It’s impossible to know what Ki-Suck Han thought in the last few seconds of his life as a New York City subway train bore down on him. Mr. Han, a 58-year-old husband and father from Queens, had been pushed onto the tracks and couldn’t climb back onto the platform. On Dec. 4, the New York Post printed a haunting cover photo of Mr. Han, stuck on the tracks, staring at the train in the moments before his death. The Post, not given to subtlety, printed the picture above a headline that screamed, “Doomed.”
We do know what the professional photographer who took the shot, R. Umar Abbasi, thought in the moments and days after Mr. Han’s death, because they’ve been well-documented. Mr. Abbasi says he snapped the photo as he was running at the train, trying to warn the driver with his camera’s flash that someone was on the tracks.
The back-seat drivers of the world poured scorn on this notion, and Mr. Abbasi was roundly condemned for not helping Mr. Han, although he says he was too far away and that he did what he could in the circumstances. He says he’s been haunted by Mr. Han’s death.
No one else on the platform helped, either, it should be noted, but Mr. Abbasi came in for special vitriol. “That’s a pretty clear photo for one snapped by someone who supposedly was running frantically to capture the attention of the conductor,” The Village Voice wrote on the day the photo appeared, though it later apologized to Mr. Abbasi for the comment. The photographer has said that people gathered on the platform to video the dying man using their camera phones, but this, oddly, has not been the subject of public disgust.
Some photojournalists came to Mr. Abbasi’s defence. In an article for CNN, the Pulitzer Prize-winning J. Ross Baughman said “the journalist’s job is to be invisible and, in that way, to see on behalf of everyone else. We perform our most vital role when the stakes are high, even to the level of life and death.” There’s debate about photojournalists’ role within the profession, too, and Mr. Baughman notes that the National Press Photographers Association now includes a humanitarian award for photographers who stop shooting and start helping.
Mr. Abbasi’s photo was disturbing, and its placement on the Post’s front page questionable, but it was the controversy around the picture that surprised me. Maybe that’s because I’d been looking at an exhibition of Reuters photographer Goran Tomasevic’s photos from Syria that had appeared in newspapers around the world to precisely no outcry, when an outcry is exactly what they demanded. Not for Mr. Tomasevic’s role as a war photographer but for what they showed: Not a random act of bizarre violence but a systemic war on a people.
In one photo taken after the government bombed the town of Azaz – which Mr Tomasevic has said was difficult for him to shoot – a toddler lies dead in the rubble while local men try to dig her out. The pain is in the contrast of their arms, browned by a lifetime in the sun, and her small white body. I couldn’t see her name anywhere, so she’s lost to the world, just one of the hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of children killed during the Syrian war.
Horrible images of violence like that one abound across the world; they’re really not hard to find, although most people probably don’t spend a lot of time looking. Perhaps it’s only natural that we really seem to only notice those graphic images when they touch close to home. (There was no outcry over gruesome photos of the Libyan war until newspapers ran pictures of a dying U.S. ambassador being carried to a hospital in Benghazi.)
It’s much harder to imagine being trapped in a Libyan firefight or digging a neighbour’s child out of a bomb crater than it is to picture yourself on a subway platform, watching someone fall on the tracks and wondering how you might rise (or sink) to the occasion. The camera has become a collective conscience, in a way: In the old days, people believed that an omniscient deity kept a tally of misdeeds and kindnesses in a spiritual ledger, even when no one else was watching. Now, the camera takes the place of celestial overseer.
No one wants to be caught in a moment of public shame – mocking a lady on a school bus or failing to help a fellow commuter who’s on the tracks as the train rushes in. But the camera doesn’t see us looking away from things that are too difficult or foreign to grasp. The choices these days lie not just in what we do or refuse to do, but what we see and what we ignore.