In Case of Death, Please Take a Photo

Last Monday, an attacker pushed 58-year-old Ki-Suk Han onto the tracks in the Times Square subway station in New York—immediately in front of an oncoming train. Han was struck by the train and pronounced dead at the hospital.

But the story of Han’s tragic death has been overshadowed in the media by an image of him in his last moments. Captured by freelance photographer R. Umar Abbasi and displayed on the front page of last Tuesday’s New York Post, the chilling photograph shows Han clinging to the edge of the platform as the train approaches.

Abbasi told the Post, a Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid known for pushing the envelope, that he began running toward the train and firing the flash on his camera to alert the driver to Han’s presence on the tracks. That wasn’t enough to save Han, but in doing so Abbasi captured the image the Post splashed across its front page with the disturbing headline, “DOOMED: Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die.”

The highly publicized situation is ripe with difficult questions about journalism ethics, but all of the remarks fall into one of two camps: criticisms of the Post and criticisms of Abbasi. And while many of those who immediately responded to the image were quick to lash out (via Twitter; how else?) against Abbasi, most journalists have been more reserved in their responses when it comes to the ethics of Abbasi’s choice.

Instead, journalists saved their nastiest criticisms for the Post itself. David Sirota of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that the Post offered up the image as cheap, decontextualized news pornography for infotainment junkies,” tapping into “the same impulse that prompts drivers to gawk at grisly highway accidents.” Similarly, Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member for ethics at journalism think tank Poynter Institute, told USA Today that a newspaper’s decision to run a “horrific photo” should be guided by a clear “journalistic purpose”—and she didn’t see any in this case. Unlike many other graphic news images, this photograph did not enhance the Post’s ability to tell its story; rather, it capitalized on the death of a human and showcased the worst of journalism ethics.

But what do journalists make of Abbasi’s decision to fire his shutter and capture Han’s death on camera? Whether or not we believe Abbasi’s explanation of the events—that he really could not have reached Han in time to save him and had noble intentions when he took the pictures—Abbasi’s moral duty as a human should have taken precedence over his job as a photographer. Thus, as Marc Cooper, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, told the Los Angeles Times, Abbasi would have been morally obligated to help save Han’s life rather than merely photograph his death if he had been able to do so.

But if Abbasi (the human) had not been able to reach Han, did Abbasi (the photojournalist) do what was right? As Christians, we ought to ask ourselves a similar question: Would we have taken that picture?

The answer to both questions is yes.

If we set aside the Post’s decision to exploit Han’s death and publish the image, there’s something to be said for the force that motivated Abbasi. He acted in accordance with a journalist’s call: to report truth. In spite of the common stereotype of journalists as muckrakers willing to do anything for a quote, the best journalists actually are people motivated by a deep love for humanity. Moreover, Christians who are journalists strive to report accurately because we believe that stories in the news actually can reveal God’s truth—and once we get a vision our ability to capture that (albeit imperfectly), we cannot be satisfied by anything less.

Perhaps the single best sentence—from a Christian perspective—in all of the commentary last week came from Tony Carnes, editor and publisher of the online magazine A Journey Through NY Religions. In an op-ed last week, Carnes wrote, “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.”

In this case, Carnes sums up the journalist’s (and photographer’s) responsibility to document—whether through words or photographs—horror when we see it. No matter our career or field of work, Christians’ passion for others’ lives ought to compel us to act on their behalf. Sometimes that means we only take a picture and, as Carnes says he advises his students, “stand in the storm of anger, hurt and danger and tell people what is going on.”

--Melissa Steffan is a 2012 graduate of Seattle Pacific University with degrees in Communications – Journalism and Political Science. She is a former intern of the Washington Post and the Center for Public Justice, and she is the 2012-13 Editorial Resident for Christianity Today magazine. You can follow her on Twitter at @melissasteffan.
Photo courtesy of Dan Dilworth