Exercise 3.3

Exercise 3.3: Breaking the news?

This exercise  follows from Project 3 on Re-thinking photojournalism 1: the citizen journalist. The exercise asks us to read the blog about the New York Post’s image of a man about to be killed by a subway train; analyse the event and then comment on the ethical decision of the commuter who took the picture.

 I don’t know where the ‘commuter’, R. Umar Abbasi, was standing when he saw what was happening. Was it a camera phone or another more powerful phone? Presumably he knew about the power of the flash given that he is said to be a New York Post freelance photographer. I would have thought that a man running and waving his arms might have caught more of the train driver’s attention than the light of a flash in a lit station platform but then the article refers to other people there doing exactly that.  However, Abbasi apparently said that the train driver saw his camera flashing but told him he couldn’t stop the train fast enough. He obviously questioned the man – was this on the basis that he was a ‘reporter’? I also read that the train operator was treated for shock and brought out of the stain in a wheelchair wearing an oxygen mask. Did Abbasi speak to him whilst he was in shock or afterwards.

No other people appear in the photograph except the unfortunate man on the tracks, Ki Suk Han, who was pushed by the suspect after trying to calm him down when he was ‘harassing and cursing at straphangers. I could presume that Abbasi was in front of everyone else.  If he was repeatedly firing his flash then presumably he was repeatedly taking photographs as well. I might presume that, given that he is named as a freelance photographer, the adrenaline flowed and his photographer self immediately went into action ahead of his ‘rescuer’ self.

I was relieved to read that the adrenaline flowed in a different way for another person – Dr Laura Kaplan, a second-year resident at Beth Israel Medical Centre who saw the man on the tracks and later rushed over to administer CPR.

There is information in the blog that the victim, Ki Suk Han, had quarrelled with his wife beforehand; had been drinking; one witness claimed he was the aggressor on the platform, and that the authorities found a bottle of vodka on him afterwards. Are we expected to feel less sympathy for him because of that? Does that minimize the actions of the man who pushed him?

If I hadn’t read the article and seen the photograph then I could well assume that this is a ‘case study’.  It raises many implications for the role of the ‘professional’ photographer, including are they just ‘witnessing’.  Personally I couldn’t stand by but then I wouldn’t want to be a photo journalist anyway.

The ethical decision of the Newspaper isn’t queried in the exercise. What purpose does the article have except to provide sensational news but then what about those photographs showing people jumping out of windows in an attempt to escape from the Twin Towers? Why were we shown those? What purpose did it achieve? Why do human beings have this need to gaze upon disaster, violence, tragedy?

PS : The New York Post was criticised for publishing the photograph. An article in the International Business Times   comments on this and considers the ethics involved. Kevin Z. Smith, Chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee (in the United States) gave his view in a phone interview with Christopher Zara, IBT. Smith cites the “Minimize Harm” section of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics (link given in the article). The website of the Press Association in the UK is here . I’ve looked but can’t find mention of a Code of Ethics so I’ve emailed them.