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.”