Subway snuff pic: When art goes too far

Subway snuff pic: When art goes too far

Ethics of eyewitness photography are called into question.

It may be stretching most people's conception of "art" to include the cover of the New York Post, but this latest scandal involves one of the most powerful works of photography in the modern era. And the New York Post may be nothing more than a local gossip rag, but it happens to be a fairly high-profile local gossip rag. 

You have no doubt already heard the story: someone pushed a man named Ki Suk Han off a subway platform. He was unable to climb off the tracks in time, and was run over by the approaching subway train
 
A freelance photographer happened to be standing at the same platform. He whipped out his camera and snapped a picture of Han, with the speeding subway train about 20 feet away. Han is facing away from the camera. He seems to be locking eyes with the subway conductor. Time seems to stand still in this photo. Below Han, the New York Post cover says "DOOMED." 
 
Abbasi's photograph is upsetting not simply because it depicts a man who is about to die, but also because it puts the viewer right there. When you look at this photo, it's as if you yourself are standing there on the subway platform. You cannot, or will not reach Han before the train arrives. It makes the viewer feel as if they themselves are responsible for Han's death. It is literally a nightmare scenario, to see a train speeding toward a helpless person, while you are rooted to the spot unable to help.
 
And what about the other people on the platform? What about the person who pushed Han? They are nowhere to be seen. In the photograph it is just the conductor, and Han, and you. 
 
People are saying that the photographer is a terrible human being for not setting down his camera and helping the man. The photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, claims that he realized he was too far away to help Han, and that he snapped pictures as he ran forward to help, hoping to alert the subway conductor with the flash of his camera.
 
Abbasi is not the one who pushed Han onto the tracks. And surely there were other people on the subway platform who also could have helped. Personally, given the evident distance of the camera from Han, and the speed with which this event occurred, I agree with Abbasi - he could not have saved Han. (Whether it was ethical for him to sell the photograph to the newspaper is another issue.)
 
One thing is certain: for better or worse, Abbasi's photograph will not soon be forgotten.