonably, the Post are figuring out what they would or could do if they ever encounter someone who has fallen on the tracks. And transit authorities, including the MBTA, should use the occasion to educate people about how to rescue a passenger who has fallen to the tracks without endangering themselves.