The awful picture from the New York subway

Great news photos often come with a moral taint. Maybe it’s the gaze they enable, the way they distill misery, desperation, injury, sorrow into mere spectacle. We look, but we’re torn by contradictory impulses: To witness, and to avert our eyes. Both, paradoxically, are testimony to our humanity. Neither offers comfort.

I’m reminded of two extraordinary pictures. The first is the 1975 shot of two falling girls, one a small child the other her 19-year-old babysitter, who had fled a burning Boston apartment house onto a fire escape that collapsed. The younger girl lived, the teen died, the photographer won a Pulitzer. The second is the equally famous 1985 picture of a drowned 5-year-old boy in Bakersfield, Calif., his face visible in a partly unzipped body bag. He’s surrounded by his horrified family, the photo a stunning tableau of grief and loss.

There’s nothing new about the power of such images, or about the outrage and dismay that they provoke, or about the certainty they stoke that the news media thrive on intrusion and exploitation. The latest such case is the subway victim photo that the New York Post ran on its front page on Dec. 4, after 58-year-old Ki-Suck Han was pushed onto the track at the 49th Street station in Manhattan and was photographed looking at the oncoming train that moments later took his life.

The picture raised two very different questions: Should it have been taken, and should it have been published.

The first question implicates the conduct of the photographer, a freelancer named R. Umar Abassi. He was there only through happenstance, and says that once he realized Han had been pushed onto the track farther down the platform, he began running toward the man and firing off his digital camera in hopes of alerting the train driver with his flash. The picture that eventually ran worldwide was a byproduct of his frantic attempt to help.

Whether he, or the other bystanders on the Midtown platform, did all they could to rescue Han in the moments before the train hit him is a reasonable question. Nobody, it seems, tried the obvious—to pull him to safety.

I don’t know why. I do know, as a rider on subways in many cities, that underground train stations are scary places where we mill with transient crowds of strangers while we wait for iron monsters to roar out of the darkness atop lethal currents of electricity, and come within inches of crunching us to bits.

We’d all like to be action heroes, but unless we’re trained first-responders it will take even the best of us a few moments to figure out how to handle the situation the passengers—photographer included—faced on Dec. 4. And by then it was too late.

I think we have no choice but to forgive them. And I’m glad Abassi never offered the lame excuse that his status as a journalist absolved him of the basic moral duty to render aid on the ground that his responsibility was to chronicle evils, not to prevent them. Nowadays, that same logic could apply equally to everyone there with a smart phone, since all had the ability to make pictures and get them published.

(There may be times when journalists should insist on the ethical primacy of their work: If all the reporters at the scene of a disaster tend to the injured, who will tell the rest of the world what happened—and issue the call for help? Indeed, journalism does have a purpose of its own.)

But assuming the picture wasn’t made at the cost of a rescue, that Han was indeed “doomed,” as the Post headline put it, was publishing it still proper?

It was a deeply disturbing image, one that naturally upset Han’s family, and the Post played it big, which couldn’t help but maximize its market impact, gin up street sales and feel cruelly exploitative.

But to me, it was also a truly great picture. It did what news should do, yank us out of our realities and force us to experience another.

In Aristotle’s conception of tragedy as evoking terror and pity, this was a profoundly tragic image. It was actuality, not art, but it did what art at its best can do, create a moment of communion—in this case, the recognition that we are all alone on a track, facing our own mortality, and that this man, whom you will never meet, was your brother.

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