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. Continue reading “The awful picture from the New York subway”