December 5, 2012

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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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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