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.”
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.
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.”