Would you snap a picture or pull the man to safety?

The Internet blew up with righteous criticism of the New York Post for publishing a photo of a man about to be crushed by a subway train and the photographer who took that picture.

Any one of us could be that photographer, standing on that subway platform, forced to make a choice between taking a picture and trying to help the man.

On several occasions I’ve counseled photographers and reporters working in war zones, natural disasters, and the Third World. They often are troubled by this question of when to put the camera down.

Here’s what I tell them: We are all morally obligated to help our fellow human beings, when death or serious injury is imminent and when we are the most competent person available to help.

In some cases, you are the most competent person because you are the only adult, sometimes because you are the closest, or the only person who can swim, or the only person with a phone.

The Post has explained that the freelance photographer who took the picture was trying to alert the conductor by strobing his flash. The photographer elaborated on his explanation in interviews with the Post and The New York Times: “I was not aiming to take a photograph of the man on the track … If I had reached him in time, I would have pulled him up.”

It’s tricky to second-guess people making life and death decisions and I’m not about to do it here. Instead, it’s more helpful to ask yourself about your own instincts.

Would you whip out your phone, or a make dash for the edge of the platform? Are you thinking more about how likely this is to go viral, or how likely this man is to die?

It’s a lot easier to condemn the NY Post than it is to condemn the photog. Even for The Post, the photo crossed the boundaries of journalism ethics standards. Editors there aren’t saying much about why they published it. Maybe they were thinking about iconic images like Nick Ut’s 1972 photo of children running from the chemical attacks in Vietnam or Kevin Carter’s 1993 picture of a vulture hovering near a starving Sudanese child.

In both of those cases we look at a moment of trauma and terror, where photographers had to make tough calls. Carter shooed the vulture away, but later was tormented by his failure to do more. Ut poured water over the injured girl and drove her and her family to a hospital.

But in both of those cases, editors could argue the photos held significant journalistic purpose of informing the public of gross tragedies and holding the powerful accountable. This photo doesn’t have any of those redeeming journalistic qualities. But it causes great harm, to the family of the man, to those of us who view it and to the community of New York. It is sensational and voyeuristic and nothing more.

When you publish or pass along photos of pending death without purpose, you might as well be posting a snuff film. There is no redeeming value.

Related: New York Post faces backlash | Irby: Blame NY Post editors, not photographer | Photog speaks: “Every time I close my eyes, I see the image of death.”

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  • A_Southern_Gent

    If you have to ask yourself whether you would take a photo or save a person, you are inhuman. I’ve crawled into burning cars to pull people out. I’ve run down the side of a cliff to help people who’s car ran off the road. I’ve helped put people into ambulances after they’ve been in accidents. I never stopped to think….should I try to get a photo or help them. It’s human instinct. Or, in the case of those who stand by and take pictures while people die, it’s inhuman instinct.

  • Ben Garvin

    The certainty with which people are willing to condemn (or not) the photographer is what troubles me. We weren’t there. The NYTimes reported that the man who pushed the victim approached the photographer, too. trains move fast. The internet has given everyone a chance to be an instant judge of morality but that doesn’t mean we should. I wrote my fuller take here:
    http://blogs.twincities.com/flashgarvin/2012/12/06/new-york-post-ethical-debate/

  • Donald_W_Meyers

    The obvious answer is yes, we’re humans first, journalists second. Pull the guy out of harm’s way. But it’s an easy call from the safety of one’s armchair. None of us were there, and we can’t know for sure all the variables in the equation that would determine whether it was possible to save the man.

    To further muddy the water, is there a duty to put your own life at risk to save another? From what we know, this man was pushed into the path of the train, and his alleged attacker was still in the station and even approached the photog. One could argue that by going over to save the man would put one at risk of being pushed onto the tracks as well, thus doubling the number of people killed by the train. As an EMT, I was trained to put my safety and my crew’s safety above the patient’s, since dead EMTs can’t help others. But there are situations where many would put that aside. It’s one of those situations where there really isn’t a pat right-or-wrong answer, just being able to look at the man/woman in the mirror in the eye and convincing them that you did what you could.

  • RF

    I’m a photographer and my first instinct would be to drop the camera and try to save the man.

    All bystanders should have tried to grab the guy. This is a human life with a family and people who will miss him.

    This was not a war zone where the rules change due to circumstances outside of the photographer’s control. This was the subway.

    And, maybe it’s just my cynical nature, but I doubt the photographer’s story. If they were trying simply to strobe the driver, while running, the picture wouldn’t be so perfectly composed. The moment it took for the photog to get the shot could have made a difference. Maybe not… probably not… but we’ll never know.

    Also, if the photog was too far away to get to him in time, then they should have been yelling at others on the platform to help. Yelling can trigger action from people who may freeze in the moment of tragic events.

    Those are just my thoughts. Obviously, I wasn’t there. But I know from my own past experiences with tragic events that I would have done everything I could to save that man.

    Photo be damned.

  • thx2600

    I once heard, if you’re near drowning, make sure you do it in front of one person instead of a crowd of people.

    There have been psychological studies about what a crowd does in a crisis situation. People tend to pass the buck or assume others will take charge. It’s called “diffusion of responsibility” or is also known as “Genovese syndrome.”

    I’m not saying that’s what transpired here, but it’s likely. I’ve heard reports that the man struggled for 60 seconds, trying to get back up to the platform.