NY Post photog: ‘Every time I close my eyes, I see the image of death’

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In an interview with The New York Times, in a first-person cover story in the New York Post and on the “Today” show, freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi defended himself after being criticized for taking pictures of Ki Suk Han as he was stuck on a subway track, about to be killed by an oncoming train. From the Times:

The freelance photographer who took the pictures, R. Umar Abbasi, defended his actions in an interview. “I’m being unfairly beaten up in the press,” he said at his apartment in Greenwich Village on Tuesday, before leading a reporter to the 49th Street subway platform to re-enact what had happened.

Mr. Abbasi said he was wearing a 20-odd pound backpack of camera gear for an assignment, and was standing near the 47th Street entrance to the platform when he saw the man fall on the tracks.

“Nobody helped,” he said. “People started running away.”

“I saw the lights in the distance,” signaling a subway’s approach, he said, so he started firing off flashes on the camera — 49 times in all, he said — as a means of warning the driver.

“I was not aiming to take a photograph of the man on the track,” he said, later adding that his arm was fully outstretched, the camera far from his face.

“If I had reached him in time, I would have pulled him up,” he said. At one point, the man said to have shoved Mr. Han came toward Mr. Abbasi, he said, so he backed up against a wall, still flashing his camera. He estimated the victim was on the tracks for 10 or 15 seconds before he was struck.

“The driver said he slowed down because he saw my flashes,” he said.

Mr. Abbasi said he brought police officers to The Post’s offices, where they examined the pictures for any images of the perpetrator, and he left the camera’s memory card with editors at The Post. He was not part of the decision to publish the pictures, he said.

“Every time I close my eyes, I see the image of death,” he said. “I don’t care about a photograph.”

Courtesy: Newseum

In the New York Post, Abbasi said, “I had no idea what I was shooting. I’m not even sure it was registering with me what was happening. I was just looking at that train coming.”

When it was over, I didn’t look at the pictures.

I didn’t even know at all that I had even captured the images in such detail. I didn’t look at them. I didn’t want to. …

I have to say I was surprised at the anger over the pictures, of the people who are saying: Why didn’t he put the camera down and pull him out?

But I can’t let the armchair critics bother me. They were not there. They have no idea how very quickly it happened.

They do not know what they would have done.

Poynter senior faculty Kelly McBride asks, what would you do in a similar situation?

Poynter senior faculty Kenny Irby said by email Tuesday, “My problem is with the publication’s editors, who clearly had alternative photographs to use and chose to use the most disturbing.”

On the “Today” show, Abbasi said he was at the subway stop because he was on assignment in Times Square covering the shoeless man who had been given shoes by a police officer. “It’s not that I ran to the Post and said, ‘Hey guys, I have a photograph that you might be interested in.’ ”

Upon questioning by Savannah Guthrie, Abbasi acknowledged he has been paid for the photograph. “People have expressed an interest,” he said.

Other perspectives:

  • David Carr, The New York Times: “The Post cover treatment neatly embodies everything people hate and suspect about the news media business: not only are journalists bystanders, moral and ethical eunuchs who don’t intervene when danger or evil presents itself, but perhaps they secretly root for its culmination.”
  • Bryan Goldberg, Pando Daily: “Every single journalist should be appalled by what the New York Post did, and they have a responsibility to speak out against it.”
  • Stan Alost, Ohio University photojournalism professor: “The decision to photograph or help is always controversial. Journalists are trained to observe and to not inject themselves into situations. The idea is that the power of the reporting/image can help society, if not the individual.”
  • John Long, NPPA: “Your job as a human being, so to speak, outweighs your job as a photojournalist”
  • Holly Hughes, editor of Photo District News: “News photographers in situations where something horrible has happened are often viewed as vultures who exploit other people’s suffering, and I think that’s an unfair rap.”
  • Unnamed veteran tabloid photographer, Capital NY: “He’s just one person who had to make a snap decision under pressure. Far more deserving of fault I think are the tabloid vultures in the newsroom that negotiated, paid for, and published this photo; a photo that adds nothing to the conversation or the story except shock value. If that were my father or brother on the front page today I’d be livid.”
  • Stephen Mayes, managing director of the photo agency VII: “The event happened in public, people saw it. Now it’s just been seen by more people … It is shocking. It doesn’t make me feel great to look at it. But it didn’t make me feel great when I heard about the incident either. To me, withholding that picture would have been a form of censorship.”
  • J. Bryan Lowder, Slate: The photo “forces us into an almost unbearable exchange of gazes—between the doomed man, the helpless train driver, the onlookers further up the platform, and finally, the photographer, with whom we are implicated in choosing to look. Of course, we demand images like this with our news, yet we also clearly feel a great deal of guilt in consuming them. … In looking at an image like this, we can’t help but identify with the victim (or perhaps even with the train conductor); we are forced to imagine the horror of being in either of their positions because in a certain sense, the feared event hasn’t happened yet, to them or to us. For New York subway riders in particular, this image manifests a collective nightmare, the reality that something like this could easily happen to any one of us on our morning commutes. But no one likes a nightmare, and so we resent being forced to experience it.”

Police say they are questioning a man who has implicated himself in pushing Han onto the tracks.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=609776098 Jim Hopkins

    I seriously doubt this was on the Post editors’ minds at the time, but by publishing the photo, they drew even more attention to the dangers of standing too close to the subway platform. In that respect, highlighting the incident may save lives in the future.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    Are you seriously comparing this event to a picture from World War II?

    “This photo should go a long way in motivating people to get involved in their communities, maybe helping people so this doesn’t happen again. This photo demonstrates what happens in real life.”
    How? This makes little sense. There’s a huge amount of figurative real estate between the actual events and whatever point you are trying to make. If you say we need these photos on the front page to reach that conclusion, then you need to recalibrate.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.knilands Robert Knilands

    “To me, withholding that picture would have been a form of censorship.” No. Editors looking at choices and deciding what to use is part of editing. It is in no way censorship.

    If we’re looking for people to blame, I would first look at the “visuals first” infopimps who have turned journalism into visualwordstuff. It would be very interesting to take a survey where people list their position and then say whether they support using this picture on the front page. I would bet a large amount of money that people in the infopimp positions would support the decision by a large margin, while the more sensible people (always a relative term in today’s dysfunctional newsrooms) would exercise far better judgment.

  • roblamberti1

    These horrible things happen around the world. It’s not supposed to happen in civilized society. People are murdered, and people are hurt or killed in car crashes and industrial accidents. Media report the incidents, but more often than not, readers shrug. However — as was written by Life Magazine in 1943 when it ran a picture of dead U.S. Marines on the beach of some long forgotten Pacific island — sometimes words are not enough. This photo should go a long way in motivating people to get involved in their communities, maybe helping people so this doesn’t happen again. This photo demonstrates what happens in real life.

  • Scott Blanchard

    York (Pa.) Daily Record/Sunday News visual journalist Jason Plotkin wrote about this issue after getting tweets asking if he’d helped a firefighter at a fire scene Jason was shooting: http://www.yorkblog.com/ydrinsider/2012/04/09/photographers-resonsibilities/

  • langphil

    The photographer in question here attempted to intervene in whatever fashion he could. What about the other people on the platform, where is the outrage directed at them?

    Any public anger in this case should be directed at the person who pushed this poor individual, not the people who happened to be present.

    The editors decision to publish this image on the front cover, with what must be the intention of in acheeiving increased sales is another case and is certainly reprehensible in my opinion.