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Take the photo of The Horror?

A debate firestormed through the media about the appropriateness of the Post’s coverage and the response of its freelance photographer to the dying moments of Ki-suk Han on the subway tracks.

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Ki-suk Han was remembered at his funeral on Wednesday as a man finally at rest in the Lord after a hard life and a violent death.

A horror happened this Monday at 12:30 pm. Ki-Suk Han, 58, was shoved onto the Q subway tracks by a homeless person after a confrontation in the station at 49th St. and Seventh Ave.

Han, of Elmhurst, Queens, desperately tried to scramble back to the platform as onlookers screamed and ran in fear. The subway trough became a kill box. Police charged Naeem Davis with second degree intentional murder and second degree depraved indifference murder.

The New York Post showed a graphic photo of Han moments before he was struck by the subway. The headline was “Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die DOOMED.” A debate firestormed through the media about the appropriateness of the Post’s coverage and the response of its freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi.

There were two basic decisions about the photograph that had to be made. First, Abbasi had to decide whether to take the photo or to save the man’s life. Second, the NY Post had to decide whether to publish the photo. Abbasi, who had been waiting on the subway station platform, says that he ran toward the train, repeatedly firing off his flash to warn the operator. He says that the incident happened very quickly and that he wouldn't have been able to reach Han in time. He recalls that he didn't know what his photos showed and couldn't bear to look at them in his camera. He handed the flashcard over to his editor and was sitting stunned at a desk when the police arrived to take a look.

I wasn't at the scene so at this point it is hard to say much about Abbasi’s decision. A life always outweighs a photo. If we can’t save the victim’s life, our passion for others’ lives may ordain us to take the photo.

On one of our journeys through the streets of Washington Heights, Manhattan I stopped to photograph a church late at night. I noticed that a white-shirted police officer was shadowing me from about a block and half away. I figured that either he thought I might be trying to buy drugs or was worried that I would be mugged in the pretty rough and tumble area around the church. Suddenly, his car accelerated past me. Figuring that a white shirt was probably needed at a major crime scene, I followed him to a stop in front of an housing project. There were people gathered around and a few police. A man was lying on the ground with a gunshot wound. I knelt down next to him to take a photo. He was slightly moving on scattered newspapers and other litter. I held the camera in my right hand next to my chest. I wondered if I would violate this man by taking his photo. As I hesitated, I saw him breathe his last breath. I didn't take the photo.

After I stood up and moved away a few feet, some of the local people accosted me. “Why didn't you take the picture!,” one lady said. A man shouted, “Take the picture and tell the rest of the city that we need cops up here. We can’t get them to come and stop the drug dealing.” A young lady added, “Nobody listens to us; let them know!”

I realized that I had let down the poor people in this neighborhood. The local people were upset that I didn't do my job; that I didn't stand up for them with courage. I now believe that I should have taken the photo and later made a judgment about whether to publish. I teach our photographers, “Take the photo. It is your job to stand in the storm of anger, hurt and danger and tell people what is going on.”

Famine victim in Sudan, 1993. Photo by James Nachtwey

In classes in which we have discussed this incident, some students are aghast at my advice. Others agree, though very quietly because it is not an easy decision. Time magazine’s tremendous photographer James Nachtwey has photographed dying kids in Africa. Some have criticized his photographs as humanitarian pornography. He argues, “I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated." Who can forget Nick Ut’s Associated Press photo of the naked girl running from being burned by napalm in Vietnam? Or so many of the stunning and horrible photos from 911? In August The New York Times ran a gruesome photo of a victim in the Empire State Building shooting.

One of the editors of the New York Post is an adviser to A Journey through NYC religions. However, I haven’t talked to him about their decisions. Like every one of us, I stand before the Post’s photo existentially alone wondering what would I have I done. Would I have risked my life to save Han? Would I have hesitated, as many did, because I couldn't process what was going on? Would I have taken the photo? I hope I would have been brave and wise—I really hope so, though I don’t know now in hindsight.

New York Post freelance photographer R. Umar Abassi

The NY Post did not show the bloody aftermath. They have also used the horror to raise the question of whether we are letting too many people out of prison too soon and whether we need to place more emphasis on treatment and counseling for the homeless. And we don’t know the full story yet of what happened between Han and Davis. We do know that Davis, who shoved Han to his death, is a felony drifter who has committed more crimes that we can count. Why wasn't he in jail?

Han’s death also reminds us how hard it is to be an immigrant in this city. Han moved from Korea to the United States 25 years ago. We are a city of immigrants. About two thirds of New York City is made up of immigrants and their children. Our religious culture has flourished largely because of the immigrants who either come here as religious or discover a faith to help them endure the harshness of a start-up life.

Woori Presbyterian Church at 53-71 72nd Place in Maspeth, Queens (718-565-0268) was a shelter to Han in his troubles. He was a discouraged out-of-work member of the church. He hadn't worked for awhile,  and the family went through bankruptcy. He kept up his spirits by working around the church for a year. He told his pastor, “I will overcome this barrier.” Rev. Won Tae Cho saw that Han was struggling to keep hope and a balance in his life. “Sometimes, he was just discouraged, but just last Sunday, after worship, he said, ‘I was encouraged by your sermon,’” the pastor recalled at the funeral service.

But Han’s despondency had ensnared him into alcoholism and even more despair. Just an hour and a half before Han died, his wife had insisted he leave the house because he was drinking. Her husband went to the South Korean consulate to make arrangements to return to Korea in the hopes of finding a job. Cho of Woori Presbyterian  says, “Due to the economy, Mr. Han was in search of a new beginning to provide for him and his family.” Han had supported his wife Serim Han, who is handicapped and can’t work, and his daughter Ashley Han, who is a student in Hunter College.

The family were shocked by the photograph in the New York Post and wished that the photographer could have done more. “The thought of someone helping him up in a matter of seconds would have been great,” Han’s daughter said. “But what’s done is done.”

  • I see a lot of interesting articles on your website.

  • I am thankful for your new web site. Here you have entertained a pressing theological problem--Does God smile on the situation of a man dying on a subway track?

    I would say that God has given man sufficient light to realize that man has made the world a place of misery for himself. Our schools have taught that a God who leaves men in misery and death cannot be real. Relativism and cross-cultural fertilization forbid it. Science forbids it.

    Yet, we know that evil is a kingdom. There are persons on the track, there was a murderer, there was a conductor and a photographer. We sense that the forces at work are more than human. Satan tells us to observe and entertain varieties of interpretation. "You will not die," he says to Eve when God had said the opposite. The Christian experience and belief should be different.

    The church is obliged to seek the salvation of the world. "Ye must be saved," the apostle Peter says in Acts. The church is guilty where it does not serve the bread of life to those who are starving. Therefore, we Christians feel an obligation to save that man and to save the starving Sudanese, not just observe him. Ernest Gordon became the chaplain of Princeton University, but he had been saved from the garbage heap of corpses in the valley of the Kwai River years before by other Christian soldiers. One of the soldiers who saved him was eventually crucified on a tree by the Japanese. The church should not let the testimony of Christ falter. God will judge her for that. We who have the bread of life must share it with others.

  • Sadness is certainly a primary, gut-level, appropriate response.

  • saddened by it all. thanks for your reflections. i'm not sure what to think - just really, really sad all around.

  • Good questions. So far, it seems that the two people got into conflict coming into the subway.

    I dare say every New Yorker has this haunting fear that someone will push them onto the subway tracks and end up as a sacrificial victim to urban living. About 260 people a year are hit by the subway, around 50-60 die. Maybe half of the victims are suicides.

  • Interesting story, Tony! And a very important topic to discuss - not only the photographer and his choice to take pictures as long as he was not able to help, but more important: With the personal story revealed, what is the background and explanation of the homeless person and whatever might have been said/done - i.e. why the Korean was pushed? The photographers decision to take pictures is understandable in my mind, while I am much more doubtful to the editors decision to publish without having a more detailed and complete picture? What made this situation a public interesting and important story that the public needed to know? Just asking . . .

  • Wes, you are thoughtfully combining transparency and kindness. The two qualities are often antithetical to each other or, at least, they are in tension. For journalists wisdom on how to balance the two virtues is individually given, crowd-sourced and revealed spiritually. Another difficult balance between a pained conscience, an angry crowd and God's judgment or one's ideology.

  • As a general rule I prefer as much transparency and disclosure as possible. For personal example, I always kept my office door wide open. I’m also reminded what Jesus said, paraphrasing, “Men prefer darkness when their deeds are evil.” So, as much light as possible.

    The tough choices come when full disclosure approaches what might be in bad taste, or needlessly painful to an individual (for example, filming a distraught mother who’s just lost a child to drowning). One must make a decision depending on the circumstances. In the case you mentioned, a photo of the train actually striking the man, to me, would clearly be needlessly gruesome and wrong.; but just before the moment of impact, I’d want to think about that a while, for instance, does the man’s face show (revealing shock and agony)? Would members of his family/friends be in the audience and be pained to see it?

  • Tough call, ethical arguments go both ways. Most importantly, it should be discussed thoroughly because transparency is an important value in journalism.

  • Good advice.

  • Thanks you for a great discussion. Over the years, I've worked with and managed quite a few photojournalists. No surprise. All of their instincts and professional training are organized around getting the impossible-to-get photograph. It's self-evident that any career journalist is never truly off duty and this is also true of first-responders like police, firefighters, EMTs (like the one I married ;-).

    The first rule of rescue is to put on your own life jacket (or oxy mask) before you help others. At the moment, it remains unclear to me if Abassi could have saved Han or lost his own life in an attempt to do so. I don't fault him for taking the photograph. He reports being 400 feet away from Han. But I am certain he will ever be haunted by the thought: Could I have done more to save Han's life?

    It's also a question for us as individual persons and as a society/culture and thus, I am supportive of The Post's publication of this image. This same basic question resides in the heart of our human condition and in responding to this question, I think, we use God's own vocabulary. From God's John 3:16 point of view, that's us sprawled helpless on the track. In a perfect world, we get the photograph and save a life. In a fallen world, such as the one we live in, the innocent perish all too often.

  • Thanks, John.

  • reading this story makes you think about how precious life is and how we should live every day to its fullest for we do not know what is about to come around from the corner of life...

  • I like your comments.

    Having covered some pretty horrible, graphic humanitarian disasters in Africa, I often struggled with whether I should stay behind to work in the area. The needs are so great. However, after much prayer, I felt God ministered to my heart that if I stayed, there would only be two extra hands to do the work. If I went home and aired my story, God could take it and multiply it to a thousands hands to help.

  • See my comments to Sarah Hoffman. Habits of responsibility need to be developed so we can quickly, almost instantly, make the right decision more often than not. Abbasi claims that he went down the tracks flashing his flash to warn the train driver. One photographer defending him by saying noone would shoot a flash and perhaps ruin a great photo with reflection. I don't buy that. You might flash so you can be sure to get the train driver through the window and take multiple shots so get one that doesn't reflect. I wasn't there and can't speak for Abbasi but like you we always wonder, could have I...?

  • Right. And we do it in less than 22 seconds, which is why believers talk about the indwelling Holy Spirit guiding us when we don't have time to think it through. One other issue . . . economics. R. Umar Abbasi is a freelance photographer. Those of us who do freelance know that we must hustle to make a pay check. Perhaps Abbasi defaulted to that inclination. I wonder if he could have kept his camera on the hip and ran to help the passenger in an attempt to do two duties. (That sentence sounds lame to me, but we are debriefing.)

  • As always Tony, excellent and helpful reflections on!!

  • Tremendous movies. City of God only shows religion in a subtle way at the gangster's going away party. The camera pans around the room and briefly lingers on tables of somber intact families, not drinking but observing. One actor observes, "Those are the Pentecostals." City of Man has a much more detailed coverage of the working class Christian evangelicals and Pentecostals. Very objective and enlightening for the audience.

  • Haven't seen the movies, by the way.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience with an extraordinary tough story. I think that opening the body bag and photographing was the right decision--in case there is somehow a dispute about the death. I shot a bodies in New Orleans that became part of a trial into whether the doctor committed euthanasia on poor people. However, the decision not to publish the blown apart body seems also right for you the editor. There was little to be gained journalistically or morally by doing that at that point in the story.

    Responsibility comes from the heart guided by wisdom. Hopefully we develop those habits of responsibility so that we can quickly, almost instantly in the case of the subway death, make the right decision. Thanks.

  • I read the article and liked it very much. In this case, the photog said he wasn't anywhere close enough to help the man. (I cannot imagine the nightmares he must be having.)

    What everyone who's not a journalist fails to understand is that these moments happen in the blink of an eye; a matter of seconds. You don't have time to think. You go on autopilot. Whether one puts the camera down and helps depends on what's most important in a person's predetermined set of moral values.

    That said, the real decision as to whether the picture or video ever sees the light of day lies the hands of the editorial staff.

    I'll never forget working on a story about a young American missionary killed in Lebanon a few years ago. She answered the door and a man literally blew part her head off. CBN News is an affiliate of APTN. The service sent A LOT of very graphic video. Blood with brain matter smeared over the floor and walls. Very hard to view. The video then ran to the parked ambulance. The video shows the photog unzipping the body bag. Part of the poor woman's face was missing. They panned slowly. Horrible. As I sat down to put my story together, I couldn't get the images out of my mind. I wrote and edited the story. I asked my boss, Drew, to view the piece. He was supportive of my editorial decisions with the video.

    What I decided to do was put some of the aftermath (blood/brains) video black and white. Somehow, it took the sensational gore out of it. We aired video of the closed body bag, but did NOT air ANY of the video that came from inside the body bag. Personally, I thought it was way over the top and an invasion of privacy. The story aired.

    About a week later, I got a letter in the mail. It was from the young missionary's parents thanking me for telling their daughter's story, including her death, with dignity. Somehow, I forgot that the woman's family might be watching the story. So glad we didn't fall into the trap of going over the top for sensationalism. The added gore wouldn't have added anything to the story.

    There are other occasions where I've chosen to show very graphic video. It served a purpose. Some war footage is important to show, because people simply will not believe what's happening unless they see it.

    The decision to air graphic images, to me, is based on the purpose it serves; ratings or lessons in social responsibility.

  • Whoever sets the agenda sets the thinking. Also means that we should be alert to how agendas hide certain crucial aspects of our life that need attention. One thing that the Post did pretty well was to show the religious dimension of the tragedy. Have you seen the movie City of God and the follow-up City of Man? Both show in a matter of fact way the workings of faith in every day life in Brazil.

  • One of two useful concepts I learned in grad school was agenda setting: The media don't tell people what to think, but rather what to think about. Nigh on 30 years ago the buzz was Africa famine. Stars sang "We are the World" to raise money. Then Africa famine disappeared from above the fold. But the problem certainly wasn't solved. Could argue it got worse because this influx of food aid caused local farmers to not be able to sell their staple crops because donated staples were free. Nothing was done to help the national breadbaskets. So the next season they cultivated non-essential or export crops. But by then the world had moved to something else.

  • A catastrophe is always a maximum spiritual moment where people ask themselves the basic spiritual and moral questions about life. Your actions in SANDY relief is a wonderful example of thoughtful, active response to a horrible situation.

  • Great op-ed. I've been asking myself the same questions since seeing the cover of the Post that day. It was the first time in a long time that a newspaper cover made me double take.

  • Competitive bedlams. Another moral dilemma. When we swarm onto a story, other stories are forgotten. Editors are not interested, maybe not the public either.

  • Colombia's called me back several times since 1983; I turned 18 in Bogota. Last there 4 years ago. Ongoing bedlam in Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan, etc etc, means Latin America has fallen off the global news radar. Need to fix that.

  • Best on your novel!

  • Been revisiting such scenarios while researching a novel manuscript I'm writing set in Colombia. Good to occasionally pick up an issue of the NPPA's magazine called News Photographer and stay current.

  • Thoughtful citation of moral philosophy. Sociologist Bob Merton said that when two roles conflict, people tend to vary in about eight ways in their responses. For example, some prioritize as Ross suggests. Others alternate back and forth, which indecision may decide the matter. Some deny any conflict.

    We can also look at the situation as a moral catastrophe, that is an unsettling of our settled moral habits. Such a catastrophe as this puts great stress on our moral, social fabric. Sometimes, the response is just to reassert the validity of one's decision. No new thinking. Others just become conflicted without resolution. This leads to very detrimental results, as you point out. Sometimes, the happiest resolution is that we innovate new moral reasoning or adapt old moral reasoning that we had not seriously looked at before. Thanks.

  • In Campbell University’s Communication Ethics class, required of all majors, we teach a number of ethical strategies but the one that is most appropriate here is one developed by philosopher William David Ross in 1930. Ross said that one ethical value can compete with another one. Which one wins? Ross suggests that reporters have to do their duty, which includes the prima facie duty to fulfill the news gathering function; however, a greater duty may be at stake, the duty proper, one that seems to transcend other duties. The duty to try to protect the life of a passenger in trouble is one that overshadows the duty to report the news. In this case, the photographer reacted from habit but he would have fulfilled a higher duty by trying to help the struggling man. That was his first duty. That is the first duty of anyone who happens on a person in trouble. Many a photojournalist has had to go into therapy because of the grim nature of their work. It is tough, demanding duty and we need to provide some sense of understanding for the Post photographer who is, no doubt, in a full scale regret cycle. (By the way, the ethical rules appear to morph for war correspondents and require lots of discernment.)

  • Thanks, Jaan.

  • Great story, Tony, including the insight from your past personal experience. The photographer's having taken the photo has provoked a volume of useful thought and debate. It's difficult, under the circumstances, to believe he could have done more, or to hold him to a higher, likely impossible, standard.

  • I look forward to your column. The thoughtfulness is an aftermath of the disaster

  • Tony, I think you make a compelling case. I've been pondering the ethics of photographing Hurricane Sandy ever since I was confronted about it a couple weeks ago, and plan to devote my next column to the subject. I had been thinking about what the differences are with the subway situation and this. Thanks for giving me something more to consider.

  • And a terrific post packed with examples and insight. Thanks.

  • The ongoing quandary in photojournalism is what to do in the course of your work when you see death about to happen. Click the shutter or try to help?

    Could Eddie Adams have stopped the Vietnamese general from killing the Vietcong prisoner on the streets of Saigon? Surprising that the general didn't turn his gun on Adams after executing the guerrilla. James Nachtwey has tried to intervene to save at least one man he witnessed get mauled by a mob in Asia, at great personal peril. He didn't succeed in getting the mob to leave the man alone. The mob killed the man. Check out the 2001 documentary about Nachtwey, titled War Photographer. Best treatment I've seen on why a photographer might opt to keep shooting amid such horrors.

    But then there's Kevin Carter, who, like Adams, won a Pulitzer, his for a 1993 image of a famine-starved child with a vulture standing by, waiting for the little girl to die. Carter shooed away the vulture after shooting the image but didn't help the child make her way to the feeding center. A tsunami of criticism that he should have helped her took its toll, as did Carter's cocaine addiction, ongoing violence he witnessed as a war photographer and other personal battles. He killed himself a year later.

    In 2005 at Erez Crossing, the northernmost entrance to Gaza, I'd finished a Christianity Today assignment and was leaving the territory, awaiting my turn in line to exit through the checkpoint. I pulled my camera out when I saw what I'll describe here as an ongoing pattern of highly disrespectful behavior toward the Gazans. The Gazans at the gate begged me to publish my images so the world would know what they are forced to endure because of the embargo, the occupation, the isolation and ongoing tourniquet aimed at crushing them. They truly believed that things would change if the world really knew and saw and experienced their suffering.

    That echoed what Nachtwey described in the documentary of the response of suffering people when he shows up with a camera to document the rawest emotional responses to tragedies in times of war and disaster.

  • I read this comment by PhilDLJ in Gawker:

    This is the account of the actions of one Wesley James Autrey, Sr., who attempted to save someone about to be run over by the subway, and succeeded. He was awarded the Carnegie Medal for Heroism. Emphasis added by me.

    "Wesley James Autrey, Sr., saved Cameron P. Hollopeter from being struck by a train., New York, New York, January 2, 2007. Hollopeter, 20, fell from the platform in a subway station[135th and Broadway] and lay atop the nearest track as a train was approaching at about 15 m.p.h. on that track. Autrey, 50, construction worker, was nearby on the platform and saw him fall. Seeing the lights of the approaching train, which was then about 200 feet away, Autrey jumped down to the track level and in repeated attempts tried to move Hollopeter back to the platform. Although in emergency braking, the train bore down on them as Autrey then pushed Hollopeter into the trough between the rails and lay atop him. The front of the train immediately passed over them, the train stopping with its second car over the men. They were removed by rescue workers several minutes later, after power to the track was shut down. Bruised, Hollopeter required hospitalization."

    Not mentioned in this account: The platform was full of people all of whom stood by while Autrey acted. He left his two young daughters (4 and 6) on the platform, but was certain he wouldn't die, because he heard a "voice out of nowhere" telling him "you can do this." He believed God spared his life (20 years ago he had a gun pressed to his temple, but it misfired) so that he could later save Hollopeter. He felt chosen.

    We're not doomed.

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