Since freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi took a photo of Ki Suk Han seconds before he was struck and killed by a subway train, there’s been a flurry of criticism. People have decried the fact that Abbasi snapped the photo instead of trying to pull Han out of the tracks, accusing him of being more concerned with the money he’d get from the Post than with human life. But Abbasi didn’t do anything wrong. He couldn’t save Han, and his camera was already in his hand. He did what a photographer does — documented life, even at its ugliest and at its end.
It’s natural for people to misdirect the anger they feel at the circumstance of an upsetting image, blaming the messenger who’s showed it to them instead of the world that allowed it to happen. It’s much easier to point a finger at Abbasi for capturing the image of a senseless, heartbreaking moment, than to really think about how unfair and scary it is that Han died over an argument with a stranger. It was sudden and unexpected, it happened in such a familiar environment, and really, could have happened to any of us. Of course we want someone to be angry at. But be angry at the man who pushed Han into the tracks, not at Abbasi.
Abbasi has also said that he was attempting to warn the driver of the train with his camera flash, not trying to take a photo of what was happening. Regardless of whether that’s true, nobody else on the platform did anything about the situation, either, so it’s unfair to single out Abbasi for failing to save Han’s life. And even if he was trying to get a shot of the moment, he still didn’t do anything wrong.
One of the most-debated questions in photojournalism is whether it’s ethical to take a picture of someone who’s in imminent danger. The criticisms are always the same, the ones leveled at Abbasi; taking the picture means you’re not intervening, the images make people uncomfortable — they’re too dark, too upsetting, exploitative of human pain.
But what is photojournalism, if not the documentation of human pain, the confrontation of upsetting images? The job of the photojournalist is to show people images that will affect them, that will at least make them think and at most make them act.
Some other photos that have sparked this same debate:
This photo was taken by Nick Ut in 1972, of Vietnamese children running from a napalm attack. Ut won the Pulitzer for this photo, but was also widely criticized for being callous enough to snap a photo during this moment of visceral fear and pain. But, in that moment, taking this photo and sharing that pain with the world was the most effective thing Ut could do to stop it, by showing people the effects of war and upsetting them enough that they'd try to do something about it.
Stanley Forman took this photo in 1975 of a woman and child falling to their deaths after their fire escape collapsed. He got the same criticism, that it was morbid for him to take the photo, but it helped spark conversations about the state and danger of tenement buildings. And there was clearly nothing Forman could have done to intervene — did people want him to run over and break their fall, probably to be killed in the process? Again, he did what a photographer does; he documented.
This photo of a starving Sudanese girl being eyed by a vulture, taken by Kevin Carter in 1993, has become symbolic of this photojournalism ethics question; to shoot or to act. But Carter wasn’t in Sudan to feed one child; he was there to document the suffering so that he world would feed all of the children.
But, doing the right thing doesn’t mean peace of mind. Carter committed suicide just months after taking this photo — though I won’t reduce his pain to this one event. His suicide note mentioned being haunted by images of starving children, but only as part of a list of horrifying things he’d seen in his life as a photojournalist, of a person who’s willing to look at the darkest parts of life in person in order to show them to the rest of us.
Abbasi hasn’t managed to walk away unscathed either. Far from the callous monster he’s been called, he said, in an interview with the Times, “Every time I close my eyes, I see the image of death.”