The deadliest image
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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