Why do we blame the (visual) messenger for tragedies?

With the click of a shutter, in a dimly illuminated New York City subway tunnel, on the evening of December 3, it happened again.

Actually, it was more like several clicks of the shutter, and the “it” was another tragic act of human inhumanity.

Independent photographer R. Umar Abbasi was the authentic witness to a crime beyond our wildest imaginations. After a verbal altercation, 31-year-old Naeem Davis, now charged with second-degree murder, pushed 58-year-old Ki-Suck Han, of Queens, N.Y., into the path of an oncoming subway train.

Almost immediately after the New York Post published the photograph of Han's last few living moments on the cover of their tabloid and their website, it seems like everyone -- media and citizen alike -- blamed the visual messenger for doing his journalistic duty.

In this modern era, with all of our personal digital assistants and the 24-hour news cycle, now more than ever in human history, viewers want -- even expect -- to see tragic and sometimes morbid reflections of life ASAP! The need for speed drives the habits of iPhone, Android, tablet scrolling users with an insatiable need for the latest.

For the better part of last week, journalists, media pundits, academics and average consumers with voracious appetites for images have debated the media moral of the New York Post's decision to publish the photograph. At last check, the paper that prides itself on holding the powerful accountable and publishing the truth, is dissonantly silent.

Public reaction

The reaction of the viewing public should not be a surprise to anyone. Throughout history, still photographs have touched the hearts and minds of audiences around the world, and, in America especially, they have moved audiences to action.

Just remember the photographic reporting of Civil War carnage by Mathew Brady; Civil Right Freedom Riders by Charles Moore; Vietnam Napalm Bombing by Nick Ut; US Soldiers being dragged and beaten in the dirt streets of Somalia by Paul Watson; the desperate and abandoned Katrina victims by Vincent Laforet, to name a few.

In each instance, the photographers themselves, their newsrooms and their audiences wrestled with a haunting question: Could you have helped the people inside the frame?

For the most part, I know these brave and courageous individuals who place their lives on the line repeatedly, so that others can witness some of life’s more daunting and perplexing facets. They see themselves as the eyes of the community, society's lens.

Just pause and consider that when everyone else is fleeing, seeking safety, there are women and men who place themselves in harm's way, much like law enforcement officers, firefighters and emergency service workers, who press on toward the center of disaster and the epicenter of danger.

To document or to assist

Abbasi made a decision to document the imminent demise of Han; he may not have been able to reach Han in time or been strong enough to lift the Han from the track himself. So as he attempted to warn the conductor by rapidly flashing his camera’s flash unit, he also documented.

This begs the question, “Could he have done more?" Eighty percent of 17,786 viewers polled by the NBC "Today" show during Abbasi’s interview felt that he should have put the camera down and offered help to Mr. Han. My own personal survey of citizens in a physical therapy center in St. Petersburg, Fla., where I was rehabbing my knee said that 20-22 seconds was time enough to save Han.

And yet, our opinion is no match for Abbasi’s experience.

Abbasi stands firmly on his word, acknowledging that he was carrying some 20 pounds of gear and he himself felt threatened by overtures made toward him by the perpetrator, and maintains that, “there is no way that I could have saved him.”

Independence and intervention

It is a long-standing fact that journalists have historically been taught to maintain their independence and objectivity when covering stories, as those are essential elements of credibility. If I have heard it once, I have heard it a million times, “Our job is to cover the news and not create news.”

For the record, I myself have been a passionate supporter of this guideline. And, I have advanced my personal ethic to allow for the essential fact that I am a human being first and a journalist second. Therefore, in matters of life and death, if I can render aid, I will.

This flies in the face of objectivity and forces us to come to terms with our subjective realities.

What we publish

Whatever our purpose in documenting, it is a separate decision to publish images, as I said last week:

The moment just before death is a delicate fraction of a second and the NY Post print edition and cover screen image lacks compassion for the victim, his family, his friends and the Post’s audience. In a few words it is disgusting, disconcerting, insensate and intrusive.

I get that the photographer, Mr. Abbasi, made a decision to document the imminent demise of Mr. Ki Suk Han, because he may have not been strong enough to lift the injured man from the track himself and thus he made a decision to document after attempting to warn the conductor by “rapidly flashing” his camera’s flash unit.

There are times when authentically documented images are indeed too disturbing and cross the line of dignity and integrity. This moment was too private in my view.

And yes, I am saying that there are times that a photographic reporter may witness situations that are not published, broadcast or posted for public reviewing. The NY Post had several solid alternatives (just view their video).

My problem thus is with the publication’s editors, who clearly had alternative photographs to use and chose to use the most disturbing.

Reflection above reaction

As the next chapter in this tragedy plays out, Abbasi rightly feels that he is being made out to be the bad guy as others question his motives as they relate to contests, compensation and compromise. Much of this remains to be clarified and we have good reason to pause and consider that there may be some good that comes out of this tragedy, as lessons learned.

It is of little value to question the photographer's ethical values and motives without holding the publishing organization accountable too.

At the end of one interview, Abbasi said that in looking at the underexposed, raw photographs, “you would say, I can not see anything in them.”

I beg to differ. I see a photographer that will suffer for many days with post-traumatic stress. A man that will be, for many days to come, the topic of ridicule and scorn even. A man whose images will raise some consciousness about safety for strap-hangers in New York City.

A man that at the end of his day, was trying to do his job the best way that he knew how. And I also see, from still photographs and surveillance video, many people in a better position to assist and offer aid, who did nothing.

  • Kenneth Irby

    Kenny founded Poynter's photojournalism program in 1995. He teaches in seminars and consults in areas of photojournalism, leadership, ethics and diversity.


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