Exercise 3.3 – Breaking the News?

Prior to the exercise; Read Allan, S. ‘Blurring Boundaries: Professional and Citizen Journalism in a Digital Age’ (pp.187–200) in Lister, M. (2013) The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, provided with your course materials.

• Read Jose Navarro’s blog criticising the BBC’s use of images of the 2012 Denver cinema shootings.

• Read this useful essay on the 7/7 bombings and citizen journalism

Then for the exercise read this blog about the New York Post’s image of a man about to be killed by a subway train. Read the details of the blog carefully and write up your own analysis of the event. Comment on the ethical decision of the commuter who took the picture.

This exercise has a myriad of issues within it; putting aside the lack of help from other subway users and the lack of compassion and urgency to rescues the man from his gruesome fate, we have to ask ourselves, were the people who took photographs of Ki Suck Han on the tracks ethically bound to intervene?

Breaking the main issues down for the exercise, we have the two real main questions posed.

  • Was R. Umar Assai correct in taking the pictures?
  • Was the New York Post correct in publishing them?

Was R. Umar Assai correct to take the pictures and were his action in accordance with the ethics of photojournalism?

First of all we have to break down the evidence provided by Abbasi that he was 250 feet away and was only taking photographs using his flash so that he could warn the driver of the subway train that Ki Suck Han was on the tracks. Looking at the images that Abbasi took, I do wonder whether he was fully truthful and factual in his account; there is more than one image which Abbasi licenced to the press, these images show a different account.

The images show that Abbasi was not 150 feet away and the composition on the images are such that he was not running towards the incident by standing still and composing the shots through his image finder. Abbasi states that from his first image until the train collided with Han it was 22 seconds and in that 22 seconds no one stood forward to assist Han off the tracks and back to safety. In that time, Abbasi did not cover what has now been measured as approximately 60 feet, in the 22 seconds but did move closer to Han and away from the platform edge to compose the image.

A man sits in the partial dark. he has been pushed from a subway platform. He sits dazed from the incident.
Ki-Suck Han sits on the rails after being pushed. New York Post/R.Umar Abbasi
Again the man sits on the tracks, but now the photographer is closer, the camers held in portrait position, the flash shows the Q Train entering the station.
As the image appeared in print in the New York Post article. New York Post/R. Umar Abbasi
Another image taken shows the camera in Landscape position, capturing the people on the platform and also the man on teh tracks.
Photographer has now moved over to the left on the platform, possible reframing? New York Post/R. Umar Abbasi
Front cover from the New York Post 4th December 2012. The Q train is now close to the man and is about to run over him. This image is a crop from a larger scene.
New York Post cover 4th December 2012, showing a crop of an image taken by Abbasi, again the photographer has moved to the left of the platform. The crop demonstrates the composition of the image, the eye line drawn down the image New York Post/R. Umar Abbasi
The photographer had moved to the left and up the platform. The man is now on his feet and struggling to get up on the platform. The subway Q Train is several metres from the man. However no one pulled him to safety.
The full image prior to cropping by the New York Post. Green and blue lines show the composition of the image by the photographer. New York Post/R. Umar Abbasi.

From the video provided by Catherine Li during the trial, we can account that in fact Abbasi was closer to the incident than many of the passengers waiting at the entrance to the station platform. As for using the camera to fire his flash, why didn’t Abbasi use the cycle button on the back of the flash, it would have allowed for a faster activation than just lifting the camera and taking a shot or more.

Taking into account investigations done later into the incident and the various accounts during the court proceedings, we are left with one final question about the behaviour of Abbasi.

Was he right to take the images, was he behaving in the ethical manner of a freelance photojournalist?

First of all we have to examine whether Abbasi was right to capture these images to report on the event unfolding in front of him. Would his not photographing the event prevent it from being recorded? Without his images would we understand less of what happened? Was the act of photographing the incident providing subjective information from which the viewer could interpret and come to a conclusion?

As a photojournalist, R. Umar Abbasi must have known about the ethical standard expected of him, and he must have interpreted those ethical questions before he licenced the images to the new York Post. Examining his story of being the helper in trying to stop the train, we encounter the issues within the facts he has presented along with the images.

From my point of view, he was close enough to interact with Han and possibly help him, he chose instead of take the images, which presents him in a pretty bad light, at the least he appears to be unwilling to help another person and at worst he appears to have acted in a callous, unethical and unprofessional manner.  As John Long of the National Press Photographers Association stated, “If you have placed yourself in a situation where you can help, you are morally obligated. 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… Your job as a human being, so to speak, outweighs your job as a photojournalist,”

Should the New York Post published these images?

First of all, the new York Posts did themselves no favours in publishing the image with the banner “Doomed”. This presentation of bad taste would certainly sway the viewer to think of the newspaper as working in the vein of bread and circuses. It certainly lacks compassion for the man, his family and his friends and presents the image, cropped to give an artistic composition, entirely as exploitation of Hans death.

The above cropped image titled Doomed, pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die.
New York Post cover 4th December 2012, showing a crop of an image taken by Abbasi, again the photographer has moved to the left of the platform. New York Post/R. Umar Abbasi

For an explanation of why they decided to title and run the image, we have little to go on, the decision to publish the image lies with the New York Post. Were they correct to do so? I believe they were not. This is not an image where it can be compared to the near-death images taken by Kevin Carter or Frank Fournier.

In each case, the photographer could not have affected the outcome, and they were documenting a situation which was bigger than the single images.

Carter was involved in the Sudan, photographing and reporting on the 1993 famine with the hope that the worldwide news would increase funding for aid organisations helping in the Sudan. Carter, stated that when he photographed the child he was in a state of shock and after he took the image he chased away the vulture. He could do no more as a few minutes later he boarded a plane and was flown to Kongor, in South Sudan. His image of the vulture standing over the starving child received the Pulitzer prize for Feature Photography. The newspaper reported that the child “recovered enough to resume her trek after the vulture was chased away” but that it was unknown whether she reached the UN food centre”. Later in 2011, the child’s father revealed the child was actually a boy, Kong Nyong, and had been taken care of by the UN food aid station, where he recovered, but later passed away in 2007.

In the case of Frank Fournier, he was covering the wider story of the 1985 Armero tragedy in Colombia; where the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted, which lead to a mudslide that killed more than 25,000 people. During his coverage, he encountered Omayra Sánchez Garzón. A 13 year old girl who was trapped in the remain debris of her house.

The girl whose legs were trapped in a pool of water, unable to be rescued due to way she was stuck. Over the next 60 hours, she was surrounded by relief workers and journalists who helped her with food and drink and recorded he in interviews.

Fournier arrived on the scene on the third day and was struck by how calm Sanchez was, he photographed her because he wanted to “report properly on the courage and the suffering and the dignity of the little girl” as he wanted to publicise the disaster’s need for relief efforts. Whilst there was some backlash to his photograph, the resulting image became a symbol of the failure of officials to properly assist victims who could have been saved.

In both of these cases, the photographers were working on a larger situation and in both cases felt powerless to provide any assistance, which would have changed the outcome.

In conclusion, I find that there is no comparison between the images taken by Abbasi and the images taken by Carter, Fourier, or even Nick Ult, whose image of the girl running from the Napalm attack could be seen in the same light. Abbasis’ image and the resulting publication was exploitation of the last moments of a mans life, which could have been affected by the actions of Abbasi. The N.Y. Posts cover only enforces that inference of exploitation.


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