Controversy grows over picture of subway push
Man snaps photo of desperate victim
Uniformed and plainclothes police officers stand outside a New York subway station after a man was killed after falling into the path of a train, Monday, Dec. 3, 2012. Transit officials say police are investigating whether he could have been pushed onto the tracks. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
The police questioned a suspect yesterday in the death of a subway rider pushed onto the tracks and photographed while he was still alive – an image of desperation that drew virulent criticism after it appeared on the front page of the New York Post.
A day after Ki-Suck Han was hit by an oncoming train, emotional questions arose over the photograph of the helpless man standing before an oncoming train at the Times Square station.
The moral issue among professional photojournalists in such situations is “to document or to assist,” said Kenny Irby, an expert in the ethics of visual journalism at the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based nonprofit journalism school.
He said that’s the choice professional photographers often face in the seconds before a fatality.
Irby spoke to the Associated Press yesterday, a day after the newspaper published the photo of Han desperately looking at the train, unable to climb off the tracks in time. It was shot for the Post by freelance photographer Umar Abbasi.
“I’m sorry. Somebody’s on the tracks. That’s not going to help,” said Al Roker on NBC’s Today show as the photo was displayed.
CNN’s Soledad O’Brien tweeted: “I think it’s terribly disturbing – imagine if that were your father or brother.” Larry King reached out to followers on Twitter to ask: “Did the (at)nypost go too far?”
Commentary posted on social media and in news broadcasts came down to one unanswered question: Why didn’t Abbasi help Han?
But Irby said it’s not that simple.
“What was done was not necessarily unethical,” Irby said. “It depends on the individual at the time of action.”
It depends, he said, on whether the photographer was strong enough to lift the man, or close enough. Abbasi said he got the shot while running to the scene and firing off his camera in hopes the flash would attract the attention of the train conductor, the Post reported.
“So there was an attempt to help,” said Irby, who blames Post editors “for the outcry” because they made the decision to publish the image.
The Post didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from the Associated Press and didn’t immediately make Abbasi available. His number isn’t listed in New York area telephone directories.
Another professional reluctant to reach conclusions was veteran photographer John Long of the National Press Photographers Association, where he is chairman of the ethics committee.
“I cannot judge the man,” he said. “I don’t know how far away he was; I don’t know if he could’ve done anything.”
However, both Long and Irby said that as a photographer, “you are morally obliged to help” – if possible, rather than take a picture.
Added Irby, “I would argue that you’re a human being before you’re a journalist.”
New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne said investigators recovered security video showing a man fitting the description of the assailant working with street vendors near Rockefeller Center.
Witnesses told investigators that they saw the suspect talking to himself before approaching Han, getting into an altercation with him and pushing him into the train’s path.
The police took the man into custody yesterday and a late edition of the Post reported he confessed.
Han, 58, of Queens, died shortly after being hit on the tracks. The police said he tried to climb a few feet to safety but got trapped between the train and the platform’s edge.
Subway pushes are unusual. Among the more high-profile cases was the January 1999 death of Kendra Webdale. A former mental patient admitted he shoved her to her death.
After that, the state Legislature passed Kendra’s Law, which lets mental health authorities supervise patients who live outside institutions to make sure they are taking their medications.