Subway Death Photo Sparks Ethics Debate In US


By Maria Young

Funeral services were held Thursday for a New York man whose final, frantic moments of life were caught in a controversial photo that has sparked a furious, nationwide debate over the ethics of publishing such images.

“DOOMED,“ read the front page of Tuesday’s tabloid-style New York Post newspaper the day after the incident. “Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die,” said the headline.

United States
United States

“The photo is journalism, but the headline that was paired with it was not,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer John Kaplan, professor of photojournalism at the University of Florida in an interview with RIA Novosti.

“It’s journalistic pornography. It belongs in the trash,” he said.

The New York Post did not respond to repeated requests for comment from RIA Novosti.

The photo was snapped just moments after 58-year-old husband and father Ki Suk Han was shoved from a subway platform as a train approached the station Monday afternoon.

Freelance photographer Umar Abbasi was en route to a different assignment and immediately began taking photos in what he said was an effort to alert the train conductor with the flash of his camera.

“I just started running, running, hoping that the driver could see my flash,” said Abbasi to the Post.

There is no way I could have rescued Mr. Han,” he said in an interview with NBC’s Today Show.

A homeless man was charged Wednesday night with second-degree murder for allegedly pushing Han onto the tracks and he was ordered held in jail without bail.

“He attacked me first. He grabbed me,” 30-year-old Naeem Davis said as he walked past reporters.

But the arrest did little to calm the furor over the photo and the headline.

“Someone needs to be fired for this @Nypost cover. It’s classless, cruel and completely void of all integrity. You should be ashamed,” said one tweet.

“You profited from that photo and all you were interested in when you took those shots was the money,” said a comment directed at Abassi on the Post website.

The photo represents the kind of instantaneous, life-and-death decisions journalists are sometimes faced with – and there is much debate within the industry about how such moments should be handled.

“The proper thing to do would’ve been to put down the camera and try to get the guy out. I can understand why people are upset,” said John Long, a photographer and former chairman of the ethics committee for the National Press Photographers Association in an interview with Forbes magazine.

“Your job as a human being, so to speak, outweighs your job as a photojournalist,” he said, but pointed out that he doesn’t know whether Abbasi could have helped save Han or not.

“I think we have to give the photographer the benefit of the doubt,” said Kaplan. “And I really believe that the intrinsic journalistic value of the photograph warrants publication. But the manner in which it was published negates the value. It does a disservice to the victim’s family and probably to the hard-working photographer who took the photo.”

“Media outlets never use every photograph documented, every quote or sound bite, or every second of video footage,” said Kenny Irby, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training organization in the US.

“Thoughtful, sensitive editing is what was missing here, in pictures and words.”

Nathan Weber remembers the reaction to a photo he took. It showed a line of photographers shooting photos of a 15-year-old girl who was shot and killed after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

“I know it doesn’t put photographers in a great light and really makes us look like vultures, but I felt at the time, and still do today, that viewers need to see what types of environments we work in,” he told RIA Novosti.

“I think this photo, and the discussions which are generated by it, allow a legacy of Fabienne Cherisma to live on and her memory hasn’t been lost,” he said, of the girl who died.

The truth isn’t always pretty, said Kaplan, but it’s necessary.

“Only in a free society in which we can see the full range of human emotion – even when it’s harsh, even when it’s ugly – can we really find the truth,” he said.

Ria Novosti

RIA Novosti was Russia's leading news agency in terms of multimedia technologies, website audience reach and quoting by the Russian media.

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