Is A Photo of a Man About to Die Photojournalism or Tabloid Sleaze?

WARNING: This post contains graphic images.

Dec 4, 2012 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

In the digital age, with technology at our fingertips, it seems like everything is instantly documentable, and more so, should be. We share everything with the world around us, creating a network of interconnected data and media -- Allan Mott, for example, Tweeted in search of comfort when his mother was dying, while the “New York Times” crowdsourced storm photos for its front page.

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We're all behind the lens now. Photo credit: Paul Reynolds

IMAGES THAT PUNCH YOU IN THE GUT

Last night’s “New York Post” featured a horrific full-cover image of a man scrabbling at the side of a subway platform, having been pushed to the tracks. An oncoming train looms in the background. His head is turned away from the camera, which illuminates the scene in a harsh, glaring flash. The camera angle makes the platform appear empty, creating a strange tableau; the doomed man, the approaching train, the photographer. It is difficult to see the driver at this resolution.

On its own, the image is a striking, cold, clinical piece of photojournalism. It reminds me of scores of other images taken through the years; for as long as the camera has been used in journalism, people have been taking wrenching images like this, capturing moments in time for the viewer. A starving child, a man setting himself on fire, a man on the verge of execution, a pop star carried out of her home in a body bag.

These images create strange ethical tangles, as one wonders whether the photographer took action, and what happened right before and right after the image was taken. When photographs depict human suffering, there’s something ghoulish and troubling about them. As viewers, we wonder why we’re fixated on them, and we question the photographer’s decisions as well.

This photographer happened to be in the right place at the right time; he wasn’t sent here on assignment, nor was he stalking someone in search of the perfect shot. Yet, at the moment a man was pushed off the subway platform, his first instinct was to pull out his camera and photodocument it, knowing it would make a great image. He claims he was trying to use his flash to get the attention of the driver, while witnesses say people were screaming and waving at the driver in an attempt to get the train to stop.

This man on the tracks, Ki Suk Han, died moments after this photograph was taken.

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Alfred Eisenstaedt's iconic photograph appears on the surface to be a celebratory moment, but the origins of the photograph have since been challenged, with some critics suggests the scene depicts something very different

ARE PHOTOJOURNALISTS JUST DOING THEIR JOBS?

Was the photographer just doing his job? Documenting newsworthy events? Should he have set the camera aside and lunged in to help? Many people say yes, that as humans we have an ethical duty to step in and take action at moments like those. The circumstances on that platform, though, aren’t fully known. Could the photographer have done anything? What were other bystanders doing? Should he have tried anyway, even if it was futile?

Photojournalists have a long tradition of distancing themselves from their subjects, focusing on reporting the news. They’ve been present at lynchings, natural disasters, murders, executions, refugee camps, pogroms and more. As observers they also become participants in these events, and as documentarians they perform an important, if sometimes troubling, role.

Some of the most powerful works of photojournalism have also been those that have shaped hearts and minds, have turned the tide of public sentiment, have served as evidence of unspeakable horror; think of images from the liberation of concentration camps, think of the famous Eddie Adams photograph of a cursory street execution of a Viet Cong soldier.

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Extensive documentation of this scene, including a film, exists, making it a particularly interesting piece of photojournalism. 

This is not the first or the last time someone has chosen to take a picture rather than act, and it’s something that has become more and more common with the ubiquity of the camera. Bystanders pull out cell phones and small digital cameras instead of rolling up their sleeves to help, send Tweets instead of calling an ambulance. It is almost as though we are living behind glass, watching things happen before us without really understanding their meaning, because we live with one foot in an artificial world. These things are not happening to real people, are not occurring right in front of our eyes, but rather are yet another thing to put on Instagram, another thing to share around.

Maybe this will be the Tweet that catapults you to momentary fame, the photo that shows up on the front page of the Times. Anyone can become, for a moment, a major media event, the stories of the people actually affected forgotten in the rush to print. For photojournalists, stringers, and freelancers, the pressure is on; anyone can be a citizen journalist now, so you have to go above and beyond to keep your job, to get paid for your work, to justify your presence on staff.

SENSATIONALISING HORROR

The Post’s headline tells us “Pushed on the subway track, this man is about to die.” In the classic all-caps, sensational journalism the Post is famous for, the editors added “DOOMED” to the bottom of the image. In a strange twist, it almost feels like one of the endless macros circling the Internet, right down to the choice of font. The digital world comes full circle and we turn a horrific image into something to be passed around, captioned and recaptioned. I am afraid to look, but I know someone’s probably already done it.

Their treatment of the image is striking, and it’s been condemned in many circles. Many people are troubled by the decision to print the picture on the front page, and more troubled still by the sensational titling. This is a human tragedy, they argue, and one that shouldn’t be exploited for sales.

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Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" is one of the most famous images from the Depression. 

Yet, the Post is accomplishing its goal of selling papers (to pay photographers like the one who took that photograph) and sparking conversation. It’s generated a sprawl of conversation about sensationalism, journalistic responsibility, and more, all by printing a horrific image with an exploitative caption.

Has that conversation included a larger discussion about what was going on in that photograph? Does it belong in the ranks of famous images that changed the way people thought about and approached the world? Or was it just a piece of cheap tabloid journalism that sold papers and got the Post reams of free publicity?

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Warren Zinn's photograph of a soldier evacuating an injured child attracted international headlines. The soldier in the photograph, PFC Joseph Dwyer, later killed himself, leading Zinn to wonder if his image was to blame