The deadliest image

December 6, 2012

If the photograph that R. Umar Abbasi shot and the New York Post ran on its cover Tuesday of a subway car bearing down on Ki-Suck Han doesn’t make you shudder, you’re probably a little dead inside. And if, after looking at the cover once or twice, you didn’t return for another quick glance, or replay the image in your mind’s eye, you might be a cyborg.

The subway photograph conveys a kind of terror that’s different from the terror produced by red-meat shots from the battlefield, photos of monks self-immolating, or even surveillance video of car bombs detonating and blasting people over like bowling pins. The subway photo doesn’t document human destruction, it documents the anticipation of destruction, and that rattles a separate part our psyche, explains media scholar Barbie Zelizer in her 2010 book, About to Die: How News Images Move the Public.

“About-to-die images tweak the landscape on which images and public response work,” Zelizer told me two years ago in an interview. “[I]mages of impending death play to the emotions, the imagination, and the contingent and qualified aspects of what they depict.”

The cinema has been exploiting the power of about-to-die images for more than a century, routinely placing characters in death’s path and extending the anticipatory moment to yank our strings like puppet masters. Inside the cinematic moment, we become the person in peril, especially when the character in peril is an innocent victim, or young, or a “woman in peril.”

When such moments as the Ki-Suck Han moment are photographed in the real world and published in a prominent place like the cover of the New York Post, the first instruction our instincts give us is that his impending death could have been ours. Even if we live hundreds of miles from the nearest subway, we think, I could have been the one shoved into the path of the Q train! The nightmare of being alive but seeing your death approach was precisely the effect the New York Post‘s editors sought when they unknowingly channeled Zelizer’s thesis into their cover headline: “DOOMED: Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die.”

As horrific as photos of corpses, splatter shots, and images of body parts may be, they don’t have the psychological effect on us that an about-to-die photograph has. Explicit images of death tend to repel viewers, Zelizer says, and that distance tends to tamp down the terror. But images of impending death tend to attract curiosity and study. “They often draw viewers in, fostering engagement, creating empathy and subjective involvement, inviting debate,” Zelizer told me.

The debate over the New York Post‘s publication of the subway photograph has turned visceral, with experienced journalists writing straight from the gut. In the New Republic, Tom McGeveran of Capital New York calls the photograph unpleasant and nasty, and its publication “tasteless,” explaining with distaste that tastelessness and the trafficking in “cruelty” of such human circumstance defines the New York Post formula. In the New York Times, David Carr describes the photo’s appearance on the Post‘s cover “sickening to behold,” asserting that “We are all implicated by this photo, not just the man who took it.”

About-to-die images inspire many of us to replay the tragedy in a way that would have avoided the disaster. It’s hard to look at the subway picture and not mentally exhort Han to vault back onto the platform even though you know he is cold dead. The Washington Post‘s Jonathan Capehart was seduced by this urge, obliquely wishing that Abbasi had discarded his camera and rescued Han.

How a photographer — who has trained his mind to block out the rest of the world so he can capture disturbing images — has a special responsibility to turn superhero, as Abbasi’s critics suggested he did, is beyond me. Had Han successfully scrambled off the track bed, Abbasi would be dusting his trophy case to make room for a Pulitzer instead of making the less-than-plausible excuses about how he hoped that his repeated camera flashes would alert the train operator to stop for a man on the tracks.

In an email interview today, Zelizer recommends that we take a breather and place the incident inside its historical context.

“The outrage is less about the photo, picture or the New York Post than it is about us and how we are always changing the uncomfortable boundaries of when it’s appropriate to show death,” she writes. “In the 1940s, this picture would have been celebrated as a professional triumph.”

The subway-photo debate speaks legions about our increasing squeamishness, Zelizer tells me, and the changes in our views about morality, politics, and technology. “The debate about this photographer becomes a useful punching bag for all our unresolved sentiments about what to show in news pics.”

The deadliest image, it turns out, is the one in which the victim is still alive.

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Can’t argue with any on it.

Posted by Foxdrake_360 | Report as abusive

of it. sorry it’s 4 am here.

Posted by Foxdrake_360 | Report as abusive

Why would someone even take a picture and not help the person up? I just don’t understand how some people can be so out of tune with humanity to take a picture for their own ideas instead of lending a hand to a fellow person, especially in the case of a life or death situation. In this photo, the man may have lived, but have we really gotten to such a place that this is going to become common place?

Posted by LizKarschner | Report as abusive

And your point is?

Human nature being what it is, what do you expect?

With 7 billion people on the planet, and issues far more pressing than the fate of one person, you are wasting our time by writing about this.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

This photo and the cameraman’s inaction describes in one picture the parasitic nature of journalism. How can you justify a man taking a picture(and profiting from said picture) when another man is about to die? Most photographers document death and destruction with the intention of raising awareness, or the acknowledgement that the subjects involved are far greater then themselves and therefore only discussable from a broader context. This is… what. A picture of a man about to die, a case study in the apathy of humanity? Or is it an exercise in ethics? To see how many of his peers it takes to justify something like this.

Posted by vinylambo | Report as abusive

The man isn’t supposed to be a superhero, for sure, but my first thought about the photo was “That sure is good quality for a security cam” followed by “oh, some jack!@# thought taking a picture was the appropriate thing to do at the moment he saw another human was in danger.”

Not that I really expect much else from humanity.

Posted by Jameson4Lunch | Report as abusive

Irresponsible reporting by all.

This article does not even mention who or how the victim was ‘pushed’ on the subway tracks, which leaves open the possibility that he got there on his own will, for whatever reason. That would take away from the market ‘value’ of the photo.

From the photographers’s location by studying the photo, provided that it has not been modified in Photoshop, the distance between the train & the victim is too short for anyone to put their own life in danger to save a stranger.

Being an imaging specialist for more than 40 years & knowing the insides of the NY Post for more than 30 years, I’m 99% sure that this photo has been heavily manipulated in Photoshop.

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

By the way, does everyone here consider the NY Post a newspaper ?
It has been more like a drama tabloid for a long time, in my opinion anyway.

Posted by EthicsIntl | Report as abusive

@LizKarschner: “Why would someone even take a picture and not help the person up?”
— It’s not easy to lift a 70–80kg man vertically 1.5m, and it’s dangerous to try to do so while a train is approaching at speed, especially if you have to stand right on the edge of the platform and lean your head out a little to do so — the result could have been two dead people instead of one.

> “less-than-plausible excuses about how he hoped that his repeated camera flashes would alert the train operator to stop for a man on the tracks.”
— Indeed. If this “photographer” had any idea what they were doing, they would have realised that with their camera pointing in this direction, their flash would have been more likely to effectively BLIND the train-driver than to alert them.

From the article linked from the word “…excuse…”:
> “The victim was so far away from me, I was already too far away to reach him when I started running.
> “The train hit the man before I could get to him, and nobody closer tried to pull him out.”
— This is the most chilling part for me. There were people closer to the victim, who didn’t try to help rescue the man, although they had far more opportunity to do so than the photographer did. Making matters worse, as you can see in the photograph, none of them stood on the edge of the platform flailing their arms about to attract attention and show the driver there was something wrong. They’re nowhere to be seen! Why so?

One reason why this bothers me is because I’ve personally witnessed this kind of behaviour in crowds: a man is beaten up in the street, or a woman victimized by a threatening man, and dozens of people walk by, yet no-one sticks up for the victim or calls the police. Road traffic accidents where a cyclist gets bashed onto the ground head-first in the middle of a busy junction (with drivers looking on from all sides) and his bicycle smashed up by a careless car driver who has obviously broken the rules of the road, yet no-one stops to register as a witness, the driver denies responsibility and so gets away Scott free “your word against his”… Schools where some psycho boy throws a high kick at another boy’s head or a punch at another boy’s back, and everybody sees it except the victim, yet no-one warns the person who’s about to be kicked or identifies the perpetrator after the fact.
In other cases where morbid curiosity trumps compassion: a man collapsed in the city center, blacked out for several minutes, awakes surrounded by dozens of curious onlookers, none of them medically qualified or even trying to help (just bending over and peering at him), and the first question they ask him is:
“Are you OK?”
— I have seen all of these things, first-hand.

We must ask ourselves, how it is that either:
• 90% of the population are total nincompoops, cowards with no compassion or , or
• What it is about crowd psychology that makes otherwise normal people run around like headless chickens in a situation like this.

If 90% of the population weren’t the kind of idiots who keep shoving from the back of the football crowd in a situation like Hillsborough (Liverpool) — then it wouldn’t be possible for a tiny minority of incompetents in fancy police uniforms to cause such destruction as the Hillsborough Disaster. h_disaster

Back to this man, Ki-Suck Han. How is it that this man got shoved onto the track by a crowd (or, by an unknown murderer), yet there’s no sign of that crowd anywhere near him in the picture? If the shoving was by a heaving crowd (and if big crowds often gather at this station), then why doesn’t this station have safety barriers? There are many more questions to be answered about this.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

May I suggest that what we’ve got in the journalist’s criticism – and in at least one comment here – is a desire to use the publication of the photo as a (fortunate) opportunity to take shots at the Post? And may I also suggest that such motivation is based on the political slant of the paper? When a monk burned himself to death in Viet Nam, the photo ran in mainstream newspapers across the world, and won a Pulitzer Prize(!) for the photographer. But that’s different, of course.

Posted by MarkBee | Report as abusive